Sunday, December 19, 2010

4 in 10 Americans are still Young Earth Creationists/Evolution Deniers; No Change in Attitude in 30 Years.

The latest Gallup poll confirms the dismal news.  About 40% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within 10,000 years.  About 38% believe that humans evolved but God guided the process.  And a mere 16% believe that humans evolved without God’s involvement. 
Some other results, many of which have been discussed here before:  Education is positively correlated with belief in evolution.  A whopping 47% of those with a high school education or less are young Earth Creationists, while 74% of those with a post graduate education believe that humans evolved on their own or with God’s guidance.  Most Americans believe in God, with about 85% of them claiming a religious identity.  And the percentages of people subscribing to evolution only, evolution with God, and young Earth creationism have remained relatively stable since 1982. 

A few thoughts.  First, what the strikingly high number of YECs and their low levels of education should illustrate to us is that our backsliding scientifically, culturally, and historically into some modern form of a dark age is not uninformed alarmism.  Humans have a powerful and dangerous urge to be religious.  Couple that longing with ignorance and scientific illiteracy and their minds can be overtaken by the most farfetched and bizarre religious fantasies.  Part of the blame for these stagnant and dismal numbers lies with science educators and their failure to adequately confront superstition, ignorance, and tribalism.  I’ll speculate about the pressures that seem to be contributing to their timidity. 

The notions of religious freedom, freedom of belief, and religious identity in the United States have become curiously warped.  Legally and morally we want to insure that everyone is able to pursue the religious traditions of their choosing, and to be able to freely affiliate themselves with any religious ideology.  But somehow those concerns have morphed into a sense of entitlement on the part of the religious to adopt any half-baked, bizarre religious view they like without any concern for justification, evidence or the truth.  Religious belief is all too often treated as a matter of personal taste or preference as if we’re picking from the smorgasbord at Shoney’s Big Boy.  There appears to be no reckoning for what you believe other than you want to believe it.  Whether or not it’s true, supported by the evidence, or there’s are reasons to believe it are strange, ill-formed concerns.  “It’s a free country; I can believe what I want to.” 

Any challenges to these beliefs, no matter how outrageous they are, are taken as affronts.  It’s offensive to even ask, “Why would you think THAT is true?”    Many of seem to think that nothing else is required of us that the mere fact that we choose to believe it.  And if anyone presses them for more than that, then they are accused of being angry, strident, hateful, and intolerant. 

As I have argued here before, religious freedom should be considered the right to be unrestricted in your investigation of various religious ideas.  You should be able to read what books you want, say what you choose, and assemble with people of your choosing.  But your freedom of religion does not absolve you of the general requirement on all of us to be reasonable and seek after the truth. 

Nor does it absolve you of your social, moral, and political responsibilities to the rest of us.  Our fates are intertwined.  Religious beliefs inform who my neighbor votes for, who she elects to the school board, which bond measures she supports, how she educates her children (and mine), who she wants to go to war with, who she wants to make peace with, who she’s willing to execute, which laws she supports, and what sort of society she contributes to.  If a sufficiently large percentage of our population has their good sense eclipsed by Iron Age religious nonsense, we’re all put at risk. 

I think that the only way that so many Americans can continue to believe something as patently false as YEC is that the people entrusted to teach them are either too ignorant, or too timid to hold the bar where it should be. 

Here, again, are the facts.  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that these are as well confirmed by science at this point as the existence of oxygen:

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went from a state of infinite curvature and energy to a rapidly expanding chaotic state, the Big Bang.  During the first pico and nano seconds of this period of rapid expansion, the types and behavior of particles that existed rapidly changed as the energy levels  dropped.  Within a few nanoseconds, the kinds of matter and the way they act settled into, more or less, the sorts of material constituents we find today.  Matter continued to expand and eventually, several billion years later, gravitational pull congregates clumps of it together to form stars.  Some of these stars are of sufficient mass to ultimately collapse on themselves, explode outward and spray new types of elements formed in their cores out into space.  That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own. 

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. (We can find ancient rocks older than 3.5 billion years on all of the continents, and some crystals have been found that are thought to be 4.3 billion years old.[1])  Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.  Natural selection and random mutations lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity.  The dinosaurs emerge from this  process.  The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods range from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.  Placental mammals arise about 54 million years ago.  

Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, 60 million years after the dinosaurs have gone extinct.  A variety of early hominid groups vie for survival until all related lines except homo sapiens are extinct. 

In 2009, Lady Gaga  releases her first album. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Religious Belief as Evolutionary By-Product

One of the most important areas of research in evolutionary psychology now is the possibility that evolutionary circumstances actually selected for a propensity towards certain false beliefs.  That is, more and more research is presenting us with evidence that natural selection built us to have some false beliefs.  It turns out that in the right sorts of circumstances, some false beliefs may have provided early hominids with survival advantages.

The ubiquity of religious belief, and the long list of peculiar cognitive behaviors surrounding it, suggest that it should be on that list of evolved misbeliefs.  

Daniel Dennett and Ryan McKay give a thorough overview and analysis of the latest research into these questions in The Evolution of Misbelief from Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  Then a long list of prestigious scholars respond to their arguments.  

Dennett and McKay argue that of all of evidence that has been presented for evolved misbeliefs, the case for positive illusions about oneself and ones close to you is the strongest. 

"The evidence indicates that there is a widespread tendency for most people to see themselves as better than most others on a range of dimensions. This is the “better-than-average effect” (Alicke 1985) – individuals, on the average, judge themselves to be more intelligent, honest, persistent, original, friendly, and reliable than the average person. Most college students tend to believe that they will have a longer-than-average lifespan, while most college instructors believe that they are better than-average teachers (Cross 1977).Most people also tend to believe that their driving skills are better than average – even those who have been hospitalised for accidents (see, e.g., McKenna et al. 1991; Williams 2003). In fact, most people view themselves as better than average on almost any dimension that is both subjective and socially desirable (Myers 2002). Indeed, with exquisite irony, most people even see themselves as less prone to such self-serving distortions than others (Friedrich 1996; Pronin et al. 2002; Pronin 2004)."

Researchers have argued that these biases produce false beliefs that are the result of the proper evolved functioning of our cognitive faculties.  

Religious belief, one might think, is prime for this sort of explanation.  But Dennett and McKay contend that the consensus now is that the propensity towards religious belief is the by-product, not the direct result, of evolutionary pressures.  It may be the result of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, selection pressures against cheating, or selection for cooperation in social settings.  

Read the article for the state of the art on research on these topics.  And here's a small portion of their bibliography, mostly the portion focusing on religious beliefs:

Atran, S. & Norenzayan, A. (2004) Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 713–70.
Atran, S. (2004) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press.
Barrett, J. L. (2000) Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(1):29–34.
Bering, J. M. & Johnson, D. D. P. (2005) “O Lord ... you perceive my thoughts from afar”: Recursiveness and the evolution of supernatural agency. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5(1/2):118–42.
Bering, J. M. (2002) The existential theory of mind. Review of General Psychology 6:3–24.
Bering, J. M. (2006) The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:453–98.
Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ baby: How child development explains what makes us human. Arrow Books.
Bloom, P. (2005) Is God an accident? Atlantic Monthly 296:105–12.
Bloom, P. (2007) Religion is natural. Developmental Science 10(1):147–51.
Boyer, P. (1994) The naturalness of religious ideas: A cognitive theory of religion. University of California Press.
Boyer, P. (2001) Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books.
Boyer, P. (2003) Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(3):119–24
Boyer, P. (2008a) Evolutionary economics of mental time travel. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(6):219–24.
Boyer, P. (2008b) Religion: Bound to believe? Nature 455(23):1038–39.
Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R. D., Das, E., Key, C. W. & Busath, G. L. (2007) When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science 18(3):204–207
Guthrie, S. E. (1993) Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford University Press.
Hinde, R. A. (1999) Why gods persist: A scientific approach to religion. Routledge.
Johnson, D. D. P. & Bering, J. M. (2006) Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219–33.
Johnson, D. D. P. & Kru¨ ger, O. (2004) The good of wrath: Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation. Political Theology 5(2):159–76.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2005) God’s punishment and public goods: A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature 16(4):410–46.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2008) Gods of war: The adaptive logic of religious conflict. In: The evolution of religion: Studies, theories, and critiques, ed. J. Bulbulia, R.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2009) The error of God: Error management theory, religion, and the evolution of cooperation. In: Games, groups, and the global good, ed. S. A. Levin, pp. 169–180. Springer.
Kelemen, D. (2004) Are children “intuitive theists”? Psychological Science 15:295–301.
Norenzayan, A. & Shariff, A. F. (2008) The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science 322:58–62.
Norenzayan, A. (in press) Why we believe: Religion as a human universal.  In: Human morality and sociality: Evolutionary and comparative perspectives,  ed. H. Hogh-Oleson. Palgrave/Macmillan.
Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1(4):515–26.
Randolph-Seng, B. & Nielsen,M. E. (2007) Honesty: One effect of primed religious representations. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 17(4):303–15.
Randolph-Seng, B. & Nielsen,M. E. (2008) Is God really watching you? A response to Shariff and Norenzayan (2007). The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18(2):119–22.
Randolph-Seng, B. (2009) Nonconscious vigilance: Preconscious control over the influence of subliminal priming. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas Tech University. [BR-S]
Rappaport, R. A. (1999) Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge University Press.
Rossano, M. J. (2007) Supernaturalizing social life: Religion and the evolution of human cooperation. Human Nature 18:272–94.
Shariff, A. F. & Norenzayan, A. (2007) God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science 18(9):803–809.
Sosis, C. Genet, R. Genet, E. Harris & K. Wyman, pp. 111–117. Collins Foundation Press.
Sosis, R. & Alcorta, C. (2003) Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: The evolution of religious behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:264–74.
Sosis, R. & Bressler, E. R. (2003) Cooperation and commune longevity: A test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross-Cultural Research 37(2):211–39.
Sosis, R. (2000) Religion and intragroup cooperation: Preliminary results of a comparative analysis of utopian communities. Cross-Cultural Research 34(1):77–88.
Sosis, R. (2003) Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Human Nature 14(2):91–127. [JB]
Sosis, R. (2004) The adaptive value of religious ritual. American Scientist 92:166–72.
Sosis, R. (2005) Does religion promote trust? The role of signaling, reputation, and punishment. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1(1):1–30.
Wilson, D. S. (2002) Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2005) Testing major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample. Human Nature 16(4):382–409. 

Teaching Atheism

The topic of teaching courses on atheism has come up over at John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity.  

My course has come up.  And the question of indoctrination vs. liberal arts teaching has invoked some confusions (and ire).  
So here's a slightly dressed up version of some comments I've posted over there.  

I've taught one of the few university level courses about atheism in the country.  Syllabus and readings here: 

The difference between what we do at a typical accredited liberal arts university and what they do at Bible colleges where they are cranking out so many bogus Ph.D's in bible studies is that we study and discuss the works without any prior presumption that they are correct. My students are reading Plantinga and Craig right along with Martin, Flew, and Hume, and we critically analyze all of their arguments. The irony is that since we are reading so many atheist works, I end up playing devil's advocate, as it were, and arguing the position of the Christian or theist. Here, by contrast, is the mission statement from the Talbot Theology school at Biola: 

"Talbot School of Theology is committed to biblical inerrancy. By biblical inerrancy, we mean that the Bible is without errors of any kind in its original manuscripts. Biblical inerrancy is an essential part of our ministry training and helps define our view of biblical authority."

By contrast, my course asks questions, consideration objections, develops critical evaluations, and explores with no ideological presumptions or dogmatism: 

"In this course we will consider a range of important philosophical contributions on the topic of atheism. It will also consider a number of responses and criticisms from the theistic camp, and then the range of responses open to the atheist. We will consider the tension between science and religion. We will address questions such as: Does science motivate atheism? Is religious faith compatible with science? Can science give us positive evidence for the non-existence of God?"

My purpose in teaching philosophy classes is the liberation of the intellect and the development of critical reasoning capacities. Their purpose is the propagation of a particular ideology, whether it is correct or not, regardless of the evidence. That distinction is vital.   

There's a potential misunderstanding in the way we're talking about "defending" a view here. When I teach the problem of evil, first I present a challenging statement of the problem. Then I explain and defend John Hick's soul building theodicy at great length. That produces a great deal of discussion. Then I present some powerful criticisms of that view. So in the course of an hour, I'll end up "defending" three different, contrary positions. I don't pretend to give the final answer to the issue, nor do I claim to have settled the question. The net effect of all of this back and forth is to 1) show students that the problem is not easily dealt with or dismissed, 2) educate them about various important responses that have been given, and 3) get them to develop more thoughtful and sophisticated ideas about it. In the end, I don't really care if they come out as theists or atheists. I've got enough confidence in their intellectual capacities and the power of liberal arts education ideals to let them work it out for themselves. I measure progress in terms of intellectual development, not in adherence to an ideology. The purpose of a religiously based education is to foster and entrench a particular set of conclusions or beliefs. The goal of religious education, if you can call it that, is to propagate beliefs.  What sermons from the pulpit and classes in religious education seek is a world where more people believe a particular set of ideas.  The methods or approaches to achieving that state are secondary, as long as the result is more of those beliefs. 

The proper goal of a liberal arts education, and of science education, is to develop critical methods for figuring out which conclusions are most reasonable to believe. This is the fundamental mistake that so many people make when they try to conflate science as a kind of religious faith. The essential goal of religious institutions is to subjugate minds and promote a particular set of beliefs, regardless of the facts or the contrary evidence. The essence of science is the application of a set of methods for best gathering and evaluating evidence in order to draw the most reasonable conclusions, whatever they may be. 

For some students, if they suspect that the instructor is not a believer, the unfortunate reality is that they will be immediately suspicious of your motives and your integrity.  Many of my students haven't ever heard an argument for atheism before and they've come to expect that being an atheist just means you are an amoral nihilist intent on destroying their faith.  There's also a growing body of research about people's tendency to simply become more entrenched in bad religious ideas when they encounter powerful counter evidence and arguments.  The ironic and perverse result of exposing many people to contrary views, at least in the short run, is that they just dig in deeper and become more adamant about their original views.  See this study, for instance:

Batson didn't study the long term effects here, and I don't know if there is any research to support this, but my guess is that even if people get more dogmatic in the short run, the long term effect is liberalize and soften their attitudes.  My philosophy of religion students have an online discussion group.  For an interesting read, see what they're saying here about what they think they've learning this semester.  (This is not prompted by me in any way--they post whatever questions or ideas they want to.)  

or here:  

Atheists and nonbelievers are a tiny minority in an ocean of belief.  I think one of the most important things that an atheist can do outside of the classroom is to be an exemplar of thoughtful, careful reasoning.  We've got to patiently and repeatedly explain the various problems with God beliefs because religious thinking has such a stranglehold on the culture and people's personal lives.  The vast majority of people have never even heard a thoughtful argument in favor of atheism; they don't know what it is, or what reasons might lead one to think it is true.  What little information they are getting about it is distorted and maligned through religious sources and it's tainted with emotional and moral animosity.  As you can see from my students' comments, many of them had no idea that there are atheists out there who are reasonable and who aren't axe-wielding, homicidal maniacs.  Since there are so many of them and so few of us, and their information is so poor, we’re stuck having to explain over and over and over what the basics are.  The additional challenge is that religion has often actively undermined the capacities in them that would allow them to think critically and objectively about religion. 

What some atheists need to be doing is comparable to what many gays have done--educating, living by example, and presenting themselves and their ideas out of the closet as a viable alternative.  But I do think there is room and need for more militant voices too.  The civil rights movement needed both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  We need both Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. 

Here's a big question:  which should be more important to us fundamentally:  A) believing that there is no God and promoting that viewpoint, or B) believing those conclusions that appear to be supported by our best efforts at broad, balanced evidence gathering and objective critical analysis?  The latter project might well lead a reasonable person to conclude that God exists, but I submit that it's still more important to pursue B) than A).  And THAT'S the difference between what I'm doing when I'm teaching atheism and what they are doing in seminaries, bible colleges, and other religion factories.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Evolution, Theology, and Pseudo-Profundity

Here's an interesting lecture given by Daniel Dennett about the way that religious ideas take hold of our minds.  As with many things he says, I think he's right on the money with much of this:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Naturalism and the A Priori

Developments in epistemology over the last 100 years have shifted the ground under the feet of philosophers of religion, including many fighting the good fight for atheism.  In particular, the a priori aint what it used to be.  Once upon a time, philosophers thought that a priori reasoning provided us with the strongest, and most compelling forms of arguments in natural theology and atheology.  But after Godel, Carnap, Quine, and many others, a priori knowledge has taken on a decidedly conventionalist flavor.  

I've been reading an article by Penelope Maddy called Naturalism and the A Priori that is very interesting.  While her topic is not proofs or disproofs of God, much of what she has to say about naturalism and the epistemological foundations is directly relevant.  A couple of choice paragraphs:

To describe naturalistic philosophy in general. Quine appeals to a favourite image:

Neurath has likened science to a boat which if we are to rebuild it. we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. (Quine 1960: 3) The naturalistic philosopher begins his reasoning within the inherited world theory as a going concern. He tentatively believes all of it, but believes also that some unidentified portions are wrong. He tries to improve, clarify, and understand the system from within. He is the busy sailor adrift on Neurath's boat. (Quine 1975: 72)

For the naturalist, there is no higher perspective, where transcendental or other extra-scientific considerations hold sway. The naturalist operates 'from the point of view of our own science, which is the only point of view I can offer' (Quine 1981b: 181).

A similar rejection of the transcendental level is found in Arthur Fine's 'natural ontological attitude', or NOA?l The context here is the realism-anti-realism debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s, exemplified, for example, by Putnam's attack on 'metaphysical realism' and van Fraassen's agnosticism about unobservables.  As Fine understands it, the impulse towards realism is actually based in 'homely' beliefs, which, he says,

I will put it in the first person. I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole, with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the system of 'check, double-check, check, triple-check' of scientific investigation, as well as the other safeguards built into the institutions of science.  So, if the scientists tell me that there really are molecules, and atoms, and y/J particles, and, who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. (Fine 1986: 126-7)

From this point of view, we can ask after the relations between humans, as described in psychology, physiology, linguistics, etc., and the world, as described in physics, chemistry, geology, etc., and draw conclusions about the relations between sentences and the world, an investigation that may result in a correspondence theory of truth or a deflationary theory of truth or some other theory of truth or no theory of truth at all, depending how things go.  But however they go, this theory will be just one part of our overall scientific theory of the world.

On these matters, Putnam and van Fraassen agree with the NOAer [someone who adopts a Natural Ontological Attitude], but they don't stop here; each, in his own way, goes beyond science, to a higher level. There Putnam distinguishes metaphysical realism, which adds to NOA's core an extra scientific correspondence theory of truth, and internal realism, which  adds to the same core a Peircean analysis of truth as warranted assertability in the ideal limit.  Focused on the problem of ontology rather than truth, van Fraassen adds an extra level of epistemological analysis where we must abstain from belief in molecules and atoms and electrons, despite our acceptance of these same entities for scientific purposes, Here the holder of our homely beliefs will be tempted to object that atoms really do exist, thus embodying  Kant's 'incautious.. listener', faced with 'a question. . . absurd in itself', who then gives 'an answer where none is required' (A58/B82-3): he wants to insist on the reality of atoms, but all the genuine scientific evidence, though accepted at the lower level, has been ruled out of bounds at the higher level; the frustrated Scientific Realist ends by stomping his foot. Fine's proposal is that we rest with the natural ontological attitude and resist the temptation to engage in extra-scientific debate.

To subject our naturalism to the same challenge put to both Kant and Carnap, we should ask: is naturalism itself a scientific thesis? I think the right answer to this question is that naturalism is not a thesis at all, but an approach. The naturalistic philosopher is the Neurathian sailor, working within science to understand, clarify, and improve science; she will treat philosophical questions on a par with other scientific questions, insofar as this is possible; faced with first philosophical demands-that is, questions and solutions that require extra-scientific methods-she will respond with befuddlement, for she knows no such methods; from her scientific perspective, she is sceptical that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are none; until such methods are explained and justified, she will simply set aside the challenges of first philosophy and get on with her naturalistic business. Naturalism contrasts with both Kantianism and Carnpianism in forgoing any 'higher-level' considerations.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The F Word

I'm speaking at the SacFAN--Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists, and Nonbelievers--meeting tonight at 7:00 pm.  Details here:  Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists and Nonbelievers

My topic is "The F Word:  An Atheist's Guide to Addressing Faith"

My Powerpoint slides are here:  The F Word

I'll be writing up the lecture and posting it here shortly.  Please come if you're in the area.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Paradox for Christianity: Natural and Supernatural Religions

Dedicated Christian believers will readily acknowledge that many human religions arise from natural, not supernatural sources.  That is, while the Christian may think that his religion was founded on real, supernatural events, or the actions of a genuine supernatural being (God),he will accept that many of the world’s other religions like Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, and so, had natural origins.  Those religions came about through human enthusiasm, hallucinations, historical contingencies, mistakes, mythologies, psychiatric disorders, social movements, faulty and revised memories, evangelism, or other naturally occurring phenomena.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these natural religions and contrast them to a bona fide supernatural religion that really does originate through the intentions, actions, miracles, or interventions of a divine being that has power and knowledge that transcends the merely natural world. And if the followers of a natural religion hold the view that their doctrines are from a  supernatural source, they are mistaken.  That is to say that they follow a false religion.  Many Christians will be quite comfortable with calling these false religions.  Other people who are more sensitive to issues of religious tolerance will be uncomfortable calling them false.  But if we are being clear, everyone will have to acknowledge that some religions entail, require, or recommend that we accept many claims as true that are, strictly speaking, false.

How many false, natural religions are there in the world?  Even if he is a dedicated adherent to one he believes is of supernatural origin, a reasonable believer will have to acknowledge that there have been thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of them.  For most believers in a particular religious tradition, the vast majority of other religious traditions have natural origins and are therefore false.  Even if there is a God, it is obvious that human history spawns great numbers of false, natural religions.  Countless religious ideas spring from human social and mental life, then some catch on and become the start of a whole religious movement.  Thus far, even the deeply committed Christian should concur with all of my premises.  But now I’d like to explain what I take to be a devastating problem for the Christian in reconciling the view that his or her personal religious views are authentic while so many others are false.  The question that should be deeply troubling to the Christian from the inside is this:  why would the one true God who sought to establish the only real religion bury, confound, obscure, or hide it in the midst of so many other false, natural religions? 

Here’s what I mean:  Christianity has relatively inauspicious origins.  What we have today is a very small number of copies of  writings that were written decades and even centuries after Jesus is alleged to have preached, been executed, and the returned from the dead.  Two hundred years or so after the alleged events, the modern Bible was sifted from thousands of early writings that gave very different accounts of Jesus and Christian principles.  A very long and complicated  process with unreliable nodes of transmission provides us with claims of highly dubious origins.  Numerous doubts accumulate at the beginning with the alleged eye witnesses, then the stories are repeated an unknown number of times by an unknown number of people before they are written down by a small group of unknown authors.  They these stories are copied and finally the Bible we know is culled from thousands of other written works.  At each stage of transmission, we should have several worries about the fidelity of the process that accumulate and amplify by the time the Christian stories get to us.  I’ve discussed these layers of doubts and their cumulative, amplifying effect in many early posts. 

The people engaged in the creation and transmission of these early ideas would have been subject to all of the same natural phenomena that affected the foundations of all of the false religions in the world:  psychosis, bereavement hallucinations, the Asch effect, source amnesia, superstition, false supernaturalism, Iron Age ignorance, paranormalism, confirmation bias, fabrication, hedging, revised memories, poor eyewitness abilities, propaganda, spin, mythological influences, heightened paranormal expectations, suggestibility, the lack of the scientific method, gullibility, and so on.  At the very least, the Christian must acknowledge that these phenomena are real, and that they very frequently are responsible for spawning other religious movements.  Even if Christianity is truly of a supernatural origin, and none of these doubt amplifying factors affected its formation, they would have been close at hand, and their presence obscures and undermines our ready acceptance of it.  We know that these phenomena affect people and that they spawn religious movements.  And we have very little reliable information about the origins of Christianity that might convince us that they were not a factor. 

So the question for the Christian is, why did your God make your religion indistinguishable from all the natural religions in so many of these ways?  The puzzle is made worse by the facts that, by your own reckoning, your God has the power, the knowledge, the intention, and the will to make himself and real supernatural origins of the Christian religion evident to all humans.  In fact, by your own reckoning, he is going to hold every human in history morally and epistemically culpable if they do not acknowledge the real supernatural origin of Christianity by condemning them to an eternity of unimaginable torture. Yet despite having the ability, knowledge, and desire to transcend above all of the false, natural religions, he does not. 

The embedding of the one, true religion—Christianity—within human history in a fashion that makes it look like so many false religions should create deeply troubling cognitive dissonance for the believing Christian.  The simple and inescapable answer is that Christianity isn’t the one, true supernatural religion.  Your religion is a natural religion, just like all of the others.  And now you’ve been right to brink of accepting the conclusion.  You already acknowledge that the vast majority of religions in history arose by misguided, natural avenues.  And you can see that the origins of Christianity resembles those false religions in many salient ways.  You have to acknowledge that we have very little, reliable information about the origins of Christianity.  And you can see that God, if he were real, and if he had the power and character that you have imputed him, would have done it differently.  He could have and would have done it better.  All that remains is for you is to abandon the wild gyrations and rationalizations that are typically attempted to escape this dilemma to explain God’s hiddenness.  The simple and obvious solution is that Christianity is a natural religion.  

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Video: Debates on the Resurrection, Salem, and Miracles

We now have videos of all three recent debates between me and Asst. Prof. Russell DiSilvestro:

Debate 1 video:  Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials
          McCormick slides, Debate 1
          DiSilvestro slides, Debate 1

Debate 2 video:  Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus
           McCormick slides, Debate 2.
           DiSilvestro slides, Debate 2.

Debate 3 video:  Does God Want Us to Believe in Miracles?
          McCormick slides, Debate 3.
          DiSilvestro slides, Debate 3.

Thanks to Russell for doing the debates, and thanks to David Corner and Christina Bellon for filming.

Summary:  In the first debate, I argued that the same epistemic standards that lead us to reject the occurrence of real witchcraft at Salem, if we are being consistent, should lead us to reject the historical argument for the resurrection. In fact, by any fair measure of quantity and quality, we have far more and far better evidence for real witchcraft at Salem. So a fortiori the case against the real resurrection is that much worse.  People can respond to this argument three ways:  1.  they can accept the implication for Jerusalem and conclude that we don't have sufficient evidence for anything supernatural in either case.  2.  They can argue that there are important differences between Salem and Jerusalem that justify accepting the former and rejecting the latter.  or 3. they can bite the bullet and accept that there was real witchcraft at Salem and a real resurrection at Jerusalem.

Much to my surprise, Prof. DiSilvestro has taken this last position.  It's hard for me to think that he's not just caught up in the grip of an ideology, but he seems to think that it's not that unreasonable to conclude that the women at Salem really were witches.  And, he argues, there are many other instances of magic, miracles, and other supernatural events in our ordinary lives.  This seems like the least reasonable alternative of the three options to me--some of my colleagues have pressed for 2. for some interesting reasons.  But there you have it.  I take Russell's embracing of that option to be, more or less, a reductio of his view.  And I can't imagine how someone could hear what was said and not conclude that I won that round of the debate, whatever "won" means in these contexts.

Russell also presented his historical argument for the resurrection.  Roughly the structure is something like:
There are facts:  Jesus was killed and buried.  The tomb was found empty.  The followers of Jesus reported having Jesus appear to them afterwards.  There are several possible natural explanations for these facts like hallucinations, the wrong tomb, etc.  And there is the possibility that he really was resurrected.  There are problems with all of these naturalistic explanations because they don't cohere with what the Gospels say or some things we think we know about the early Christians.  So the only remaining conclusion is that Jesus was really resurrected.

I have several responses to this sort of argument, but probably the easiest thing to point out is that the argument that I give in debate 2 gives us a number of very strong reasons to doubt the so-called "facts" that Russell is citing.  So I'd reject his first premise.  There are several other nit picky or technical problems with the rest of this argument, but it would be boring to delve into those here.

In the second debate, I presented the evidence from Lourdes that shows that humans are very, very unreliable sources of testimony about miracles.  And I presented a lot of other evidence from empirical psychology that shows why we should reduce our estimation of the reliability of the people who conveyed the resurrection story across the centuries to us.  When all of these reasons to doubt are in place, it forces us to acknowledge that we cannot reasonably conclude that the resurrection didn't really happen.

Again, I think Russell's replies here were quite weak.  He spent some time arguing that just because we have reasons to think that generally human miracle testimony is very unreliable, we shouldn't conclude that this particular case (the resurrection) is unreliable.  I didn't understand this argument, because as I see it, that's exactly what all of these reasons to doubt miracle testimony do--they should reduce our confidence in them.  That doesn't imply that resurrection didn't happen, but I have given a lot of reasons for thinking that we don't have enough reliable evidence to believe it.

One of the interesting ironies of the position that I am taking here is this:  I can grant for the sake of argument that the resurrection really did happen.  The problem is that it has been mired and obscured in an epistemic context that forces us to write it off.  Even if it did happen, we should look at the sketchy evidence and the doubt raising facts of the history of the evidence and conclude that it is not reasonable to believe.  Russell also  gave a number of contemporary anecdotal miracles stories that, as far as I could tell, illustrated just the sorts of psychological worries that I was trying to raise.  Again, I don't think I understood his point here.

In debate 3, I presented a number of ways in which the alleged Christian miracles could have and should have been better if God intended us to believe on their basis.  The evidence for the resurrection could have been far better than it is.  So since it is so poor, and since it looks just the way you would expect it to if the Christian religion arose from natural sources instead of supernatural ones, then we must conclude that God doesn't really want us to believe in them.  That is, let's assume that what the Christians are saying is right and that God does want us to believe in the resurrection on the basis of the evidence that we have.  I argue that even from the inside, this whole scheme doesn't add up.  It doesn't make sense that God wants us to believe the historical evidence because if he did, he would have made it so much better.

This puts Russell and many other Christians into a bind.  They need to argue on the one hand, as Russell did on day 1, that the available evidence should lead us to think that the resurrection was real.  Russell argued that a real resurrection was the best available explanation given all the facts.  But then they need to explain why it is that the evidence isn't any better than it is given that God is all powerful and all knowing.  It certainly can't be the case that God wasn't able to make his existence or the resurrection known to us.  So the historical Christian is trapped trying to argue both that the evidence is just enough and compelling as it is, and that God has good reasons for not making it any clearer, or more evident to us.  If they argue that God is leaving room for love, or faith, or mystery, or choice by remaining hidden, as it were, then they are undermining the original argument that the historical evidence demands that we accept the resurrection.  You can't have it both ways.
My own take here was that Russell was thoroughly caught on the horns of this dilemma and that his efforts to have it both ways in debate 3 are very poor.  He also gave a number of other anecdotal miracle stories from books and people he knows.  I think these were intended to show that either real miracles do happen all the time, or that sometimes when a miracle does happen, even when it is obvious, we still reject it.  But the cases were things like trees getting struck by lightening or people rescued from floods.  I didn't understand how they were to the point at all given that we were debating whether or not we have sufficient historical evidence to justify believing in the resurrection.

Please watch the videos and judge for yourselves which arguments are most compelling.  I'd love to hear your conclusions and your reasons.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Slides: Believing the Resurrection

I have my Powerpoint slides for all three debates (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Sept. 20-22) up here:

Jesus and Salem
It's often argued that it is reasonable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of the historical evidence in its favor.  That's a mistake.  We have a mountain of comparable evidence, much more actually, that there were real witches at Salem, Mass in the 1690s.  We should reject the resurrection for the same reasons we don't think the Salem Witches were real.

Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus 
We can see from cases like the (false) believers at Lourdes and others that humans are really, really unreliable when they report miracles.  Furthermore, the early Christians would have been highly disposed to believe supernatural claims about Jesus, they were ignorant of a wide range of psychological facts about humans and their religiousness, and the Jesus story has been filtered through a long process with the goal of promoting belief. I argue that these layers of doubt undermine the output--the resurrection story we now have.  And we should not believe it.

Does God Want Us to Believe Miracles?
It's clear that the Christian miracles, when viewed from a distance are really crummy miracles.  An all powerful, all knowing, and all good God with the various goals that Christianity has attributed to him could have and would have done a much better job.  Here's a number of ways to perform better miracles, for God's next attempt.  The argument:  1.  If God had sought to ground Christianity on the New Testament miracles, we would expect them to be much better in several ways.  2.  Since they are so poor, we have to conclude that God did not or does not want us to believe on their basis.  So that suggests that Christianity is based on a grand mistake.

How's that for three days work?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Three Debates: The Resurrection and Christian Miracles

Russell DiSilvestro (a colleague in my Philosophy Department) and I are going to do a series of debates about the resurrection at CSUS (California State University, Sacramento--where our dept. is) next week, Monday through Wednesday.  Here's the run down:

Debate 1:  The Resurrection:  Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials
Monday, Sept. 20, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15:

McCormick:  The resurrection has frequently been supported by appeals to the quantity and quality of historical evidence that we have, primarily from the Bible.  But by a parallel argument, we should believe that there were really witches with magical powers at Salem, Mass. where we have  evidence of greater quantity and quality.  Therefore, by the standards we already employ, we should reject the resurrection. 

DiSilvestro: Salem and Jerusalem are disanalogous in ways that make the latter stronger than the former. But in any event, the evidential case for a real resurrection at Jerusalem is strong enough to conclude that it happened.  If this implies that the evidential case for real witches at Salem is strong enough to conclude that there were some, so be it.  The obstacles to believing in real witches are not as impregnable as they seem. 

Debate 2:  Miracles and Probability from Lourdes to Lazarus
Tuesday, Sept. 21, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15

McCormick:  Large numbers of alleged miraces at Lourdes, France and elsewhere that have turned out to be mistaken have shown us that miracle testimony is very unreliable.  These cases and other considerations reduce our confidence in testimony about the resurrection to the point that we must reject it. 

DiSilvestro:  Some of the differences between the miracle reports from Lourdes and the resurrection reports make the latter stronger than the former.  But in any event, the resurrection reports have features that should lead us to accept them.  Even if miracle reports are in general very unreliable, this should not lead us to doubting all miracle reports, and it should not lead us to doubting the resurrection reports in particular. 

Debate 3:   Does God Want Us to Believe in Miracles? 
Wednesday, Sept. 22, Hinde Auditorium, Student Union, 3:00-4:15

 McCormick:  The evidence we have for the resurrection and other miracles is sketchy at best.  It would be well within God’s power to produce compelling miracles.  Since he has not done so, it must not be God’s intention for us to accept them. 

DiSilvestro: There are several good reasons that God might have for allowing the available evidence for the resurrection to be just about what it is already, rather than more or less.  When these reasons are carefully considered, it should lead us be very skeptical about—indeed, it should lead us to to reject--the claim that God does not intend for us to believe in the resurrection.

It should be a good set of discussions and it will be well attended judging by the early interest.

Russell and I have also been slated to be interviewed on Capitol Public Radio with Jeffrey Callison on Monday morning at 10:00.  Tune in if you're interested.

There will be videos of the debates and we'll get them posted soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Learning from Hauser’s Mistakes

A long standing debate between believers and non-believers over the status and nature of morality in a God-less world has been influenced in recent years by research that has shown that non-animals possess many more moral or proto-moral behaviors naturally than we once thought.  If we are to listen to Hauser, De Waal, Pinker, Churchland, and a number of others, there’s a compelling case for the evolution of morality in humans.  And that closes what appeared to be a gap in the naturalistic worldview as many believers see it. 

But just recently, renowned Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser has gotten into some trouble over questions about his research methods.  In fact, he’s now been put on leave and there is an active investigation into some of his recent work.  Apparently, Hauser was being less than scrupulous or at least over enthusiastic in his gathering and evaluating of data from monkeys intended to help the case for a cognitive continuity between us and them. 

Hauser’s fall from grace, if you’ll pardon the expression, may seem like an opportunity for the non-naturalists about morality to gloat.  But let me use the case to illustrate a different point in favor of the scientific and naturalistic approach to epistemological questions. 

In Hauser’s lab, students and Hauser were observing rhesus monkeys to see if they recognized patterns played on a sound system.  As is often done with human babies, the monkey is thought to have noticed a change in a pattern if it turns it head, stares longer, or exhibits some other new behavior when a pattern is violated with a new stimulus. 

Hauser was one of the people responsible for observing the monkeys and recording whether they responded to the stimuli.  The discrepancies came out when it was found that Hauser was reporting observations that supported his hypothesis that the monkeys could recognize patterns as well as human infants far more often than any of the other, more impartial, observers.  When the tapes were watched carefully, and reviewed by objective parties, it became clear that Hauser was cooking the data:  the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification.  More details here:

Now Hauser has been found out, and many reporters who have pounced on the story have suggested that his misdeeds have cast doubts on the whole discipline.  That last bit strikes me as irresponsible hyperbole—each study and each set of data, whether produced by Hauser’s lab or not, should be evaluated entirely on its own merits.  Hauser’s misdeeds do not cast a pall on independent research with sound methods. 

But what is important to note here, and the silver lining, I think, is that we are seeing science working.  This is exactly what the diligent application of double blind controls, multiple trials, and repeatability are supposed to do in science.  The point of science is to root mistakes and falsehoods out aggressively. 

Science is no respecter of persons.  It establishes nothing on the basis of authority, or reputation.  Nor is it a source of dogma, or officially sanctioned doctrine.  Everything should be continually subjected to the most stringent levels of skepticism we can muster because it is only after a hypothesis has been subjected to this process and survived that we can attach some degree of certainty or probability to it.  Since we are so prone to exaggeration, enthusiasm, the allure of lucrative research grants, and just plain mistakes, we have to police ourselves. 

And there we can see the inherent superiority of the scientific method for discovering truths about the world over traditional religious methods.  Religions traditions are built around established truth claims that are beyond reproach.  Certain doctrinal claims such as “God is real,” “Jesus Christ is the son of God,” or “God provides salvation to those who seek it,” are fixed within the known for believers.  Of course, some doubts, some questioning are permitted, and even encouraged in some rare cases.  But ultimately it is the set of alleged truth claims that are the foundation of the whole enterprise.  If those turn out to be wrong, the entire edifice crashes down. 

Science is not about a fixed body of truth claims, its essence is the application of a method that has proven to be the best one we have for attaching any degree of confidence to a claim about what is real in the world.  Repeatability, openness, objectivity, impartiality, and critical scrutiny are the central principles, whereas all too often they are treated as vices in religious contexts.  (Consider the internal policies regarding the treatment of child molestation cases in the Catholic Church for a poignant illustration here.) 

For the believer, the Hauser case raises this penetrating question:  is the environment I am in that ordinarily fosters believing--church, clergy, friends, and family-- one that encourages enough skepticism and objectivity to expose error in my religious beliefs?  If I am wrong about God or my religion, am I in the sort of intellectual surroundings that would help me discover such a serious mistake?  Or am I in an epistemic environment that would continue to foster belief in me no matter what the truth? 

If your answer to that last question is “yes,” then you should decide on your priorities:  Do I want to believe that which is justified and hence more likely to be true, or do I want to elevate the importance of dogma and doctrine over truth and reasonableness?   Hauser can be grateful for the science’s keeping him on the straight and narrow.  

Monday, July 5, 2010


In the latter half of the 20th century, an important development in religious epistemology changed the sort of debate that theists and atheists have been having.  This much was not new:  for centuries, when believers were confronted with challenges, it has become common to simply deny that evidence, reason, logic, arguments, or justifications are relevant or applicable to something as marvelous and transcendent as God.  That anti-intellectual and arational trend in religious circles has been tempered by a more sober view in natural theology that God’s existence and nature can be known and understood through reason and that successful arguments for God’s existence can be given. 

But for many, including people who were once in the tradition, the natural theological project is dead.  The vast majority of philosophers, even ones who believe, do not think that a successful argument for God’s existence can be given.  Knowledge of God can be had by other less conventional methods, however.  Plantinga and the reformed epistemologists now claim that they know God by way of an inner voice, a sensus divinitatus, or the “witness of the Holy Spirit,” that informs them of God directly, non-inferentially, and they say, the knowledge comes in a way that external appeals to evidence, reason, or empirical facts cannot undermine.  The details need not concern us here. 

What should concern all of us, theists and atheists alike, is a strong disposition in human beings to get caught up in an ideology that renders us incapable of reasoning clearly, particularly about that ideology itself.  Beware of positions, like conspiracy theories, that build answers to why they don’t appear to be true into the essential claims of the ideology itself.  We are organic beings, with kludgey equipment that is prone to go off the rails frequently.  Given our fallible cognitive faculties, it is an enormous challenge to sustain any level of intellectual freedom and cognitive integrity.  We’re more prone by our natures to get it wrong, and get it wrong in a big way, than to get it right. 

One of the ways that an ideology infects our minds and consume us is by exploiting our propensity to explain away any counter evidence in order to hang onto views we are emotionally commited to.  We’ve all seen it, of course, and we’ve all felt the urge to hold onto some pet idea even when it is clear that it’s a mistake. 

But the nature of this impulse is coming into focus with recent efforts in empirical psychology.  Geoffrey Munro of Towson University recently showed that when we are confronted with scientific, empirical evidence that challenges a position we favor, we are more likely to reject science altogether and claim that it cannot be employed to address questions of that type at all. The Scientific Impotence Excuse:  Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts.  Munro took test subjects with views about stereotypes, such as homosexuality.  Subjects were tested beforehand to determine what views they held.  Then they were given fake abstracts of scientific studies that purported to either prove or disconfirm the stereotype.  So some studies indicated that homosexuals had a higher rate of mental illness, for example, while others indicated that their rate of mental illness was lower.  Not surprisingly, the subjects who read abstracts that supported their preconceived views concluded that their views had been vindicated.  But something remarkable happened with the the subjects who had their prior views challenged.  Rather than acknowledge that they were mistaken and change their minds, these subjects were much more likely to conclude that proving (or disproving) the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science.  They rejected science itself, rather than give up their cherished idea. 

Contradictions, counter-indications, improbabilities bother us.  They create cognitive dissonance.  See The Forbidden Conclusion.  Our minds need resolution to the conflict.  One way (the poor way, in this case) is to just reject the source of information that is creating the dissonance.  If scientific methods themselves are suspect, then there is less strain on my belief system when I continue to hold views that it rejects. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to have a more coherent, less contradictory worldview. Quite the contrary, we should all be doing more of that.  But the model of reality that we construct in our heads should be as consonant and responsive to as many of the known facts as possible.  One can have a highly internally consistent picture of reality that is detached from reality.  But what we should be striving to do is to incorporate as much of what known into whatever worldview we adopt. 

We can imagine some scheme whereby one of the subjects in the study might think their way out of the problem.  “Sure, this authentic looking and authoritative sounding scientific study says that homosexuals have a lower rate of mental illness, but I know different from my own experience.”  (Other studies have demonstrated how strong our tendency is to accept anecdotal and personal experience over abstract, scientific analyses.  See Jonathan Baron's  Thinking and Deciding.  But what our subject has failed to realize is how unreliable reasoning about general epidemiological and stratitistical trends from personal and anecdotal evidence can be.  Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method.  So it should have lead him to reject his prior view, not science itself. 

The application to religious belief is obvious.  Sustaining the view that there is an invisible, undetectable, almighty, all knowing, and infinitely loving being who exists in another plain of reality from ours is incredibly difficult in an age where science has shown us so much and when naturalism has “won” as the theologians lament.  Believing in God cannot be had easily or readily given the other things we know.  So for many people who believe, the answer is to simply reject the source that is telling them different. 

Recently in some of the debates about the resurrection, beleivers confronted me with the works of N.T. Wright, a Christian historical apologist.  One of Wright’s theses is that the New Testament Jews simply could not have come up with the idea of a bodily resurrection on their own.  The only way they would have ever produced the idea is if Jesus himself gave it to them by actually returning from the dead.  Wright presents a masterful argument filled with historical arguments and citations.  As long as the historical evidence appears to be in favor of his view, he’s eager to employ its methods.  But deep within his works, the truth about his commitment to historical methods and the resurrection comes out.  Ultimately when he is faced with serious historical challenges to making the case for the resurrection, Wright recommends that the real problem is the historical method and that we should put the belief in Jesus first. 

“If we attempt to argue for the historical truth of the resurrection on standard historical grounds, have we not allowed historical method, perhaps including its hidden Enlightenment roots, to become lord, to set the bounds of what we know, rather than allowing God himself, Jesus himself, and indeed the resurrection itself, to establish not only what we know but how we can know it?” (Jesus' Resurrection and Christian Origins)

That is, since we  know that Jesus was real, then we can be assured that the only acceptable historical methods for proving that Jesus was real must be ones that prove that he was real.  If our historical methods do not produce the correct conclusion, then it must be the methods, not the conclusion that are wrong. 

Wright gives us just one example of an academic scholar dressing the fallacy up to make it seem more presentable.  Putting lipstick on the pig, as it were.  The other instances of the comparable mistake in the religious rationalizations are countless. 

The hazards of simply rejecting reality when it doesn’t suit our preferences should be equally obvious.  The Munro study gives us a stern warning about the cognitive pitfalls we are prone to, and the application to religious cases shows us how seductive a supernatural ideology can be. 

Frequently, people make the charge against atheism or science that it is some form of religious faith too.  Perhaps they are thinking that if science is just as much an ideology, then there’s nothing so wrong with adopting an equally groundless religious one instead.  That would be a mistake.  But more important, what Munro and Wright show us is that there is a fundamental difference between science and religion that people are missing.  The point of religiousness is to believe particular doctrinal claims.  Believing is the whole point of religiousness as Wright’s drawing his line in the sand makes clear.  But science is a method for acquiring beliefs that is neutral with regard to what they are.  It tells us how to confirm or disconfirm what we think might be true.  Much of what religious institutions strive to do is to implant belief and then equip us with the means to reject anything that would conflict with them.  Preachers, priests, and rabbis cultivate believing of certain claims in their flocks.  Their charges are in need of protection; they need their faith strengthened against doubts that would undermine them.  Sermons, prayers, devotionals, and cermonies serve to fortify beliefs and behaviors in them that would not be sustained otherwise.  Doubt, criticisms, and objections are the point of the scientific method.  Finding reasons to reject a hypothesis makes it possible for us to make some provisional claims about what is true.  Without some methodological procedure for vetting hypotheses and separating the good from the bad, we can’t claim to have any justification for them.  The method of doubting is what justifies and keeps the floodgates of failed views closed.