And Yet You
Call Me 'Rigid'
Dave

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave"
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 03, 2001 3:22 AM

We appreciate the time you took to provide for us the classic responses to the biblical discrepancies we offered as examples. It makes sense that you would immediately latch on to those as being the issues I raised that you could handle: They were cribbed from McKinsey's book, which itself was derived by studying those books which the Christians publish along the lines of "answers to the tough questions about the Bible" or "explanations of Bible difficulties"! These responses are the common ones we would expect to hear.

But your responding to them serves only to reiterate our initial point that some apologists will go to great lengths to "prove" their presupposition that the Bible is inerrant. The only example I will show is the classic presto-change-o they always pull with the meaning of the word die in Genesis 3. Are we to assume that God knew that they knew that God knew that they would understand that He didn't really have the obvious meaning of the word in mind? This ruse is so common that logicians have actually given it a name: Equivocation.

Furthermore, your particular application of Equivocation is so common that we use it as one of our examples.

Thus I reiterate my initial stand: As long as your religious views remain private, I remain unwilling to object to your religious expression. But as soon as you make an empirical claim in the public forum, my obligation is to assess and test that claim. If, in fact, your claim passes all my tests (that is, if your comprehensive body of reasons that I ought to believe the Christian claim passes my battery of scrutiny), then I would, of course, become a Christian in the interest of following truth wherever she may lead.

Since it is impossible to disprove an empirical claim for the existence of something, the onus to prove is on the one making the claim. In this sense, the atheist is at a disadvantage, depending upon the theist to make a case that the atheist can find acceptable. The atheist cannot present an empirical case for the nonexistence of God. (It is for this reason that you don't find much on our website in the way of trying to prove that God doesn't exist; most of what we have to say on the subject is restricted to our responses to the claims that theists have made, and most of that consists of why we fail to find those arguments worthy of our assent.)

However, if the arguments you use to bolster your claims fail to pass our scrutiny, you are, in all fairness, morally obligated not only to stop teaching these claims as empirically true, but you're also morally obligated to renounce your faith! I am ready to convert should you prevail; are you ready to become a non-Christian should you fail to make a solid case worthy of assent?

Because I seriously doubt that you would be willing to go this far, I really don't care to discuss the god-question. That certainly is not the purpose of this Forum or even this website. The Genesis points were made by way of introducing the statement, "I reject the creationists' alternative proposals," and were there to show that the biblical accounts have serious problems to the point where even those who believe them cannot agree as to what they mean. If those who believe them cannot agree as to what they mean, then you've got a long way to go before I will give assent to those claims! That's all I was trying to say by putting those there; I really didn't expect that you would provide a defense for these examples of how creationists do not agree with one another.

Thus, my original request still holds: perhaps we do best to stick to working on those things which we can agree are important. Perhaps you might wish to tackle the atheists' latest dilemma: What is the proper response of an atheist to our President's decision to direct the religious exercises of his constituents? We atheists do not pray, and for him to suggest that we do is highly undignified, bordering on offensive (not to mention illegal). I'm sure you've met some Christians, even, who would likewise be offended because they think Jesus wants them to pray in private -- in the "closet," as the Sermon on the Mount puts it. But, what can we do now that President Bush has used a national emergency as an excuse to set a dangerous precedent which is sure to be used to further erode the Religious Liberties of atheists? It is subjects such as this that I would prefer discussing and working on, because if the two of us cannot agree even on why I presented these Genesis dilemmas, then I doubt we will get very far with Genesis itself! What do you say we tackle the Religious Liberty problem being posed by President Bush's open and unashamed disregard both for his oath of office and our Constitution?

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave"
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 03, 2001 8:03 PM

You still don't get my point with the Bible errors -- or are you deliberately doing this in order to inject confusion into the conversation? Let me say it one more time:

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If Christians themselves cannot even agree as to what these passages mean, why should I give them my assent and call them the truth? Even Christians do not agree among themselves regarding either their meaning or their veracity.

 

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This is precisely the slander, daily heaped upon atheists by way of the Forum pages of my web site and many other venues, that I have erected my web site to fight. The bigotry exists in ample measure and has at least since the 14th Psalm was written. All you need to do is erect a web site which prominently features the word atheism and that bigotry will come your way at an astonishing rate and in unbelievable portions. Guaranteed.

Thus, I want you to point to something within the body of editorial content (my editorials; my responses to Letters; the FAQ pieces) which fits the description of "[me] trying so desperately to prove" anything! Specifically, show me one single instance of me trying or desiring to deconvert a theist to atheism (as opposed to simply meeting the unsolicited challenges which come here to our Inbox in a constant stream -- despite the fact that we've specifically asked theists to refrain from trying to convert us).

Show me!

It has been my entire point since starting this project that we have nothing to say to theists except to the Evangelical ones, and that is to please leave us alone unless you wish to join us in our quest to fight some of the real problems we all face! Aside from that, we are here seeking an audience of atheists and seek to publish a magazine and maintain an web site which meet the needs and desires of atheists. We have nothing -- absolutely nothing to say to a theist except please leave us alone because we don't want to join you either in your folly or your bigotry.

At most, we will meet the incessant challenges dished out by those theists who have appointed themselves as the ones charged with the responsibility of straightening out the rest of the world. We will show why the argument does not warrant my assent. But that is as far as it's even worth going because we don't give a rat what a theist thinks or what a theist does with his or her life! Never have we tried to change a theist. In fact, in most cases, we detect such a pronounced absence of honesty and morality on the part of the theist (particularly Christians and Twelve-Steppers) that we wouldn't really want to see that person stumping for our side!

Unless you can show me trying to deconvert a theist, I insist on an apology for that remark. And, until we can get this one behind us, I am unwilling to discuss anything else with you. My whole point in doing this work, as I mentioned when I met you in person, is to counter the very slander you have chosen to dish out, subtly within the second round of exchanges with us and overtly within the third round. Our purpose is to fight the bigotry, not to convert people to atheism or even to defend the atheistic position.
 

To answer your question what hope do we have, reader Landis Schmitt, whom I consider a friend though we have never met, did a good job of expressing those ideas toward which I can only grope. So I leave you to chew on his thoughts, and see why I only bother with trying to end the bigotry. I really don't care what most Evangelical Christians do with their one opportunity to exist (as long as I don't have to watch):

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My favorite all-time Guru, R. Crumb's Mr. Natural, sums it all up very simply. When asked, "What does it all mean, Mr. Natural?" He responds, "It don't mean sheeit! So there we have it. Thousands of lives were wiped out in an instant. Billions of people around the world must examine their own mortality and ask the question, "what does it all mean?" The truth is that in the history of time, it will mean nothing. Thousands of years from now, it will be but a footnote in history for those who are alive. Millions of years later even that history will be obliviated in the mass destruction of Earth when the Sun expands prior to its own death. All that ever was or ever will be on this earth will vanish into the void.

So how do we deal with this now? By living each moment of our lives with an appreciation for the great gift of life. Love and respect our fellow humans and enjoy our short time on this earth. Probably, there is no life beyond the one we have now, and if true, what a marvelous, extraordinarily rare gift it is to live.

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If that does not take you to the core of your very existence, perhaps I could suggest Richard Dawkins' "To Live At All Is Miracle Enough":

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This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century'. Interestingly, some physicists don't like the idea of a 'moving present', regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

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I have been pondering along these lines since I was a little boy -- the single-digit years. And you want me to scrutinize the meaning of the word die in an ancient scroll that not only gives every indication of being the barbaric myth of a primitive tribe but is, in my opinion, patently abhorrent in its expression of morality? I don't think so. Life is way too wonderfully awesome and awe-inspiring for me to dust it away like that! Besides, how could I face myself if, after all is said and done, I realized in a single instant that I had spent my only chance to live by telling people that falsehood is true? especially if the myth for which I had advocated was not even my idea to begin with but was somebody else's entirely! No, I could never do that. I won't try to stop you from doing that with your life, because you are the only one who rightly decides how your life will be lived. But please do not entertain the notion that I will be willing to waste my life away like that. It's the only one I get and I'm going to do what I can to make this world a better place for my having existed, because once I'm gone, that'll be all that's left of me: what good I have left behind.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave"
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 04, 2001 4:50 AM

I side-stepped your entire previous letter because I need to get past that remark you made before I can talk about anything else. If it looks as though we may be making some headway in that regard, feel free to rephrase those questions.

Do you understand that I've been sitting here for 14 hours and have only gotten about an hour's worth of work done on the print edition because since the George Bush thing, our e-mail is taking in about 200 pieces per day? Because of what he did, many columnists and Hollywood figures are writing and saying extremely crude things about atheists -- genuine bigotry, not what you think I called you (but did not).

Slander? Easy: You falsely portray me as trying to disprove something that I have in no way tried to disprove -- after having listened to me tell you that I don't do that, that that is not my motive for doing this work.

All things being equal as far as provability goes, you would still consider your viewpoint superior to mine (regardless of whether or not either of us could prove our respective cases). Where I differ is that were it not for the sheer absence of provability of the Christian case, I might actually become a Christian simply because I don't like being the victim of bigotry; becoming a Christian would end that problem in less than a minute. Unfortunately, truth means more to me than comfort: I would not even tell people that Jesus is the Lord even if doing so earned me an eternity of pleasure, even if not doing so earned me an eternity of pain. I would not tell people that Jesus is the Lord unless I had sufficient reason to think that what I was telling people was, in fact, the truth.

I am not accusing you of deliberately doing these things: the bigotry that we encounter is so thoroughly institutionalized that most Americans who do it don't even realize what they're doing. Also, much of it is so deeply rooted in biblical teaching that to accuse many of our more fundamentalistic Christian neighbors of being bigoted is tantamount to accusing them of obeying the commands of Christ, because some of what Christ is alleged to have said, if taken literally, is patently bigoted. The Christ of the Gospels was one of the more exclusivistic religious leaders in history. This is particularly tough when you're an atheist trying to be treated fairly in times of peace. And forget about being treated fairly in these "times of war." The only reason we're not being attacked and killed is because the Muslim-Americans have become our scape-goats for the moment. I am not happy about this at all, and wish there were some way to help a certain sector of Americans unlearn what Christian Fundamentalism has taught them.

For examples of what I mean by institutionalized bigotry (setting us aside as inferior and then making it clear to us that they feel this way), look up "You Are On Our Prayer List: We Will Pray For You Always" in our FAQ.

Please understand that my position on that FAQ is entirely theoretical and does not in any sense reflect how I act toward people in real life: I was simply making a point with this guy; I was simply trying to show the bigotry inherent in the act of announcing to an atheist that one is praying for that person (especially if the only thing you know about that person is their atheism). The letter from which that was derived, in case you want to observe an extremely heart-rending exercise in futility, is "We Will Pray For You Always" with Cam Pearl.

You are biased (bigoted) in portraying me as "rigid" and "not openminded" when the truth is that you don't know diddly squat about what I've gone through in my examination of the claims of the Christian religion. You don't know me well enough to know what work I've done in trying to track down the history of the Christian religion. Thus, to call me "rigid" and "not open-minded" at this point in the discussion is rightly seen as little more than a bluff to try to throw me off by forcing me to defend myself against the (false) charge of "rigidness" and "not being openminded."

This almost sounds as if you might be trying to divert focus away from your own rigid adherence to the Christian faith and your own lack of open-mindedness toward anything that even hints of being an attack on a specific nineteenth-century theory of biblical inspiration, literalism, and inerrancy which, to you, is probably as much of a litmus test for your faith and your faithfulness as are the post-Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, post-Calcedonian Christology of Christ being fully God and fully human, the post-Reformation Protestant soteriology of faith and grace, and a number of other teachings.

These ideas (which you'd probably die defending) are not even your own ideas, but are someone else's ideas entirely. I'd wager that you would never have come up with these teachings had you been placed in a cell, given a Bible and a pad of paper and a box of golf pencils, and instructed to come up with the equivalent of a unified theory of the Bible. You had to have learned these ideas from books and lectures and the like. Your ability to defend them does not (and cannot) go beyond what has been written in the classic apologetics manuals available at most Evangelical Bible stores. Very little comes in the way of new ways to discuss and defend these tenets: once I've covered a certain, very limited range of ideas, there's really nothing more for me to say about it.

And yet you call me "rigid."

Does the possibility exist that I might have spent as many hours examining certain specific claims made by Christians as you have spent examining the entire Christian religion?

Could it be that I have so thoroughly investigated certain questions that I know precisely what it would take to change my mind on a given question? (This is one of the key elements of scientific method: "What would it take to overthrow this position?")

Could it be that I have heard certain Christian arguments so many times now that I can, in some cases, even tell you which book they came from?

And yet, when you rattle off these same arguments that I've not only gone over time and time again but are, in several instances, already addressed on my web page, you accuse me of not being "open-minded." When I tell you, in all honesty, that I did not intend to open that discussion but was making a different point entirely, you accuse me of not being "open-minded" for refusing to spend what precious little time I have these days discussing something that not even the readers want to go over again, much less myself.

No.

For me to tell you that I am not open to fielding claims that Santa Claus exists (and flies through the air on a sleigh guided by eight tiny reindeer) does not indicate any closed-mindedness on my part:

First, anybody who wants to try to convince me that Santa exists is required by the rules of logic to bring forth the strong and convincing argument. In lieu of a convincing case from the Santanist, the listener is perfectly justified in issuing either a polite chuckle or a boisterous belly laugh. That's just how logic works: if this were not so, then I would be forced to believe the claims of the Santanist precisely because I cannot disprove his claims! But since logic demands that the one making the claim be the one responsible for proving his case, we do not have to face this dilemma regarding any preposterous (or not-so-preposterous) claim that some joker might hurl our way.

Secondly, some claims would not only be possible but actually likely, while other claims are so utterly unlikely as to border on the absurd. For example, if somebody claimed that a new herb had been discovered which would cure my liver disease, I'd drop everything and go see what testing had been done and look at the mechanics of how they claim this stuff works. Why? Because my liver is being ravaged by a virus, and several times we have discovered a substance which may not harm me but will kill off a virus. This happens often enough that nobody would raise an eyebrow if I even went down and started ingesting the stuff without looking into the studies that have been done.

But let's say somebody claimed they found an herb that would cure my back condition. Wha --? You mean to tell me that swallowing an herb will effect the realignment of my spinal column? (reduce the pain, maybe, but --). Oh, yes, this herb has been shown to realign spinal columns that have been displaced both by injury and by birth defect. Scientists from around the world are lauding this new remedy, but Western Medicine refuses to recognize it because the herb is so common that they could never make money from it. Well, for a chemical to effect the physical realignment of bones and soft tissue that six years of chiropractic work couldn't touch would be quite a feat -- so much of one that I'm not even going to waste my time listening to just one herb peddler talk about it. Now, if we had many, many studies and the mechanics of how this worked were the talk of several branches of medicine, that would be a different story. But for now, I can reasonably rest on the sheer unlikelihood of a chemical reaction affecting something physical such as the alignment of bones and soft tissue that are so tightly packed the way they are that even physical force has not dislodged them.

Noted philosophy professor Michael Scriven describes two degrees of evidential support: particular evidential support and general evidential support. Think of the claim that Loch Ness Monster exists. While it would be impossible for me to disprove this claim, I have valid reason for holding strong doubts as to these claims, and particularly for requiring extraordinarily strong evidence before granting my assent to this claim. The Loch Ness Monster Existential Claim (LoNMonEC) lacks particular evidential support because nobody has seen Nessie, despite numerous excursions, lately in specialized submarines, as well as other forms of testing. LoNMonEC, however, does not lack general evidential support because new species of fauna are being discovered all the time. In the case of LoNMonEC, only the fact that so many people have diligently searched and come up with nothing justifies undue skepticism on my part.

Now let's get back to Santa Claus claim: Santa, we are told, flies through the air in a magical sleigh guided by eight tiny reindeer. Santa and his sleigh (according to the Santanists) visit each Western household which has children in it, wherein he climbs down the chimney and delivers packages to each child. Furthermore (are you ready for this?), Santa accomplishes this feat over the course of a single night. A physics publication described this scenario in terms of joules of heat absorbed by the front pair of reindeer during the first 0.001 seconds and concluded that the force pinning Santa to the back of the sleigh upon acceleration during such a feat would "instantly [crush] his bones and organs and [reduce] him to a quivering blob of pink goo.... Therefore, if Santa did exist, he's dead now." This is a five paragraph piece basically explaining that the Santa of the Santa Claus myth is physically impossible.

So, for the Santa myth to gain my assent, it would need to overcome both forms of lack of evidential support. Not only have we no reliable reports of Santa having been sighted, nor has anybody shaken his hand (or shaken him down -- he likes 'em young, you know, and he's reputed to be a peeper). In order to verify that he has performed these extraordinary feats we would need to overturn much of what we know about science and physics. To abolish an entire school of science would require quite an arsenal of evidence, plus experimental predictions, plus a replacement theory with greater explanatory power than that being replaced. The new Theory of Santation would need to explain all of regular physics at least as accurately as we can explain it today, having the same or similar predictive powers. In addition to regular physics, the Theory of Santation would need to be able to explain the Santa Phenomenon: How does the real Santa accomplish these feats in one night and yet live to tell about it? Finally, the Theory of Santation would need to become accepted by the greater part of the body of scientists around the world -- that's how compelling than the old school of thought the new Theory of Santation would need to be!

When engaging in the fray of the public forum of ideas, where claims are made for the purpose of gaining people's allegiance toward certain ideas, no idea is "sacred." Every idea is subject to the same degree of scrutiny that any idea would be subject to, and nobody is in a position to be the arbiter of fact vs. fiction. In fact, what makes scientific method such a powerfully moral system is that a scientist submits her claims to the scientific community expressly for the purpose of inviting her peers to scrutinize her work! And if, after that scrutiny, the community makes a good case that her idea does not hold water, she has agreed beforehand to submit to the results of that scrutiny.

This is much better than the literalist interpretation of the first stone tablets: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor." What? What about those who are not my neighbor (that is, my fellow religionists)? Are they fair game? Also, what about simple lies, simple misrepresentations of truth rather than the viciously destructive "false witness against somebody" variety?

No, I'd rather follow truth wherever it may lead at whatever the cost. I've found that it's no way to win friends and influence people at the local Church Potluck, but it's a system of ethics that I can live with: I can go to sleep at night and I can wake up and look myself in the mirror and know that I'm doing the best I can with what I've got.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave"
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 05, 2001 12:43 AM

I told you that I never even read that far in the letter! I couldn't get past that remark!

And here is one that's similar, one that assumes without knowing.

So, then, you act as if all claims of fact are subject to being overthrown, that the sentence "Jesus is the Lord" might some day be shown to be false.

And you act as if nobody -- no book, no institution, no group of people, no entity of any kind -- has special access to the truth which is not available to anybody else, thereby qualifying them to be arbiters of the truth.

I'm sure, then, that in submitting to scientific method and practicing it in your philosophical life, you consider every one of your own statements as if you were submitting them to your peers specifically for the purpose of hoping that your peers (your fellow humans) will show you to be in error!

I'm sorry to hear this, because you indicated that you really want to be a Christian of the Evangelical variety. You even have your career tied up in this desire (if I understand your meaning of "youth minister").

Precisely twenty years ago, I was making that very same mistake. I thought that the Gospel of Christ would surely withstand any test that I could bring its way. Josh McDowell had made this challenge when I met him, and I believed that he believed what he was saying. I even bought all the "Bible Difficulties"-type books I could find, assured that the Bible could withstand anything I dished out.

Unfortunately, my parents -- atheists -- taught me a profound respect for truth. Both working in science-related fields, they taught me to follow truth wherever it may lead, and to not back down no matter how much it hurts. They taught me this both in words and by the example of their lives. How they trained me taught me things that they could not have conceived I'd go through.

What happened was this: Almost every so-called explanation in the "Bible Difficulties" books was easily shown to be a perfect strain. It reached the point where I seriously considered writing my own "Bible Difficulties" book just so Christians would have one that doesn't contain gloms, one that at least put on the pretence of honesty! And this happened not only with the "Bible Difficulties" aspect of my studies but at every turn. Almost every test that I gave to the Bible and to my faith (my religion) came up wanting: The Bible didn't even have a good time with the easy tests!

Still, I kept hanging on to the likelihood that I didn't know everything. I kept remembering that as a human, born in sin, my judgement might be impaired -- although human fallibility is precisely what scientific method is designed to address. And this was unfortunate (for my faith) because every time I came face-to-face with the prospect of my own fallibility (that is, every time I failed to find a way to know that the Bible is true), my upbringing in the basic morality of liberal scientific method pushed me further and further away from what it takes to be a strong Christian: faith! Scientific method, designed to force us to question even our own senses and our own findings (much less what another person had told us), gave me the one thing that would surely spell the end of my religiosity: doubt!

I can only hope that you have enough skills to find a real job should the same thing happen to you. However, I am not too concerned for your sake: most Fundamentalist Christians I've known to say things like this have turned out, upon examination, to be giving lip-service to some vague notion of "science." When called upon to rate the known and alleged methods for obtaining knowledge, such Christians will readily grant supremacy to "faith" as such a method, even going so far as to trust "faith" as more reliable than science in certain matters. Scientific method, on the other hand, deliberately posits human reason as the only arbiter of knowledge, and deliberately presupposes that nobody has any kind of "in" when it comes to obtaining knowledge.

Science is absolutely democratic in this sense: if somebody from Duane T. Gish's organization were to show, using the methods of liberal science, that evolution not only does not explain the origins of species but that the biblical account of Genesis has greater predictive power even than evolution, we would be forced to go along with that activist's findings. Unfortunately for the body of human knowledge, only about a half-dozen Creationists have even tried to make such a showing! Out of the tens of thousands of papers that evolutionists have submitted, we still don't have any papers to scrutinize even to show them wrong, much less to show them right! Rather than submitting to the game rules of liberal scientific method, the Creationists have created their own set of methods to which they have given the unfortunate (and very confusing) name of "science."

So now we have two completely different methods which various people have called by the same name: "science." What adds further confusion to this whole mess is that the Creationists make every effort in trying to show that their "science" is no different from traditional liberal scientific method (which is why I so often go to the trouble of writing out "liberal scientific method" so that there's no confusion as to which "science" I refer). The traditional scientists, on the other hand, are quick to show how the "science" of the Creationists is not even close to the "science" of liberal scientific method and appears to be designed, they tell us, to make it possible to argue the Creationist case.

As one who calls himself "a believer in the [scientific] process," I trust you will be able to explain to me what you mean when you use the word "proven" in the above statement. Creationists tend to be fond of getting funny with the definitions of certain words when discussing these issues, and one of those words is proof or the verb to prove. When examined, their definition of this word almost always turns out to be the familiar anecdotal usage, resembling legal proof, as in a court case, rather than how, for example, members of the National Academy of Sciences would define this word as it applies to science.

Also, as one who calls himself "a believer in the [scientific] process," I am surprised that you would take the very bold stand of suggesting that something cannot be proven! This is most unusual for someone who calls himself "a believer in the [scientific] process" (excepting, of course, Christian creationists, who use a completely different understanding of "science" than would members of the Royal Society)! Perhaps there really is something to this "faith" business, because most scientists, I would think, would be very cautious about placing themselves in a position of having to defend this claim.
 

Aha! I suspected as much!

To say that the Big Bang Theory is "just a theory" is to betray a pronounced ignorance as to how scientists define the word "theory" when applying it to science!

Once again I find myself having to make the same suggestion (and having to make this suggestion, one more time, in the face of my opponent having insisted that I make a concession).

My suggestion to you is this: I strongly recommend that you get an education.

Furthermore, I sincerely urge you (anyone, for that matter) to obtain your science education from the science department of a major, nonsectarian university (or at least obtain your understanding of science from a recognized scientist or philosopher of science).

It is crucial that your understanding of science come from those who work in this field because there are groups and individuals out there in whose best interest it is for you to have a muddied understanding of what science is and is not. If you lack a clear understanding of what science is and what are its limitations, that is, if you have a false understanding of science (particularly if that false understanding corresponds to what these groups and individuals would want you to believe), then it is much more likely that you will unwittingly work toward accomplishing their goals of thwarting genuine human progress which, in science, always revolves around human Liberty. Many powerful groups (most notably organized religion) desperately wish to take away the American institution of human Liberty and replace it with some other concept which will inevitably give the organized religion political power and political and economic advantage.

They don't care one way or the other about Liberty, they just want the power and the money. And one way they have discovered which is very effective is to misrepresent science and, in some cases, set up a pretend "science" in the place of real science in the hope that the public will think that their understanding of "science" is what has so successfully ended so many aspects of human misery through its ability to make predictions about our environment. Liberal scientific method makes the accurate predictions and a pretence for science takes the credit! How's that for honesty and morality!?

So, since you tell me that the Big Bang Theory is "just a theory," I strongly suspect that you have been taken in by what I would consider to be false science. I doubt that any member of the National Academy of Sciences or the Royal Society would use language in describing anything as "just a theory," since the term theory, in science, indicates that we are dealing with a knowledge claim that has one of the strongest claims to likelihood available to a knowledge claim. In any event, a scientist would be very unlikely to use this word in the same sense that a trial lawyer would use it, when he asks the witness, "Well, that's an interesting theory but what does it have to do with the facts?" No. This is absolutely the opposite of what the word theory means when a scientist uses it.

Thus, when you use the word theory this way, I am alerted to the strong likelihood that you know very little about scientific method. Furthermore, that you would use the word theory in this sense in a philosophical argument gives us a strong indication that you have exposed yourself to those wiley characters who would misrepresent science to the public and to their followers and supporters expressly for the purpose of gaining political and economic advantage (exploitation). Finally, that you would use the word theory this way in a philosophical argument wherein you called upon your opponent to make a concession along the lines of this misunderstanding of the meaning and use of the word theory shows a pronounced level of arrogance on your part: you don't know much about science and you know it, yet you insist that I make concessions to your (extremely flawed) understanding of science!

Hah! To someone with no faith in the Bible, divine creation does not even come close to becoming a theory because it has absolutely no predictive power! To be a theory, a claim must show itself to have predictive power. It because creationism has no predictive power that we find only a dozen or so creationists have even submitted papers to refereed journals.

The "science" that the creationists are dealing with does not even resemble traditional science and the creationists know this! that's why they refrain from submitting their "findings" to the public scrutiny of their peers! Instead, they have set up their own separate societies (more than one, actually, because the creationists cannot even agree amongst themselves regarding something as simple as the age of the Earth). These creationist societies will not allow just anybody to participate in the process; instead, one must sign a "statement of faith" declaring that the member already believes the basic tenets of that society's particular spin on creationism.

The whole point of liberal scientific method, on the other hand, is that anybody -- anybody -- is qualified to try to overthrow the dominant paradigm in any field of science! This is how a lowly patent clerk was able to turn the science of physics on its ear (he had the evidence and arguments to back his case, of course); this is how a youthful graduate student was able to make major changes in the science of astronomy. Even a Fundamentalist Christian creationist is welcome to try to topple the Theory of Evolution. She or he must do so within the context of how any new piece of knowledge becomes accepted as a valid claim to knowledge, and even then, even if she or he should prevail, the new paradigm is always subject to being overturned by newer evidence.

The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences elect their members based on those members' accomplishments, not their positions on certain issues. Richard Dawkins was not admitted to the Royal Society because he is an evolutionist but for his accomplishments in furthering science as a whole. But these are private societies: anybody -- anybody -- is allowed to bring forth evidence in an attempt to overthrow the now very widely accepted Big Bang Theory or the almost universally accepted Theory of Evolution. One who endeavors to do this has his work cut out for him, indeed, but nobody is going to laugh and say, "Pshaw!" without at least looking at that person's argument and examining the evidence. Of course, if the argument is along the lines of saying, "The Big Bang Theory is just a theory," then you are likely to hear howls of laughter from these otherwise dignified bodies of men and women. But they will let you submit papers to the refereed journals.

However, as I mentioned, the creationists are not doing that: they have not submitted their claims of knowledge to the scrutiny of the rest of the scientific community. They don't have to, because what they do is not science at all. What they do is religion, which needs to undergo no human scrutiny whatsoever, and is the consensus of people (usually men) who have already pledged allegiance to a preconception before they are even given an opportunity to voice their opinions. And, of course, if they must already believe before joining, before being given an opportunity to examine the evidence, then you can safely predict what they will say is the result of their findings. That's how religion works. It's not, however, how science works.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Dave"
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 06, 2001 2:51 AM

1. Perhaps you're not making yourself clear?

Case in point: in this particular letter, you use only the phrase "the issues at hand" to describe what you're talking about. I'm sorry but I'm an atheist and don't have the First Corinthians 12 "Gift of Knowledge" and must rely on more rudimentary means to obtain my understanding of a given situation.

If you think this might be the case, you do well to repeat yourself. Even if I had a pretty good reason to think that you knew what I was talking about, I'd reiterate it just on General Principle, simply because it makes for polite philosophical discussion.

2. Perhaps you have injected confusion or falsehood or something else into the conversation which will affect the integrity of anything that either of us says until such matters are cleared.

Case in point: the last letter I spent clearing up a certain matter regarding your use of the word theory which indicated to me that you and I are speaking about two entirely different subjects when either of us uses the word science. Thus, I need to make it clear that any discussion between you and I about the subject of "science" will go nowhere because when you say "science" you mean something entirely different from what I mean when I use the same word.

Case in point: the letter before last I spent objecting to a certain indignity, for which I disregarded (and still disregard) the entire remainder of the letter. Anything you said on that letter besides that indignity is not something that I have even read yet -- nor will I read it unless it ever gets posted, in which case, I'll correct any obvious errors I see in it.

3. Perhaps what you consider "issues at hand" are things that I consider "none of your business."

Have you ever heard the Laws of Gravitation becoming the Absolute Fact of the Matter Regarding Gravitation?

I haven't either, and I have been a lay philosopher of science for a couple of decades, now.

Have you ever heard of the Heliocentric Theory of the Solar System becoming the Heliocentric Absolute Fact of the Matter Regarding the Solar System?

I haven't heard of that one myself -- and I've even laughed at the notion of a flat Earth! Can you believe that?

I wonder why it is that the Heliocentric Theory is, as they say, "just a theory," and not "absolute fact."

I wonder why the words theory and law are the strongest terms that scientists use to indicate their confidence in the correctness of a proposition.

I wonder why scientists use these two words, theory and law, in a completely different way than lawyers and judges use them.

I wonder why scientists use these two words, theory and law, in a completely different way than Christian creationists tend to use them in their propaganda. (Why would a creationist religious leader deliberately deceive his own followers, his own Christian brothers, regarding the meanings of these two words as they are used in the field of science? Why would something as easy to discover and verify as the meanings of two words [law and theory as they are used in a particular specialty [science] be so widely misrepresented by a certain class of people [Christian creationists]?)

Onward: I wonder why scientists use these two terms pretty much interchangeably; that is, there really is no rhyme or reason that I or those whose work I've studied can find as to why one was given the name the "Law of Such-and-So" and another was called the "Theory of Whatever-it-Was." The most realistic answer I've heard was that the prefix "law of" sounds better with certain words and the prefix and suffix phrase "theory of" sounds better with other words. Thus, it appears as if the choice is basically one of poetry and aesthetics if there is any rhyme or reason at all. Convention allows the one making the discovery to give the theory or law its name. One thing that is probably not the case is the relative strength with which scientists hold this or that proposition.

Why do you think I've never heard a scientist talk in terms of "absolute fact"? They prefer to say things such as, "This is the best we've been able to come up with at this point in time. As we gain more knowledge, it is conceivable that everything we know about this subject could turn out to be wrong. Now, I'll admit that the likelihood of that happening is very close to zero, but as a scientist, as a person who submits to liberal scientific method, I must leave open the possibility that some whip-start young graduate student could (conceivably) come up with enough evidence to overthrow even this theory."

Why do you think it is that one of the leading particle physicists in the world, Victor J. Stenger, used similar language with me not too long ago, and what he was talking about was the Inflationary Big Bang model of the origin of the Universe?

Why would a fellow who works in that very field -- one of the more productive in that field, I'll add -- use wording like this to describe what you, a preacher, are telling me I should have reason to doubt (but won't volunteer why I ought to doubt)? Do you think you have a case that could convince even Professor Stenger, to send his models back to the drawing board? If you do, I promise you that Professor Stenger would like to hear from you.

One thing that's pretty consistent in all scientists is that they like it when somebody comes by and shoots their pet hypotheses full of holes. Science is the only field I know of where this is the case. For someone to come by and show you that you've been wrong all these years is cause for celebration in science.

So my question remains: What are you trying to say when you ask if the Big Bang is "just a theory"? In light of what the word theory means in science, and in light of how science thinks about absolute anything, what is your point? What are you trying to communicate? You want me to answer your question, but the way you have worded it -- both times -- constitutes a trick question, one which I cannot answer to your satisfaction unless I concede to some falsehood -- of which it is your preconception that I already hold.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Sorry it took so long
Date: October 07, 2001 10:53 AM

I will address this question before I explain why my response to it is completely moot.

Is there something terribly wrong with lending credibility to one's case by using anecdotal evidence from one's own life story? What am I qualified to talk about if not those things which have happened to me? those things with which I've had to live on a moment-by-moment basis? those things that have so obstructed my quality of life that I've been forced to give them quite a bit of thought.

Would you rather I relate to you something that I read in Time Magazine?

I was making a philosophical case. I had a choice: I could tell you about something with which I am intimately familiar and have spent a substantial chunk of my hours pondering, or I could tell you something that somebody else thought and said, something that I read in a book somewhere. Given that choice, I will always tell you about what I know -- about what I know that I know. I will not take my chances with something I read in a book unless I have given that claim a thorough workout and put it through all the tests I know about.

To do otherwise would be both dishonest and disrespectful. It would be dishonest because I would be telling you something is true when I'm not nearly as sure if it's true as I am about something that I could be talking about. It would be disrespectful because I would be giving you secondhand or hearsay information rather than the best that I have to offer: firsthand information and argument, firsthand thinking and reasoning based upon direct experience and gone over again and again throughout the portions of my life during which these things have affected me.
 

Thus far, all the explanations that even begin to make sense to me are those where the alleged "design" of the biological organisms involve absolutely no intelligence, absolutely no compassion, and absolutely no or foresight. I have tried to work these three elements into what I see, and never have I been able to make any of them even start to fit the picture of what I see.

Some people can talk about just how poorly the human body was "designed" and how much utter waste and deprivation there is in the natural world and still insist that a "designer" used intelligence, compassion, and foresight. I've listened to numerous people try to explain to me what they see that prompts them to come to this conclusion, but they never said very much.

Some have speculated that perhaps the majority of the organisms that ever live go through tremendous amounts of pain and suffering just so that they (the people telling me this) could learn to appreciate what they have. Whoever put that lesson plan together is monumentally sadistic.

Others have turned it around and challenged elements of the alternative -- the notion that no intelligent, compassionate, foresighted "designer" exists. They forget that they are the ones who posit the intelligence, compassion, and foresight, and that I simply fail to see how this could be. In attacking the alternative rather than demonstrating what they tell me is the case, they admit to me that they did little if any thinking to lead them to that particular conclusion. Some people, it seems, want to believe a certain way, and no amount of evidence or strong argument will shake them from their pursuit of this particular desire of theirs.
 

When did the Theory of Gravitation graduate to become the Law of Gravitation? When did we reach enough confidence in its predictive powers that we stopped calling it a "theory" and started calling it a "law"?

Why do people today still refer to the "theory of gravitation"? Why did Newton propose his idea as the "Law of Gravitation" in 1687, the very moment he presented his thesis to the scientific world? What was it about his idea that justified his giving it the name "Law of Gravitation," even though such references as Encarta mention "Newton's theory of gravitation" more frequently than they mention "Newton's Law of Gravitation"?

You see, your language here describes an entirely different "science" than what I am used to discussing. I really cannot discuss "science" with you if what you mean by "science" is so vastly different from the conventional understanding. I cannot talk with you about a "scientific theory" whose unique distinction from a "scientific law" is that it is as yet "unproven." That's not what I learned about in school, that's not what they talked about in any of the books I've read, and none of the scientists I've talked with or interviewed spoke that way. You've got a whole different ball game going on, something else entirely, and I'm only interested in the traditional scientific method -- the one which has shown itself to work so effectively at making predictions. The "scientific theories" and "scientific laws" that I know about are not like you describe at all.

As I indicated, I'd be glad to discuss that "science" -- traditional science. But, as we keep seeing, you insist on discussing a whole different kind of "science," a "science" wherein a "theory" is distinguished from a "law" based on one or the other's level of provability -- and gaud doesn't even know what else is in store for us if we continue this conversation.

I cannot make it any more clear than this: I know of no "science" which fits the description you have used in your attempt to refute something that I DID NOT EVEN BRING UP IN THE FIRST PLACE!

This entire conversation has been little more than you baiting me by stating that I "cannot prove" various claims that had not even come out of my mouth at that point! First, you taunted me about not being able to prove that there is no God. Er -- when did I make that claim? at what point in our conversation had I brought that up? Nevertheless, you insisted that I couldn't prove it and even taunted me about this. Now you're telling me that I cannot prove the Big Bang Theory because it's "just a theory" and not a "law" -- but YOU'RE THE ONE WHO BROUGHT UP THE BIG BANG! Not only that, you brought it up just to taunt me by stating that I cannot prove it! I still haven't said anything about the Big Bang besides that I accept one particular version of it as the most likely scenario that I've heard.

Read my letters again: Where do I ever bring up the concept of "proof"? However, your entire understanding of "proof" as pertains to science is so utterly flawed that it has required much time and effort on my part to remove the confusion introduced by your misunderstanding of science and your misuse of scientific concepts. And after I go through the trouble to remove the confusion, you act as if I didn't even say anything! I even challenged you, at one point, to explain to me how this concept relates to traditional science! But you just continue on about how I cannot prove this or that.

Thus, I am withdrawing my participation in this dialogue as it pertains to anything having remotely to do with "science" or "scientific theory" or "scientific law." The Christian understanding of "science" (is that what it is?) is a whole different ball game from the science that I've studied since I was a child.

I have tried to be patient with you, and I have been much more patient with you than I am with most who treat me the way you have treated me. My patience, however, has run out. We cannot talk unless we're speaking the same language and talking on the same terms about the same basic subject and the words we use mean roughly the same thing.
 

Now, here's where we're going on the issues of honesty and integrity: You have stated more than once that you don't know as much about "science" or the meanings of the word theory as I do. So, I take about an hour of my time explaining this to you so we could continue our discussion and know that we were talking about the same thing. (This was time that ought to have been spent trying to get the print edition out, considering that people pay for it.) Nevertheless, I set aside this time in hopes that by explaining to you that in real science, there is really no difference between the words law and theory.

So, I took all that time to tell you this (and to document what I said just in case you thought I might be pulling your leg, although since I don't care what you believe, there's no reason for me to lie to you). And after all that, you come back and insist that:

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I do know, however, that for some reason we have a "law" of gravity (as opposed to a theory of gravity). Without a Law of Big Bang, this explaination for our existence remains a throry -- unproven.

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But you cannot find a science text book that explains how a "theory" is something in science that is "unproven," as opposed to a "law" which, by implication of what you said here, is (I suppose) "proven" (although your prattle, besides being rather unclear, is completely out of kilter with the facts). You cannot find anybody in science who says this. Scientists do not say this about the word theory because it simply IS NOT TRUE. You cannot find anybody in science who is willing to say that the "Law of Gravitation" is so thoroughly "proven" that there's no way it will ever be overturned by newer evidence. You cannot do this.

No claim to scientific knowledge is above scrutiny and even your cherished Law of Gravitation could be proved wrong some day. We must leave ourselves open to that possibility or we're not talking about real science. There is no real distinction between one or the other as far as provability is concerned. If you listed all the "laws" in one column and all the "theories" in another, you would not note any consistent trends in this respect. The Theory of Relativity will never graduate to become the Law of Relativity after having withstood a couple centuries of scrutiny. This is a quirk that baffles more than a few of us, but we quickly learn to accept it and work around it.

So, after I went through and explained all this to you, you go ahead and call me a liar anyway, is that it!? You admitted you don't know as much, so I thought I did well to bring you up to date so that we can at least have a conversation. Then, after I explain to you the lack of difference between law and theory and then explain how the scientific concept of "proof" differs from how you are using it, you go ahead and say that you "do know, however," that what I told you is not true!

And you admit you don't know much about science! -- but you know enough to completely disregard about an hour's worth of careful work that I did just so you and I could have a conversation.

You know what? You not only know next to nothing about real science, you have made it clear to me that YOU DON'T EVEN WANT TO KNOW anything about real science! You are not interested in hearing anything that does not bolster your fundamentalism. If anything comes up that might challenge your fundamentalism, you will alter the facts so that they fit your fundamentalism.

The only people I've ever seen who would say this about scientific theories and scientific laws are Christian preachers. And the only Christian preachers who would talk this way are those who desire to deceive the public into thinking that their Bible is scientific or their Bible is more truthful than science or their Bible is somehow superior to the processes of human reason and the cumulative history of human learning.

I can actually respect Christians who act as if they really think there's a God up there. I have several close friends who are that way, and my atheism doesn't seem to bother them. We don't even talk about it! But certain Christians have tossed their God out the window and replaced Him with a leather-bound book with gilt edges!

No! If you have to LIE in order to convince people that you're telling the truth, you're in sad, sad shape, morally. I certainly don't want my kids going to a school that has your Ten Commandments posted on the wall! not after I've watched the followers of those Ten Commandments in action.

This is not science and this is not honesty.

Here is why I really don't care to hear from you again:

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I DON'T DEAL WITH DISHONEST PEOPLE!!

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Have a nice life. As far as I can tell, it's the only one we get.

Let me live mine so that nobody can say that I treated anybody unfairly. Let me live mine so that nobody can say that I deliberately lied to anybody. Let me live mine so that nobody can say that I let loyalty to a creed or a group or a philosophical position take precedence over my quest to follow truth wherever she may lead. Let me live mine so that nobody can say that I LIED to people for the purpose of convincing them that mine was a position of truthfulness.

No ideological position is worth my morality: I will not sacrifice my morality to uphold any ideological position, even if I think it's true. I certainly wouldn't endanger my morality to call true an ideological position about which I am unsure! about which I could only say that I believe but do not really know except by secondhand or hearsay testimony! that I read about in a book somewhere!

I just don't want that to be the legacy I leave behind, so I will work hard to follow truth wherever she may lead. I will work hard and make the sacrifice of telling only the truth as I know it, and if I don't know something, I won't offer an opinion or act as if I do know that thing.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.