Thursday, January 08, 2009

Truth in advertizing

In an ad campaign by atheists in London late last year they had buses bearing the slogan "There probably is no God. So stop worrying and enjoy life." I already had reservations about its impact, and now my concern with the wording of that ad has been voiced:
Where did that "probably" come from? It doesn't suggest the sales staff is overly confident about its product. If my pilot told me "This flight to Paris probably won't crash," I'd think about taking the train.
Indeed, I share the observation that "probably" does detract from the possible maximum impact the ad could've had. The lack of resoluteness, the apparent wishy-washiness of the proclamation all but kills the message. Contrast "There probably are no ghosts" with "There are no ghosts." By including "probably" the statement comes across to believers as "Gee, there's a chance that ghosts exist after all."

Unfortunately, we atheists, skeptics, "reality-based communities" will have to live with this problem. That there probably are no sky daddies is the truth. The reality is--our current state of knowledge is--not that "there is no god" but that those who claim its existence have not provided sufficient persuasive evidence. Were we to drop "probably" we'd have to lay on the table evidence which we simply don't have. Evincing such a universal negative is, needless to say, a tall order. It would've been great to emblazon vehicles with "THERE IS NO GOD!" But that would be a lie. We just don't know with 100% certainty. We don't have enough reasons and evidence to make that leap. And indeed proclaiming "there is no god" would be a leap of faith--belief that is disproportionate to the reasons/evidence at hand.

Were we so audacious as to imply that we are certain of the nonexistence of supernatural beings, religionists would be right in slapping us with one of our own principles of clear thinking: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (Of course the fact that there is a dearth of evidence--for any X--ought to restrain everyone from believing in X, for doing so would be irrational--why believe in X if good reasons for doing so are absent?)

Many ads mislead. I would even say it's the norm. Even preachers, pastors, priests withhold the whole picture and fail to mention to their congregation the epistemic fine print. So we're not going to make the same mistakes as the faith-heads. We are not going to commit the very errors we're exposing and critiquing. We're here to inform and shed light, not distort the picture.

It stands: There probably are no gods.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A deity-enthralled psychologist writes atheists

Months ago I came across news that psychologist David Myers was coming out with his latest book A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God Is Good and Faith Isn't Evil. After reading excerpts back then I had expressed reservations about it. Now having gone through A Friendly Letter I can say that I am hardly impressed and indeed don't consider his missive as addressing the major concern of religious skeptics.

Basically, Myer's opus is a defense of religion as a human phenomenon. He defends religion and religiosity by making an appeal to consequences. Not in the sense that he concludes his religion is the true religion and that his deity is real, rather in the sense that religion should be considered a positive force because it has in large measure produced good and made a great many people altruistic. For instance he shows through various studies and surveys that the religious have lower divorce rates, smoke less, and commit less crimes. The religious are into charities and hospital care and other pro-social activities. Towards the end of the book Myers does make it explicit that whatever comes out from religion does not validate his theistic beliefs, its consequences do not imply the existence or nonexistence of his deity.

I have no problem with the fruits of religions. It's empirically clear that various traditions (not just Christianity) have led to good (as well as evil as Myers freely admits). My primary concern is not whether belief in, say, Santa Claus produces better behaved children, but rather whether Santa is real or not, whether belief in Santa is warranted (by evidence and reasons at hand) or delusional. Other atheists may put more weight on religion's fruits but my main concern is with what's real and what's illusory. I'm concerned with the very core belief of theism, i.e., the reality of deities and the supernatural realm. Is there or is there not at least one god? Does the supernatural exist or not? Is belief in these things justified or not? Is there sufficient justification, reasons and evidence to warrant belief? Myers does not address these central, fundamental questions, which to my mind should be since he's addressing skeptics and atheists. He's more interested in showing how being religious, having a religion, having supernatural beliefs can be beneficial psychologically, emotionally, and socially. Reading Myers, I get the feeling he's telling me: Look at all the social, psychological, emotional benefits of harboring a delusion. Ain't it great! Well, feel free to climb on board. Plug into our beliefs; the Matrix is heavenly!

Very early on Myers wants to make it clear that he's one of us--a skeptic and one who espouses critical thinking.
[F]or the most part, my skeptical friends, I share your skepticism. As an appreciative longtime subscriber to The Skeptical Inquirer and to Michael Shermer’s interesting Skeptic’s Society mailings, I cheer on challenges to rampant irrationalism. Thus my Psychology (8th edition) begins with a chapter on “thinking critically with psychological science" and thereafter offers scientific analyses of alternative medicine, astrology, ESP, near-death experiences, repression, hypnosis, and lots more. I have critically examined the supposed powers of unchecked intuition (in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils). And I enjoy casting a critical eye on intriguing claims by asking “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” (p.6)
Myers may share our skepticism vis-a-vis astrologers, sCAM, psychics, crop circles, and other extraordinary claims, but he certainly shields extraordinary claims he believes in--sectarian in this case--from the light of skeptical inquiry. Need we point out that rather than being critical he's being hypocritical? I'd really like to bounce back one of the questions he enjoys asking: How do you know that your theistic beliefs are true? How do you know that a god exists and that it is your brand that's the real McCoy? How do you know?

Myers reveals to us that "God loves us" (p.125). I'm just wondering how he knows that. And if he doesn't what makes him believe in that quaint, namby-pamby claim? Has God shown this love of his? If so what is Myers' evidence? I'm all ears. Or is it that Myers posits a nontestable claim--e.g., that God will express his love after we are with him in heaven? Or could it be that he just likes the idea and the attendant feelings that come from truly believing there is a transcendent parental figure who loves us all?

Myers is a staunch evolutionist. He will have nothing of creationism, including its latest mutation Intelligent Design. He even includes as an appendix the International Society for Science and Religion's statement on ID. Furthermore, Myers doesn't believe that prayer works. (That's an interesting revelation). He says that a lot of believers equate prayer with magic and God with some genie or heavenly Santa Claus. Myers is also well aware of the ultimate futility of God of the Gaps arguments. But mindful of how science will, given enough time, eventually shine light into every nook and cranny, he hides his god in a gap that science cannot hope to illuminate--the untestable and the unfalsifiable. Hence, Myers can keep his belief in a preternatural realm and in a nondetectable, nonphysical being.

Given that Myers is a psychologist and that he's addressing skeptics and atheists, what I didn't expect was a homily. He sprinkles his missive with such irrelevant and inappropriate sermons as::
So let us observe and experiment, believing that whatever God found worth creating, we should find worth studying. Moreover, let us do so freely, knowing that our ultimate allegiance is not to any human authority or human doctrine but to God alone. (p.18)
Myers should know better than to preach to skeptics and atheists. What could Myers have been thinking when he penned these lines? It's a mortal sin to preach to nonbelievers! They won't listen to such trash and will probably tune out. I almost did and nearly gave up reading.

Yet another thing that drives me (and I guess not a few atheists as well) up the wall is being subjected to interminable bible-quoting by faith-heads. It's like being nagged. And yet Myers does so as if he's preaching to the choir. Again, what could he have been thinking? Does he really think atheists are ignorant of his sacred text or that they'll be swayed by verses and passages?

The worst part, however, is that Myers reveals himself to be a cherry picker. He quotes from the bible, but he selects only those that affirm his beliefs, only those passages that are, shall we say, good and wholesome. Biblical teachings that are patently immoral or stories that are factually untrue and clash with science he's mum about. That a psychologist would fall into the trap of confirmation and selection bias is truly pathetic. In fact I say it's unforgivable. If one defends cherry picking as valid for one's sacred text then one has to accept that it's valid for any text. It also means calling it "sacred" is ridiculous since it's the reader who gets to pick and choose which parts s/he will hold sacred.

Myers admits that the "nasty practices" in Leviticus are not of the same ethical standing as those in Isaiah or the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament (p.15). This of course just shows that the bible is not inerrant, that it can't be the word of some perfect being. Moreover it shows that believers like Myers actively judge the bible, choosing to emphasize some parts, ignore others, and even dearly wish they could sweep the worst parts under the rug. But if cherry picking and the use of ethical discernment are valid in reading the bible then it is Myers who's creating his own god and his own religion. No longer is the bible sacred such that it as a whole dictates how Myers should think, live and eat but that Myers controls what he's going to accept as biblical in his life. He sifts through the text and highlights and heaps praises on those passages that he likes while conveniently turning a blind eye to those that he disapproves of and finds irrelevant.. Well, looks like Myers is just like most non-fundamentalist Christians--they fashion Christianity in their image.

While Myers may opt for delusion if that delusion bears sweet, succulent fruits, I on the other hand favor "reality at all costs" (a phrase by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which he used in describing what mental health means to him). Christians are fond of saying "the truth will set you free." Which is pretty ironic and odd given how their entire belief system is predicated on beliefs for which there is no good evidence. The truth? The truth is that they merely wish and hope they have not believed in vain. Here's Myers position on truth:
If religion is, on balance, adaptive rather than toxic—if it bends us toward happiness, health, and helpfulness—that is worth knowing. But it still leaves truth up for grabs. And truth is what matters. If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve? (p.128)
Let's emphasize that. Truth is what matters.

Thanks for trying to inform us and even tying to change our minds, Dr. Myers. But frankly I'd much rather reread Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis' Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective. It's amongst the couple of psychology of religion works I loved reading cover to cover. The authors provided science, lots of it. You on the other hand brought in psychological studies alright but just as well talked from the pulpit and hosed your intended audience with theology and sectarian beliefs. The latter was a huge turn off. It mostly certainly detracted from the intention that your message be a "friendly" one.

Del Monte pineapple enema

Some months ago I came across a Del Monte pineapple juice ad that touted the product as an aid in ridding the body of toxins. Upon hearing the radio commercial I slapped my head and blurted, "Good grief! Even Del Monte has ventured into woowoo." In later versions of the ad campaign the company even hired a celebrity to get the detoxification message across. (I get a kick whenever a some star endorses woowoo--it just reinforces the stereotype that they're airheads).

I'm blogging about this just now because that Del Monte marketing inanity was the first thing that popped into my head when a friend shared this detox myth article.

There's more detox news from Dr. David Colquhoun and Ben Goldacre.