- On 2nd Dec Mr Garvin wrote an article within the Roanoke Star entitled – Atheism and Adolescent Rebellion in which he writes that “the proper application of modern science persuaded me that my atheism was a nonintellectual exercise in self-deception“
- On 4th Dec I replied with a long rebuttal on my blog that analysed the claim presented, and posted a link to that within the comments section of the article
- Mr Garvin has followed up on Dec 24th by posting a reply and invited me to respond in turn, and so this posting is now that response. (I’ll post a link to this open letter under his comment).
The Open Letter
Dear Mr Garvin,
I’ve like to respond by raising just two questions, both of which I feel are quite important.
Perhaps the first most important point to ponder over is to wonder if there is a willingness, an openness, to strive and embrace what can actually be demonstrated to be true, and to then follow through on that, and so with that thought in mind, my first question is this …
Q1. How willing are we are we as individuals to embrace as many true things as possible?
We are both in many ways polar opposites. I started out religious and experienced a conversion as a teen, then later in life came to a place where over a period of time I came to terms with the realisation that Christianity was not true, and then proceeded to transition through other variations of both Christian and also non-Christian beliefs for a time until I finally came to terms with the revelation that none of it was true at all. In stark contrast to this, you relate a story that is the reverse of that and briefly explain how, until the age of 38, you did not believe, and find that you now do.
We are both sincerely convinced that we are right, but that perhaps is the nature of things, because nobody consciously embraces things that are not true as “true”, and so that leaves us with a couple of rather obvious conclusions. Since our positions are clearly mutually exclusive, then either one of us is wrong, or both of us are.
Clearly we both also feel a certainty that we are right, and so that opens up the fascinating topic of human psychology, and how we are all in so many ways, prone to rather natural cognitive tendencies, such as confirmation bias, Denialism, Eisegesis, and many others.
Now this then rather naturally leads on to a second question.
Q2. How can we truly know what is and is not true?
It is frighteningly easy to be fooled and to fool ourselves, and that is perhaps illustrated quite well by the very existence of an entire profession of honest liars; namely magicians and illusionists. We know it is all pretend, and yet they still successfully fool us, but that is part of the deal, hence I use the term “honest liars”. There are of course rogues in that profession who rather sadly cash in on the ease with which humans can indeed by fooled by claiming to be psychics and mediums, and do so by deploying cold reading and other similar tactics to shamelessly defraud grief-stricken people. It has been my experience that some knowingly and consciously defraud (Sally Morgan caught with a earpiece while pretending to hear the spirits), but there are others who due to the positive re-enforcement of everybody going up to them afterwards all the time telling them how good they were, actually believe, and end up being rather astonished when their claims fail a test under controlled conditions.
Now you might perhaps have realised that I have opted to illustrate our debate regarding religious claims by switching to a less emotionally charged variation in order to ask this second question – it is essentially the same. There are the rather infamous mega-church pastors who knowingly and willingly make claims that they do not personally believe, are in it all for personal gain, and so end up fooling millions. There are also many others who make claims, of which the vast majority I suspect, truly do believe, and yet have simply fooled both themselves and others.
So, getting back to Q2, if we consider the reality of human psychology, then how can we actually know, how can we work out what is and is not real?
In your original article you talk about “the proper application of modern science“, and that I am convinced is fundamentally correct, I do very much agree that the scientific methodology, that has yielded so much for us, is the only means we have to cut through the normal and quite natural human cognitive biases that exist, for example clinical trials that are double or even triple blinded.
As an aside, you mentioned Carl Sagan and I can perhaps suggest a great book of his that addresses this very topic – The Demon-Haunted World. There he explains how you can apply the scientific methodology to differentiate between science and pseudoscience.
So yes, I would agree, if there is indeed evidence that is truly objective and not simply subjective opinion or anecdotal, and is independently verifiable, then that is something that is not wrong.
My own personal stance is that when it comes to the various religious claims, in all honesty I have not yet discovered anything that is truly objective and independently verifiable, and so I am not religious. It is for the same reason that I dismiss many other things as well, for example claims of alien abduction, lake monsters, ghosts, conspiracy theories, NDEs, and rather a lot of pseudoscientific alternative medical claims such as homeopathy and chiropractic treatments.
So what does it take to change my mind … one word … “evidence”, that withstands critical scientific scrutiny.
2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Dennis Garvin”
Hello David. I appreciate very much the reasoned and logical approach that you take to this subject. I think we agree that there are many people on both sides of this existential divide who claim both the scientific and moral high ground; then turn around and use their narrow mindedness as a bludgeon against anyone with the gall to disagree. My ‘journey’ from disbelief began with a vague disquiet: I was an atheist, Darwinist, intellectual snob. In short, I was the very thing that I came to dislike: a preemptive scientific elitist. I had a degree in Chemistry, and medical degree, and surgical subspecialty training. If any idea could not be proven, it remained theory. All well and good, yet I reserved a special place for theological issues- I demanded more in the way of empirical data to ‘prove’ articles of faith. That is, by its very nature, impossible; yet it never troubled me. I began to stumble when, as a Darwinist, I could not explain altruism. It made no sense and counter-Darwinist. I then became embarrassed to realize that I had always parroted the phrase that science disproved all religions, esp the faith of the old testament. The fairy tales of 6 days of Genesis, the flood, parting of the waters, . Then, of course, the New Testament concept of a Trinity. Absolute rubbish. Then I began to realize that atheism got its first taste of intellectual respectability from Newton and the ‘clockwork universe’, a universe of such reliable, quantifiable laws that there was no place for a divine interventionist. Deism was, to me, a weak attempt to reconcile the scientific world of Newton with any idea of an involved , meddlesome God.
I was caught in the situation of continuing to hold to the clockwork universe and ignore the fact that Einstein, Bohr, etc, found so many errors in Newton’s ‘flawless’ science; or I could let the new theories or laws propounded by quantum physicists be applied (without prejudice) to those very articles of faith that had I originally rejected. When modern quantum physics in general, Einstein’s theory of time dilation (and modern studies of light) are applied to the fairy tales of the old testament, the results are startling. Neils Bohr himself, said of quantum physics (forgive the paraphrase) ‘he who has looked at quantum theory and not been stunned by the implications, has obviously not understood it.’ For this, I do refer (if I didn’t already in an earlier post) to ‘The Science of God’ by Schroeder, a former professor of physics at MIT, currently at the Weizman Institute in Israel. Using Einstein’s time dilation, he reconciles the six days of Genesis with the putative 16 billion years of the universe.
Ultimately, I find that an absolute belief of the rightness of one’s conclusions on either side of the religion question makes one vulnerable to an ugly arrogance. I am as irritated by narrow-minded Christians as I am by narrow-minded atheists. I would also agree with you that the Prosperity Gospel preachers on television are parasitical and are Christianity’s version of snake-oil salesmen. Sadly, we should not be surprised that they exist: where there is light, there are flies.’ I am reassured by bible verses that promise that these turkeys will not like what will happen to them at the end.
I understand your distinction between that which we know and what we don’t know; also the question ‘is there a way to know, instead of speculate?’ We exercise our unknowing faith every day- we get on airplanes not KNOWING they are safe; rather, we fly because our faith is based on our observations of the safety of air travel. This is perfectly acceptable, yet it is somehow irritating to people that, in matters of religion, we come to the end of our provable facts and proceed further based on faith. Sort of like Kirkegaard’s ‘giant leap of faith’. It is funny that an atheist or agnostic makes a leap of faith to go from fact to disbelief in a Creator that is every bit as great as that which a Christian does. The agnostic or atheist, however, counters that science gives more muscle to their conclusion than it does to a conclusion that God exists. That simply is not so, not based on the proper application of modern scientific principles. In Schroeder’s case, all he did was use the idea of measuring the ‘Red Shift’, a measure commonly used to assess the age of celestial bodies in astrophysics, and applied it to measuring the age of the universe and the rate of change of the passage of time. IN our modern era, separation of church and state would place at peril the career of any professor who dared to apply science to the Bible on a college campus dependent on government subsidy. That is narrow-minded preemption at its worst. You might say that colleges are more open minded than that. Sadly, such things have happened.
There are other books written by people who do not meet the current stereotype of a wild-eyed Christian apologist. They are also people who, like myself, have a great deal of criticism about the classic ‘sacred cattle’ of organized religion. I wish you well in your skepticism. On both sides of the issue, we must guard against the descent from skepticism into intolerance.
Many thanks for the thoughtful reply, it is much appreciated.
I have a couple of additional observations.
You write that the common phrase “science disproved all religions” warrants an appropriate degree of rebuttal, and that is in many ways a thought that I do agree with. My own thinking is that you cannot (and perhaps should not) disprove something that has not actually been proven (which is perhaps the key point of our discussion here), and yet I also recognise that I do still need to be open to any idea if there is objective evidence to actually verify it.
There are a few side topics, for example evolution vs creationism, and tempting as it might be to explore that, I’d suggest we don’t and remain on topic, because such a discussion would be a distraction. If we did indeed resolve the primary topic (is there a god?), then I suspect the fallout from that would also naturally resolve the secondary topic.
The one other side observation I would add is that what Newton achieved was in so many ways quite inspirational, and that Newtonian Mechanics (I would argue) where not as such wrong, but rather were incomplete. For example, to keep a satellite in orbit Newtonian Mechanics are just fine, but to then utilise it for GPS, it is incomplete and so we need to utilise relativity to get meaningful measurements to enable GPS to work.
Now, moving on … applying our modern cosmology to genesis is still something I truly struggle to accept for a couple of reasons … today the estimated age is 13.78 billion rather than 16 billion, so to apply it to fit 16 billion does not work. But putting that detail aside, it is the order in which things occur that are the real challenge. For example we do not get the sun and moon until day 4, yet we do get planet earth on day 3 (there are other similar examples of things that are out of order).
What is perhaps potentially happening here is what is known as Eisegesis – interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one’s own presuppositions – and this is a very subjective approach.
But once again, getting into the discussion of this in detail may prove to be a distraction, and does not really resolve the primary question – is there a god? … and once again the resolution to that primary question could potentially resolve this one as well.
You write … // I find that an absolute belief of the rightness of one’s conclusions on either side of the religion question makes one vulnerable to an ugly arrogance. //
I do agree, but would perhaps expand the scope to any question and not just religious ones.
So moving on to discuss the word “faith”, here is where I would make the observation that the word “faith” has several meanings and is utilised for different things.
For example to deploy the word “faith” in a practical context of getting on a flight, or simply sitting on a chair and being sure it will hold, we are in fact describing how humans use a cognitive shortcut (heuristics) that is based upon existing human experience … lots of people take flights or sit on chairs safely … it works, and so we do not need to test it each time, but rather file away that experience and then deploy it as a shortcut to call upon whenever we need it.
It a religious context, it appears to have a different meaning, one that strikes me as simply pretending to know something that nobody actually knows or has any evidence for. It is about here that the counter observation is that people have religious experiences (true) and so it is the apparently the same, and yet that religious variation is a subjective experience and so is not the same is a truly objective verification that can be achieved (to borrow from the previous example) for flight or sitting on chairs.
It is common to suggest that not believing in a god is an act of faith, but the common rebuttal to that is to make the observation that not believing a claim due to the lack of objective evidence is not faith, but rather is the default null hypothesis.
So to try and sum that up (using an example that does not carry such strong emotional baggage), I used to believe that there was indeed something lurking under the waters of Loch Ness (I’m not kidding, I really did consider it to be a viable option). But having now been there, and carefully examined all the available evidence on site, I’ve changed my mind and no longer think that. But, if somebody did provide credible objective independently verifiable evidence, I would indeed change my mind.
When it comes to the claim that there is a god, I would perhaps take the same stance.
Clearly we each hold different views, and so while we might indeed not persuade each to adopt the other’s view, I am comfortable with that, and hope that we can reach a place when we come to grasp and understand why we hold the views that we do, even if we do not agree with them.