Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Episode 56 Degrees of Faith with guest Michael Shermer

Does it take faith to be an atheist? Does the skeptic place their faith in science and rationality in the same way believers trust God? Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine and author of How We Believe, joins us on the show to discuss the nature of faith, skepticism and belief. Also on this episode: Blasphemy gets a second chance, Scientology takes a hit in France, Conservapedia makes a bible, NPR makes our shitlist and there will be blood in the strangest “Stranger Than Fiction” yet.

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Anonymous said...

awesome show guys...this is basically where I am coming from...the rift between atheists and agnostics need not exist..but too many of us dare not say "I don't know". When it comes to what started this universe, where life comes from, where science and the laws of it came from, nobody actually knows...

What I'm really interested in is the actual logic that many religions have used to back up the faith aspect. Expose that, and you stand a great chance of bringing many believers over to the agnostic camp. Keep up the great work.


llewelly said...

On rd56, you discussed this argument:
"It takes as much faith to be an atheist as to be a theist"
and you doubtcasters confess you can't wrap your heads around it. I think you're over-thinking it.
Apologists make the argument because they know atheists have a low opinion of faith. It's a judo argument which seeks to smear atheism by associating it with faith.
There's no logic behind it - it's just an attempt to leverage an insight into the psychology of atheists.

Jeremy said...


I agree that the argument is often used in a judo flip fashion, but its most often used in that manner by laymen once they are frustrated with an argument. When apologists use it, it is accompanied by critiques on induction and the laws of logic and the provisional nature of scientific truths. Then it becomes far more than just irritating rhetoric...it is itself a skeptical critique...but of the possibility of humanly derived knowledge. Many theists believe their knowledge rests on the authority of an omniscient being. Therefore it is certain, absolute and unchanging. They doubt any possibility of human knowledge because it is fallible, uncertain. The point of the show was to expose the "evidentialist" assumptions already present in this critique-- deep down they too recognize that it would be preferable to justify a position rather than just trust its true.

danielg said...

Thank you for seeing the light on the UN Human Rights Council - Christians have resisted it (1) because it supports an exclusively Muslim blasphemy law initiative, and (2) you may notice that Christians do NOT support blasphemy laws in general, since we value free speech.

Part of that is self-serving, because we want to have the freedom to make our own moral declarations, which includes condemning sexual immorality, which includes homosexuality.

However, this is why I wrote that hate speech laws are essentially the humanist version of blasphemy laws. For your entertainment, see
Hate speech laws and blasphemy laws - twin evils
Debate on the Freedom to Offend
Hate Crimes Laws - needed reform or threat to free speech?

danielg said...

Oh, and for you satire minded, enjoy Thinktank estimates evangelical churches 90% closet homosexuals

Jeremy said...

Daniel G,

We havent changed our position on blasphemy laws. You may have an excusable reason for not realizing that because we've discussed it at length in previous episodes that you may have not listened to.

We have frequently lamented the fact that it often is conservative Christians that are the most vocal in critiquing Islam. If you listened to the whole Blasphemy day episode you would have heard that most of our criticisms were of liberals and multi-culturalists.

Also, on our episode about the ACLU and the AFA's "Speechless" episode we clearly stated that we do not support hate speech laws and feel they could be used to curb free expression.

Finally, I am still planning on responding to your Darwin and Hitler posts when I find the time.

danielg said...

Regarding the 'false equivalent' of claiming that atheists have faith:

1. I agree, it's not quite a fair comparison - but the point that Christians are trying to make is that YOU have some primary assumptions that you can not prove - even if you think your assumption has the MOST evidence, the fact is that if you can't prove it, that is still faith.

In fact, Christians would say that THEIR faith is better supported by the evidence (and hence , and the main difference is that, often, materialists ONLY accept empirical evidence, while Christians accept.

I agree that there are degrees of faith. The issue is, atheists often claim that they are NOT exercising faith, which we are claiming is untrue.

2. If you think this is a 'false equivalence', then you should also admit that "We are all atheists: just believe in one less God than me" is a false equivalent (which I have argued at Analyzing the 6 C's of Atheism - Part II)


But please, your accusation that atheism's 'greater' faith is somehow better, or that 'accusing atheists of having faith' is somehow a self-contradictory statement and therefore defeats the Christian accusation, is really just a word game playing on the ambiguity and multiple meanings of the word 'greater.' Dumb argument. We are saying that (1) your attack on faith denies your own, and (2) your faith must be 'greater' because it contradicts the evidence in a greater fashion, not that it's better. You just wasted 10 minutes of your podcast on specious argumentation.


"Is it easier to believe?" is a subjective, heuristic approach, which is not based on evidence, but based on one's starting position of what is 'reasonable.' The materialist rejects all secondary evidences, and so in a sense, is creating a self-reinforcing position. What you call 'returning the discussion to the evidence' is really 'rejecting all secondary evidences.'

No one is arguing against logic or reason or induction, only acknowledging that reason has it's limits and is not the sole point of reference when truth is at hand. Read Kant's Critiqute of Pure Reason.

danielg said...

>> We havent changed our position on blasphemy laws.

I never said you did. I just thanked you.

danielg said...

>> If you listened to the whole Blasphemy day episode you would have heard that most of our criticisms were of liberals and multi-culturalists.

Sorry, I listen to you as much as possible, but there's so much out there, and your podcast is...long!

But I do listen ;)

>> Finally, I am still planning on responding to your Darwin and Hitler posts when I find the time.

Not sure if that will get us anywhere ;) Perhaps we should move on.

Anonymous said...

Daniel G said "Christians would say that THEIR faith is better supported by the evidence (and hence , and the main difference is that, often, materialists ONLY accept empirical evidence, while Christians accept...'

accept.. what? what exactly is non empirical "evidence" or 'secondary evidence" in this situation? Do you mean like personal revelation? how is that "evidence"?

there is an ocean of difference between empirical evidence and any other kind of "evidence". refering to your subjective intuitions is not "evidence" of anything; unless you are suggesting that paranoid schizophrenics have evidence of the delusional sort.

danielg said...

NPR and the bitter atheist RIFT

As a quite conservative Christian who loves NPR (and listens to atheist podasts, go figure), thanks for the heads up on that biased report. I hate that!

danielg said...

Damn, here's my actual competed paragraph, which was incomplete above:

In fact, Christians would say that THEIR faith is better supported by the evidence (and hence requires 'less' faith), and the main difference is that, often, materialists ONLY accept empirical evidence, while Christians accept empirical evidence PLUS secondary indications.

Jeremy said...


Im trying to encourage people to move any longer critiques to the forum. We now have a thread up for the new episode. If you re-post your "false equivalence" comment there, I'll respond to it.

Nothing against you, its just a easier format for this sort of thing.
Plus were trying to get more trafic for the forum.


danielg said...

Male Circumcision:

You may see this as male genital mutilation, but it is nothing like female genital mutilation:

1. It is largely external, and only skin.

2. It does not significantly decrease sexual pleasure.

3. It has proven medical benefits.

4. It is not associated with sexual mores.

I am surprised that you would take a weird stand against male circumcision.

Anne Hanna said...

> 1. It is largely external, and only skin.

There are also nerve endings in the foreskin which may contribute to sexual pleasure.

> 2. It does not significantly decrease sexual pleasure.

Since people circumcised as infants are unable to compare the before and after this seems a little hard to prove. Men who have been circumcised as adults do sometimes report decreases in sexual pleasure.

> 3. It has proven medical benefits.

Iffy and minor at best, and male circumcision is something a person can easily do as an adult if they decide for themselves that those medical benefits are worth permanent bodily modification.

> 4. It is not associated with sexual mores.

Not any more, maybe, in most places, but the origins likely were. And anyway this particular "difference" between the two types of genital mutilation doesn't really affect the question of whether or not it's okay to perform them on children.

I don't see how irreversibly modifying the body of an infant or child too young to understand and freely consent to the operation is a responsible, ethical choice, unless that modification is absolutely essential to the child's health and well-being and there is no reasonable alternative (eg. in the case of birth defects or serious injuries). Hell, I'm even kind of disgusted by the parents who pierce their infant daughters' ears, even though piercings can heal. The very minor potential benefits of male circumcision are in no way sufficient to justify such a massive violation of a child's autonomous right to decide how to structure his life. And the risk of later dissatisfaction, or even worse a botched circumcision (rare, but it does happen) seem too great to ignore.

I understand why people do it (tradition, haven't really thought about it, etc.). And I don't think it's nearly as harmful or dangerous as most forms of female genital mutilation. But I also don't think it's completely harmless, and it seems to me that in a civilized, rational society it would not take place.

Brad Kalmanson said...

People who follow the "Jedi" religion cannot afford to alienate their family. Otherwise, they'd be kicked out of their parents' basement.

Jeremy said...

Hey Danielg!

I responded to your comment on the forum.

Here's the link...


Momma Heathen said...

Male Circumcision:

>>You may see this as male genital mutilation, but it is nothing like female genital mutilation:

It's less-worse, but genital mutilation none-the-less.

>>1. It is largely external, and only skin.

15 square inches of skin ripped from the human body. Tell these kids it's only skin: http://www.whale.to/b/male_genital_mutilation_p.html Besides, tearing the 'foreskin' from the glans is akin to ripping a fingernail from the tip of a finger. It's ATTACHED. All of it.

>>2. It does not significantly decrease sexual pleasure.

So removing 15 square inches of flesh and 240 feet of nerves doesn't cause any significant decrease in sexual pleasure?

>>3. It has proven medical benefits.

Really? Like what? This I'd love to see. It doesn't decrease the risk of penile cancers (and following this logic we should just remove the breast tissue from every baby girl who is born 'just in case'), it's isn't 'more clean' (a myth -- smegma is what keeps the area between the 'foreskin' and glans clean when a man is left intact--regardless, the skin doesn't even pull away from the glans until roughly 7-11 years of age--until then it takes no more cleaning than a simple wipe we teach our girls).

>>4. It is not associated with sexual mores.


>>I am surprised that you would take a weird stand against male circumcision.

I'm surprised you wouldn't, seeing as you (I assume) possess the 'equipment.'

And I use the word 'foreskin' with a grimace. There is no one place where the shaft ends and the 'foreskin' begins, or vice-versa. It's ALL shaft-skin. Asshat.

Too, before you begin to wonder how a woman (yikes!) might know about all of this: I'm a mother. Should I ever have a son I would NEVER remove a piece of his body without his permission.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a great year of podcasts. Every 2 weeks is actually a better frequency for me as a listener as well. With it comming out every week I am preputually behind. Please consider interupting the 2 week gap with slist award winners if someone does something to good to wait.

PercyFerry said...

Great show, guys ... but every two weeks? Oh! the pain ...

PercyFerry said...

mmm ... My first post (the one I p.s.'d to) went missing.

To recap, The problem, as I see it with the "faith" argument is one of wrong assumptions. It comes across like everyone begins from a neutral position and arbitrarily chooses a position purely on faith.

This ignores the actuality that most, if not all, atheists begin as theistic believers. We made the same invalid, faith-based, assumptions as other believers.

The difference is that we noticed the inconsistencies and factual errors. Atheists are the result, usually, of failed attempts to prove our faith to ourselves. Our position is not one of faith, it is one of faith abandoned or lost. For many of us, it isn't easy to give away eternal life and certainty, but our position is forced upon us by a lack of substantiating evidence for our original positions.

So, the simple answer is that atheism takes as much faith as belief, but in our case it is faith lost.

BTW Michael Shermer's guest spot on Mr. Deity is brilliant.

Martin said...

You guys are basically doing a fine show, but the "interview" with Shermer was quite generous to a charlatan. Shermer can claim to be a professional "skeptic," but he is zealot in the second great faith of Americans, after Christianity, in his beloved "Unseen Hand." In his recent execrable book "The Mind of the Machine," he extols the evolutionary genius of the free-market system, so obviously discredited by the recent sub-prime derivatives implosion.
Shermer's ridiculous assertion on your show that "liberals" are only liberals for irrational reasons of birth or friendship was not challenged by you folks, who were entirely too deferential to the fraud. He is an Ayn Randian, a Reaganite who is barely an agnostic. Some of us have used our rational capacity to arrive at our political and philosophical conclusions, which are against the dominant culture, and so are not "situational."

Jeremy said...

Martin said,

"Shermer's ridiculous assertion on your show that "liberals" are only liberals for irrational reasons of birth or friendship was not challenged by you folks, who were entirely too deferential to the fraud."

I think you missed his point. He began by saying "conservative"... It was clear he meant his statement about situational factors to apply to both sides. His point was that no one is immune to the cognitive errors and bias discovered by psychologists. His point was not that we "only" believe things for irrational reasons. We have a blind-spot to the situational factors that influence our own (and everyone's) beliefs...yet we seem eager to condemn others for it. Perhaps we should have more humility.

Come to think of it, your comment is a great example of this.

And we didn't challenge him on the "mind of the market" because that is not what the interview was about. If it was, you could be sure we would have been very critical.

Also, you accused him of being a charlatan and fraud. Do you have reason to think that Shermer doesnt actually believe what he himself says? Or was that just hyperbole?

Martin said...

Jeremy, I got Shermer's point, and it is fatuous. It made a mockery of having political views - all his liberal friends pretend they are rational, he says, but really, they are oh-so-influenced by their parents, by what they read - is that the depth of conviction that you folks want to seriously entertain? As you yourselves point out, all of you came to your rational senses despite the attempted religious indoctrination. So we are supposed to be "humble" about our views, as if they are as likely to be wrong as right, subject to "blind spots" and biases? Then do some more work on what you think and aver.
To be the leader of a self-termed "Skeptics Society" and be so faith-based on the allegedly "free-market" takes a level of charlatanism that seems not to trouble you, but that could be your "blind spots" and "situational" delusion at work, eh?

Spencer "Thunderball" Thayer said...

You guys shouldn't be surprised about NPR. It's where hack journalists go. And no, I'm not a right winger, just someone who critically analyzes the media. NPR is one of the worst.

wesley strack said...

Just caught up on several of your podcasts. Sorry I can't remember which one it was, but you mentioned all of you are now vegetarians because it causes the least amount of suffering. THEN you mentioned you still eat fish once in a while. Question, which is more ethical, taking ONE life(a cow) and feeding your family for half a year, or taking the life of one fish and feeding yourself?

Jeremy said...

Wesley...if your writing in because your concerned with the welfare of animals and wanted to plead with us to really follow through on the implications of our ethics...then thank you.

Id like to mention that the two times we brought up eating fish on the show it was in the context of admitting that we were hypocrites when it comes to vegetarianism...we dont always live up to that standard. So just for clarification--we were not advocating that people eat fish.

Finally, if you could care less about the suffering of non-human animals and are one of the many listeners who was furious that someone might be a vegetarian for rational reasons...and that they might actually *gasp* argue for it like they would any other moral position...then there is a place for you. Its on our Vegetarianism thread at the forum! You can avoid substantive debate on the issue and instead pursue red herrings (hey! ha ha thats a fish!) there.

wesley said...

Jeremy, I am not furious that you would argue rationally for vegetarianism. As a matter of fact, i found it to be extremely interesting. I was just pointing out that if you are going to (once in a while) be hypocritical, then you should make sure that you are still causing the least amount of suffering. Eat a steak! that one cow will be able to provide tasty, nourishing, sustenance to a lot more people! Rationally, if you are going to take a life, make sure it will feed as many as possible!

Jeremy said...


Thats fair. Sorry, I been blown away at how immature some of the response to our vegetarianism argument has been. So Im probably a little hypersensitive to criticism at this point.


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