A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Astrology – the real ones


Whenever I am getting to know someone new, and I reach the point where we both outline our beliefs, I always ask them if they believe in astrology first. I find that their response tends to give a fairly accurate indication as to where they draw their ‘rationality line’, separating the things they need evidence to believe, and the things they don’t. If they say:

“No, I don’t know much about it, but I just don’t buy it.”

This indicates that the person has a healthy combination of common sense and natural scepticism, without actually having an active interest. If they say:

“No, there’s no evidence to support it and until there is, I won’t believe it.”

I’ll think I’ve probably met someone of a like mind. This indicates methodical rationalism. However, the response I most frequently get is something like:

“Absolutely. But not that rubbish they print in the tabloids, the real ones.”

Excuse me?

“The real ones, you know, the proper ones.”

The reason I ask about astrology rather than any of the other thousands of supernatural beliefs, is that I personally find it to be a particularly absurd and farfetched phenomenon. The extravagance of its claims, in contrast with their complete and utter lack of evidence, and the absence of any hypothesis as to how exactly they are supposed to work places it high up on the ‘sceptic’s most wanted’ list. Wikipedia defines astrology as

“ . . . a group of systems, traditions, and beliefs in which knowledge of the relative positions of celestial bodies and related details is held to be useful in understanding, interpreting, and organizing information about personality, human affairs, and other terrestrial matters . . . “

This is a concise definition, but the only omission is the relevance of the subject’s time of birth. There is no rational reason offered as to why this is important. However, when you consider that astrologers can offer no working explanation as to how giant lumps of rock and gases floating around in space millions and millions of miles away from us can affect our lives and personalities, asking about the time of birth just looks like nitpicking. If you press an astrologer, or an advocate of astrology for some sort of scientific explanation, the best you’ll get is a defiant “what about gravity?”. What about it, indeed! Relative to other forces, gravity is spectacularly weak. You overpower it every day just by standing up straight, and walking. At this moment, the gravitational force pulling you and your computer screen towards each other is many times stronger than the force pulling you towards any star or planet in the universe. “Well, what about the Moon and the tides?”. Newton’s theory of universal gravitation states that

“Every single point mass attracts every other point mass by a force heading along the line combining the two. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the point masses”

What this means, is that the mass of the two objects has the opposite effect on the gravitational pull that astrology would require for it to support its claims. In lay terms, the reason the Moon affects the tides, is that they are both big. The fact that a human being is smaller means that the force attracting her and the moon towards each other is smaller, not greater than the force pulling the Moon and the oceans towards each other. The same goes for the Sun with the planets in the solar system.

Let’s just say though, for the sake of argument, we grant the gravity claim a visitor’s pass to the rational world. Just suppose we accept that gravity could have sufficient strength to affect a human being. Why would there be any pattern? If there were a pattern, how exactly would we predict it? And why would the time of birth have anything to do with the pattern, why wouldn’t the gravity just affect all human beings the same? These are questions I often ask, and am yet to receive answers for.

We also have the problem that the claims of astrology simply can’t be reconciled with the world we live in. Surveys have shown time and time again that there is no correlation between peoples’ personalities and patterns of life events with zodiac signs, dates and times of birth.

With the flaws in astrology as a system per se aside, we now move on to astrologers themselves. Astrologers claim to be able to divine a person’s personality traits, and predict future events from the positions of the planets and stars. Many people who visit astrologers believe these claims because their reasoning is hampered by confirmation bias, the Forer effect and subjective validation. When astrologers are tested in a controlled environment, where they can’t use cold reading techniques, they fail. Always. Just to be absolutely clear, no astrologer has ever successfully demonstrated his abilities in controlled test conditions. A number of weak ad hoc reasons are often given in response to this, but I implore any believer in astrology to seriously ask themselves, if astrology’s claims were really true, wouldn’t a controlled test just be a doddle? True believers will go to any lengths to explain the results of such tests, with the exception of considering that maybe the claims astrologers make are simply false.

And what about the real ones? Many people I speak to who believe in astrology would happily agree with everything I’ve just said, as long as we’re only talking about the horoscopes printed in the morning papers. We’re not. This applies to all traditions of astrology.

One such so called ‘real’ or ‘respectable’ system of astrology is the Indian or Vedic system known as Jyotisha, which is heavily endorsed by and incorporated into the Transcendental Meditation movement. However, the essential claims are exactly the same between all variations of astrology, and they are all ‘neck and neck’ in the race to be the first one to present some credible evidence. Advocates of these superior systems of astrology need to explain on what grounds they reject one system and accept another. How do they know that their system of astrology is right and another is wrong, or simply fraudulent? (The problem is analogous to the hundreds of sects of Christianity who can’t agree on how to interpret a supposedly inerrant text.) The irony is, if they could answer that question, they probably wouldn’t believe in astrology at all.

The only possible difference they could offer, the only possible unit by which the validity of an astrologer might be measured, is the fee they charge for their service. Apparently, the ‘real’ astrologers charge hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros an hour, compared to the, say, £1.50 per minute you might be charged to call a number at the bottom of the horoscopes in the papers. Followers seem to think that the more money they have to pay, the more likely it is that they are not being deceived.

“So what? It’s just a bit of harmless fun.”

The last resort in the debate. The get out of jail free card. It is anything but! Astrology is not harmless. It can harm people financially, emotionally and psychologically. It is yet another way for people to think they can get a quick, snappy answer to a question without having to do any proper, hard work, or as a poor substitute for the courage to face life everyday accepting that there are some things you just don’t know, can’t account for and can’t plan for. Just been on a first date and want to know if you’re compatible? Go on another date and find out. People pay hard earned money to get advice about major, life changing decisions which, for all its claims, is made of nothing but hot air. Even by publishing free horoscopes in the papers, we are stifling free and independent thought and starving human beings of the ability to argue rationally, at a time in our history when it is as desperately needed as ever.

A few years ago, two planes were crashed into the World Trade Centre, killing nearly 3.000 people. You might wonder what this has to do with astrology. It has everything to do with it. People base decisions on astrological advice, without evidence. The terrorists responsible for the September 11th attacks believed they were carrying out glorious justice on God’s behalf and would go to paradise for their efforts, without evidence. This is the same problem on two vastly different scales, but once rational thought is abandoned, gargantuan gaps can be bridged alarmingly quickly. I’m not claiming that a believer in astrology is going to commit an act of terrorism any time soon, and I would hope that no astrological reading could lead to someone actually harming someone else in the name of astrology, but the question must be posed: What evidence does the astrology believer have for his own beliefs that a religiously fanatical terrorist doesn’t have for his? As well as the problems that astrology poses in and of itself, it is also symptomatic of a much greater problem. Mankind has to walk before it can run. If we can’t persuade people to see the inherent flaws in something like astrology, then we have a long way to go before we can tackle the more serious and imminent threat of religious faith.

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27 Responses to “Astrology – the real ones”

  1. Okay.

    Even if the lovely primrose path of logic you lay out really held together, (and it doesn’t because you do not explicitly describe the test conditions that you say have debunked astrology), astrology would still have merit, in that I could easily tell you your personality traits with the simple information of you birth date and time and place. It has, if my claim is correct, repeatable, experimental, empirical support

    In addition, no astrologer worth their salt would indicate that it is the actual physical planets that affect you, rather that the configuration of the planets at the time is an indication of a particular point in the ongoing flavor of events…

    Think of it as a sort of combination of pure sine waves… Ths sine wave has this wave form and frequency, the next has another, and the next has another… Added together they create a very complex wave form from which it is very hard to visually deduce the component sine wave forms…

    Similarly , the “effects” of the planets do not take place on a physical level, nor are they really effects, rather indications of a particular vibratory condition…

    The medium for conveying or creating that connection is admittedly unclear, but the fact that you and I do not understand that medium should not be means for dismissing it.

    It could juts as easily be said that yu were going to be born and so the planets had to be in that particular position. There is no sense of causality in either direction. Just a sort of synchronicity.

    In your case, apparenetly, it’s like two kids sitting in a sand box dismissing the existence of sand elsewhere in the world, simply because they haven’t seen it.

    You say that rational thought is the only great guide to organizing life, but science, in all it’s majesty, has also created heartless technological forms with no soul and no conscience, for example the atomic bomb and a wide range of iatrogenic diseases.

    Some forms of astrology, and especially jyotish, work very well and have great predictive power, and indeed require mathematical skills of awesome complexity…. It is up to the rationalists, then, to explain why these astrological models work, not why they can’t work. The results are strong. The results do not to one iota support your conclusions. It is up to you, the supposed rationalists, to find a rational reason for those successes.

    The fact is that you are right, nature is deeply rational, and there are very powerful and ordely processses are at work that explain why these technologies do have success, but your denial of their success is simply ingnorance masking itself as logic, when the higher logic is to see the masterful orderliness and logic of nature behind truly well designed astrology…. specifically jyotish, which has an intellectual and mathematical gradeur beyond your wildest dreams, or perhaps, in your case, since you do not truck with dreamers, we should say your most expanded logical theorem…

    Back to you….

    But then, perhaps you already FEEL that you know everything…

  2. Hi Fred,

    Thanks for your feedback. I’ll try and respond to your points one at a time.

    Okay.

    Okay.

    Even if the lovely primrose path of logic you lay out really held together, (and
    it doesn’t because you do not explicitly describe the test conditions that you
    say have debunked astrology), astrology would still have merit, in that I could
    easily tell you your personality traits with the simple information of you birth
    date and time and place. It has, if my claim is correct, repeatable,
    experimental, empirical support

    First of all, there is quite an extensive list of tests in which astrology has failed to live up to its billing here. You talk about personality traits as if they are fixed things, facts like blood type or eye colour. They are not. Our personalities are fluid, constantly changing. It is this fact that allows people to think astrology is working. I suggest you follow the links that I placed in the article and read them. Thanks for the offer, but I’ll pass. You have access to a number of articles that I’ve written and a short piece that I wrote about myself. Surely it would be no achievement to tell me my personality from that?

    In addition, no astrologer worth their salt would indicate that it is the actual
    physical planets that affect you, rather that the configuration of the planets
    at the time is an indication of a particular point in the ongoing flavor of
    events…

    Think of it as a sort of combination of pure sine waves… Ths sine wave has
    this wave form and frequency, the next has another, and the next has another…
    Added together they create a very complex wave form from which it is very hard
    to visually deduce the component sine wave forms…

    Similarly , the “effects” of the planets do not take place on a physical level,
    nor are they really effects, rather indications of a particular vibratory
    condition…

    This is all just meaningless waffle. What does any of this really mean and how is it known? Where is the evidence?

    The medium for conveying or creating that connection is admittedly unclear, but
    the fact that you and I do not understand that medium should not be means for
    dismissing it.

    There is no evidence for the connection, let alone the medium that carries it. I wouldn’t dismiss it permanently, but until there is proper theory and evidence to support any of this, I won’t accept it either.

    It could juts as easily be said that yu were going to be born and so the planets
    had to be in that particular position. There is no sense of causality in either
    direction. Just a sort of synchronicity.

    I agree with this. My birth didn’t cause the planets to be in certain positions, nor did their positions cause me to be born. I don’t see any significance in the synchronicity though.

    In your case, apparenetly, it’s like two kids sitting in a sand box dismissing
    the existence of sand elsewhere in the world, simply because they haven’t seen
    it

    Two children in a sand box have every right to tentatively withhold their belief in sand outside the sand box until they see evidence to support it. They may not want to commit to that belief. I am not committed to my belief that astrology is false, it is a belief I hold tentatively until new evidence comes to light.

    You say that rational thought is the only great guide to organizing life, but
    science, in all it’s majesty, has also created heartless technological forms
    with no soul and no conscience, for example the atomic bomb and a wide range of
    iatrogenic diseases.

    Rational thought is the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about the universe. This doesn’t mean that the knowledge we gain cannot be misused. Scientific discovery lead to the atomic bomb. Does this make science wrong or flawed? No. All science is a corrective procedure, constantly accepting its short comings and striving to improve and evolve. This includes medicine, about which we are always learning. Doctors are human and make mistakes, and this is tragic. But does it make medicine or science methodically wrong in itself? No.

    Some forms of astrology, and especially jyotish, work very well and have great
    predictive power, and indeed require mathematical skills of awesome
    complexity…. It is up to the rationalists, then, to explain why these
    astrological models work, not why they can’t work. The results are strong. The
    results do not to one iota support your conclusions. It is up to you, the
    supposed rationalists, to find a rational reason for those successes.

    I invite you to present evidence of these systems working, as you say they do. The mathematical skill required is irrelevant to the truth of the claims. It is up to you to show evidence that they work, then we’ll all worry together about why they work. You boast of strong results and successes. Sources, please?

    The fact is that you are right, nature is deeply rational, and there are very
    powerful and ordely processses are at work that explain why these technologies
    do have success, but your denial of their success is simply ingnorance masking
    itself as logic, when the higher logic is to see the masterful orderliness and
    logic of nature behind truly well designed astrology…. specifically jyotish,
    which has an intellectual and mathematical gradeur beyond your wildest dreams,
    or perhaps, in your case, since you do not truck with dreamers, we should say
    your most expanded logical theorem…

    Nature deeply rational? Is Nature conscious? My denial of the successes you speak of is fully justified in the absence of evidence. Higher logic? Logic of nature? Well designed astrology – designed by whom? I suggest you do some reading about logic. I am not doubting the intellectual and mathematical elements involved with jyotish, I simply argue that until they produce some evidence they have no bearing on the truth of the claims being made.

    Back to you….

    But then, perhaps you already FEEL that you know everything…

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There is nothing extraordinary about what you have presented so far. If there is some evidence about which I am ignorant, I will be the first to apologize and admit I was wrong when I see it.

  3. Fred wrote:

    “I could easily tell you your personality traits with the simple information of you birth date and time and place. It has, if my claim is correct, repeatable, experimental, empirical support”.

    Try mine Fred – born on 02 April 1974, 2:45 a.m. St Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

    I’d like to see some specifics please, rather than generalities (guessing that I have a skeptical attitude won’t gain you any credibility.

    The ball is in your court.

    Ivan

  4. Dear Tobe,

    Thank you for the careful thought and polite responses. I’m not an atheist, but I’m deeply skeptical of most things having to do with the new age, including alternative medical practices and make-it-up-as-you-go-along spirituality.

    Two further thoughts on astrology and Fred’s cavilling: (1) What is the great and delineating difference between a baby about to be born and a baby just now emerged from mummy? Why would the alignment of planets and stars and what-not have such dramatic effect on a child that has traveled the seven inches or so from the womb, through the birth canal, and into the great outdoors? Seems silly to me. A more rational astrology would, I think, focus its attentions on the moment of conception. (2) The application of reason does not diminish grandeur. I studied music for many years. At the beginning I was hesitant to subject my favorite symphonies and quartets to the rigors of harmonic analysis, but now, so many years later, the music I know and love and have studied till I’m blue in the face still can reduce me to tears and breathless wonderment. (3) I would like to propose that one can assess the weight of an argument based on the number of typos, misspellings, and wrong constructions it contains per paragraph. By that measure, alone, one I frequently use, Fred’s doesn’t come up very weighty.

    Thanks again. I’ll be checking back in. Keep up the good work and, you should pardon the expression, keep the faith!

    All the best,
    Mary

  5. And another thing…..! And I hope this doesn’t give offense; I certainly intend none. I used to live and work in lower Manhattan, and when the World Trade Center came down I felt it in my deep heart’s core.

    Has anyone looked at the horoscopes of the people who died that day? Did any of same predict that the person was likely to die violently on a sunny, warm Tuesday morning?

    Best,
    Mary

  6. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comments. You hit on a few interesting points that I hadn’t thought of.

    One, you’re absolutely right to question the time of birth on that front. A human being is very much formed, as I understand, a good 12 weeks prior to birth – why would his interataction with the planets start only then?

    Two, I agree completely about reason adding wonder. My father is a professional musician of over 50 experience, and although he is not a rationalist in the sense that I am, he always says that his expert analysis of music only enables him to enjoy it on deeper levels.

    Three, you’re spot on about 9/11. Major disasters, natural and human-caused can’t be explained by astrology. The fact that so many people who obviously span all the zodiac signs could suffer the same fate completely contradicts the foundations of the belief.

    Well done, and thank you for your contribution!

  7. Well, if you had asked me if I believe in astrology I would have replied: “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” (Blatantly stolen from one of my heroes in Arthur C. Clarke.)

    Actually I’m whatever sign of the zodiac that pops into my head when I’m asked. And yes, if I am ever asked I use that as an indicator of the intellect of the person who made the inquiry. I hadn’t thought to turn the situation around though. Well done.

    I like your material – thanks from a first-time visitor, but it won’t be the last!

  8. I’ve researched astrology extensively and come to the conclusion that if you believe, it will work. This suggests the possibility that suggestion is behind the practice – we unconsciously live our lives, and see evidence for, something we believe in.
    Your comments about religion are not really avbout religion as such, but its naivety in allowing politics to dictate. Politics causes the bad things that happen in religion’s name.

  9. Re: Anthony North,

    Completely agree about suggestion playing a major part in astrology.

    “Politics causes the bad things that happen in religion’s name.”

    This is a huge sweeping statement, and way off the mark, in my opinion.

    Take 9/11. As Sam Harris pointed out, the terrorists who crashed the planes weren’t poor or oppressed, they were from wealthy, middle class Islamic families. They were well educated, with degrees in engineering etc. It was their religion that motivated them to carry out the horrific acts they did that day. If they don’t believe the literal word of the Quran, they don’t crash the planes. It really is that tragically simple. Any part politics played was from the back seat.

    I think you need to support your point.

  10. You should spend a little time studying cults. I think that is what Al Qaeda is. One thing you will see is that most cult members are young, intelligent middleclass. A ‘guru’ can turn them if they are searching. Okay, this may not be politics as such, but neither is it religion in a traditional sense. It is, nonetheless, fanaticism instilled in those searching for something by someone with the charisma to provide it. In other words, politics by another name.

  11. Anthony,

    I don’t think we’re really disagreeing here, just using different terminology. What you call politics by another name, I call religion by another name.

    All major religions start as cults. Christianity began as a small Jewish cult. It doesn’t make them any less religious. I think Al Qaeda is a terrorist network, but even if you want to call them a cult, they are still undistputably Islamic in their beliefs. You might think them extreme, sadly they are just upholding the literal word of the Quran. Their actions are justified by the teachings of their holy book. I call that religion, not politics.

  12. So close but not quite. Like most religious texts, the Quran was written for the politics of the times. Most rational religionists realise this and adjust their appreciation accordingly. To stick to the literal word of a scripture is to want to revert society back to those far off days. I’d call that politics.
    Yes, Christianity began as a cult but formed into a religion through acceptance. To me a religion is a social codification of an accepted inner spirituality – I’m not talking supernatural here, but a sense of bonding; to fellow man, environment, universe, etc. Religion and spirituality are therefore two separate things – people often confuse the issue here. Hence, spirituality is actually what most people call ‘religion.’ whereas religion is a socialisation and politicisation of that spirituality, and is naive enough to allow powerful people to pervert the message.
    Consider a few supposedly ‘religious’ innovations of the past. Constantine validated Christianity because he saw its spread allowed cohesion to save the Roman Empire. Politics. Augustine of Hippo placed religion in the person so that it would survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. Politics.
    The Synod of Whitby was an argument over whether power resided in local kings or the pope. Politics. The demand for celibate clergy destroyed the powerful local families who were giving the pope hassle. Politics. A totalitarian Christendom had to be held together through an inner and outer fear, hence the Crusades and Witchhunts. Politics.
    The Reformation and rise of Protestantism was again an argument over whether power resided in local kings or the pope. Politics. The Protestant non-Conformist movement was about the rise of middleclass and usurping of aristocracy, leading to the Industrial Revolution. Politics.
    I am, actually, non-religious, although I’d consider myself spiritual. But regardless of this, religion in its pure, innocuous form is alright. It is the politics that makes it bad.
    Over to you.

  13. Anthony.

    I still think we’re splitting hairs, but ok.

    So close but not quite. Like most religious texts, the Quran was written for the politics of the times. Most rational religionists realise this and adjust their appreciation accordingly. To stick to the literal word of a scripture is to want to revert society back to those far off days. I’d call that politics.
    Yes, Christianity began as a cult but formed into a religion through acceptance.

    The Quran was written by humans living about 1500 years ago and the text reflects that, but it was not written ‘for the politics of the time’, it was written as religious dogma. Muslims believe it is the eternal, perfect word of God. It’s there opionion that counts, because they’re the ones whose actions are effected by it. And their actions effect us. This is religion, not politics.

    To me a religion is a social codification of an accepted inner spirituality – I’m not talking supernatural here, but a sense of bonding; to fellow man, environment, universe, etc. Religion and spirituality are therefore two separate things – people often confuse the issue here. Hence, spirituality is actually what most people call ‘religion.’ whereas religion is a socialisation and politicisation of that spirituality, and is naive enough to allow powerful people to pervert the message.

    I think your definitions are just plain wrong. For one thing, religion in the context we’re talking definitely incorporates supernatural beliefs. If that’s what it means to you, fair enough, but it’s not what most people understand by the term religion. You can’t just make your own definitions and use them to support your arguments. I’d take a look at Wiktionary’s definitions of religion and politics. These are how I, and I think most people, understand the terms. I don’t think they agree with your definitions.

    Consider a few supposedly ‘religious’ innovations of the past. Constantine validated Christianity because he saw its spread allowed cohesion to save the Roman Empire. Politics. Augustine of Hippo placed religion in the person so that it would survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. Politics.
    The Synod of Whitby was an argument over whether power resided in local kings or the pope. Politics. The demand for celibate clergy destroyed the powerful local families who were giving the pope hassle. Politics. A totalitarian Christendom had to be held together through an inner and outer fear, hence the Crusades and Witchhunts. Politics.
    The Reformation and rise of Protestantism was again an argument over whether power resided in local kings or the pope. Politics. The Protestant non-Conformist movement was about the rise of middleclass and usurping of aristocracy, leading to the Industrial Revolution. Politics.

    All this proves is that religion and politics overlap, that they affect each other. I’m not disputing that at all. I think a lot of the examples you give could be reduced to a chicken and egg argument, i.e. without people holding the necessery religious beliefs based on faith, the politics would have nothing to affect.

    I am, actually, non-religious, although I’d consider myself spiritual. But regardless of this, religion in its pure, innocuous form is alright. It is the politics that makes it bad.

    What makes it bad is the atrocities that people commit because of the religious beliefs that they hold. The belief that the Quran is the inerrant word of God is a religious belief, not a political one. Any action carried out as a result of that belief is, therefore, religiously motivated, not politcally motivated.

    You talk about politics as if it is a religion, like we could take it or leave it. Politics is essential for any kind of civilisation we know. Religion isn’t. We could manage just fine without it. Although some religions teach better values than others, they all have the same problem of their supernatural claims being either true or false, and most of them can’t be even be tested, let alone confirmed true. But you can have good politics and bad politics. It works in a different way. You can’t just say, it’s all down to politics. It’s too vague. What politics?

    I think we’re going round in circles.

  14. Politics can best be defined, I think, as the interplay and conventions between two or more people. In other words, anything that is social can be seen as political. The word comes from ‘polis,’ in one sense meaning city-state, but defined by Plato and Aristotle as the best form of social organisation. Therefore, before any religion or ideology coming from socialisation, we first have politics.
    This definition is important because too often ‘religion’ is scape-goated, especially in an increasingly secular world. A question: do most religionists do bad by religion, or good? Do they all deserve to be tarred by the same brush as the literal fundamentalist? And in the final analysis, secularist or religionist has a pretty equal bag of atrocity behind him.
    Religion, by the accepted definition, is a belief in a supernatural entity. I never said this was not the case – I gave my definition so as not to be thought a religionist. Yes, most religionists stick to this. But take the Bible and its requirement to stone adulterers. The average believer today would not do so. This is the difference – the acceptance that we move on.
    At the end of the day your argument that I ‘can’t just say it’s all down to politics’ is incorrect. I can – because any social interaction is, at first, political. Religion and ideology comes later.
    Yes, there are problems with religion just as there are with ideology. It’s the price of socio-political exchange. As to whether we still need religion, I suppose Einstein said it best: ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’
    It’s a big world – it has room for both.

  15. Anthony,

    Did you even click on the links in my last message? Your special private definitions are still way off.

    You’ve watered down the word politics so heavily that it hardly means anything at all. You should read some Daniel Dennett. Primative religion goes back a lot further than what I would call politics.

    Religious moderates do not deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the fundamentalists, I agree with that. But religion has infintely more to account for than secularism. Atheists do bad things, but not because they are atheists. Theny don’t harm or kill people ‘in the name of’ atheism. Religious people justify their actions by saying that it’s what God wants.

    I think you’re definitions are wrong and confusing, but we seem to have hit a stalemate on that one. Let’s try taking it back a level. Whether you want to call it religion or politics, I would argue that irrational thought is the problem. When people don’t support their beliefs and actions with reason and evidence, people get hurt. Do we have some common ground here?

  16. Okay, let’s agree to differ so far. By the way, I’m enjoying this – there isn’t enough debate in the world today.
    True, people don’t do bad things because they are atheists as such, but now aren’t you being too watered down? Wasn’t Soviet communism based on atheism? Didn’t Pol Pot use supposedly atheist/rational arguments for his atrocities? Wasn’t Saddam a mainstay of the secularist Ba’ath party?
    I’ll accept that more atrocity has been done by religionists than atheists, but they had millenia to carry it out. Atheism, as a popular ideal, is young – give it time.
    Religion still has a role in today’s world. You mention primitive religion. This was based on nature and fertility, and revolved around a contract between people in the physical world and the nature spirits in the spiritual. It is best identified as ‘animism.’ Couldn’t we do with a bit of that bonding with the environment today? Could it really do any harm in this pure form?
    I’m neither a religionist or ideologist. What I’m after is balance. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

  17. Glad you’re enjoying it. Me too, it’s one of the reasons I started this site.

    As far as your questions about Soviet commuism go, I’ll have to refer you to the article Red Crimes on Ebon Musings. This will answer your questions better than I could. Please do read it!

    I don’t think atheism is an ideal, it is simply a lack of belief in any gods. I don’t think that religion offers us any benefits we can’t find elsewhere. We can bond with the environment, treasure our lives and our fellow human beings and enjoy a wonderful sense of spirituality without holding any beliefs that can’t be rationally supported.

    Although I’m an atheist, above all I’m a rationalist. If sound evidence emerged for the existence of God, I would become a theist, but I would still be a rationalist. There is a time and a place for balance, and this isn’t it. There is a time to come down from the fence, and this is it. Rationality doesn’t need to be balanced with irrationality, it needs to be complete and undiluted. Anything less is a slippery slope towards atrocity.

  18. I’ve had a look at Red Crimes. It doesn’t convince me. It may be right that communism was a different type of atheism, but it was atheism just the same.
    This debate began with astrology and your refutation of it. After my first post you agreed there could be value in suggestion playing a part. Your ‘rationality’ didn’t include this until it was pointed out.
    You used Newtonian gravity as a ‘rationalist’ argument. Sorry. Newtonian gravity became out of date with Einstein. It isn’t true. It is used today because it still seems to explain while another theory – the quantum theory of gravity – is worked out.
    Notice the rational scientists have already named the theory they’re looking for. A bit presumptious for rational thought isn’t it?
    Science, by its very nature, can never offer absolute proof of anything. It is an on-going process, not definite.
    Take logic. The best philosophers have agreed that all logical thought has to begin with an axiom – a self-evident truth. This is no different than the self-evident belief in a god.
    All knowledge comes down to an emotional need in the end. A rationalist cannot be fully rational while there are still things to know.
    The best way for a peaceful, rational future is to accept the balance of encouraging people of all persuasions to live and respecty each other. This is not sitting on the fence, but the closest to rationality we can, as yet, become.

  19. I’ve had a look at Red Crimes. It doesn’t convince me. It may be right that communism was a different type of atheism, but it was atheism just the same.

    This is a very, very weak response to a superbly detailed essay. What did you say earlier about good religious people being “tarred by the same brush as the literal fundamentalist”? What are you doing now, if not tarring atheists who believe in liberty, tolerance and liberalism with the same brush as the brutally intolerant Communist regimes? This isn’t good enough. If ‘Red Crimes’ really doesn’t convince you, I’d be happy to read your point-by-point rebuttal of it.

    This debate began with astrology and your refutation of it. After my first post you agreed there could be value in suggestion playing a part. Your ‘rationality’ didn’t include this until it was pointed out.

    If you follow the links I placed to confirmation bias, the Forer effect and subjective validation I placed in the article, I think you’ll find it very much was included. Although, I now suspect you may have devised your own private definition of the word “suggestion” as well.

    You used Newtonian gravity as a ‘rationalist’ argument. Sorry. Newtonian gravity became out of date with Einstein. It isn’t true. It is used today because it still seems to explain while another theory – the quantum theory of gravity – is worked out.
    Notice the rational scientists have already named the theory they’re looking for. A bit presumptious for rational thought isn’t it?

    Newtonian gravity has been superseded, you are right about that, but its principles are still sufficient to refute the weak claim that gravity could explain astrological claims. That’s why I referred to it. The quantum theory of gravity is not a ‘theory they’re looking for’, it is a theory that we can already use to calculate the distance between Los Angeles and New York to within a hair’s breadth. They’ve named it because it’s something they have and are working on, just like the theory of evolution is something we have and are always working on. Your statement suggests a profound misunderstanding of science.

    Science, by its very nature, can never offer absolute proof of anything. It is an on-going process, not definite.

    Absolutely right. You say this as if it’s something rationalists/atheists/scientists deny – it isn’t.

    Take logic. The best philosophers have agreed that all logical thought has to begin with an axiom – a self-evident truth. This is no different than the self-evident belief in a god.

    Whoa there! It’s one thing accepting that something like, “I exist” is a self-evident truth. The existence of a God is a different kettle of fish all together. A theist may feel it’s self evident, but that isn’t rational evidence of the existence of God, only that they feel that a god exists. The claim that God exists can not be disproven, but we can evaluate the evidence we have and decide if he’s more likely or less likely to exist. No contest, the evidence simply isn’t there. Do you really want to go down this road?

    Yes, there are some things we have to accept without evidence, like the fact we exist, and that the way I see red is the same as the way you see red, etc. But it is a weak argument to use this as an excuse to believe anything one wants to.

    All knowledge comes down to an emotional need in the end. A rationalist cannot be fully rational while there are still things to know.

    This just doesn’t make any sense at all.

    The best way for a peaceful, rational future is to accept the balance of encouraging people of all persuasions to live and respecty each other. This is not sitting on the fence, but the closest to rationality we can, as yet, become.

    How is encouraging “people of all persuassions to live and respect each other” a balance? A balance would be getting people of half the persuassions to live and respect each other. I don’t want to force anyone to accept my beliefs – that would go against my beliefs! I happen to think the world would be a better place if everyone were an atheist, but only if they came to choose atheism freely of their own accord. I have no problem with anyone who practices their religion without harming anyone. I just fear that as long those people exist, so will their fundamentalist cousins.

    I think we essentially agree, but you want to excuse faith its share of the blame and responsibility, and I want them to accept it and do something about it.

  20. “Take logic. The best philosophers have agreed that all logical thought has to begin with an axiom – a self-evident truth. This is no different than the self-evident belief in a god.”

    Anthony: an axiom is a self-evident truth, or a necessary proposition, or an assumption; or axioms can be based on assumptions: e.g: existence exists; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    To compare “I exist” and “there is an external world” and “1+1 = 2″ and “Tony cannot be in New York and London at the same time” to things like “there is a god” and “I believe in something even though I have no evidence” and “I will go heaven after I die” is ludicrous.

    There is nothing necessary or self-evident about the latter statements, whereas the former are essential for thought and logic to obtain.

    The former are and can be axiomatic; the latter are not.

  21. In pointing out that communism was based on atheism I was not tarring all atheists by the same brush; simply pointing out that some forms of atheism can be as bad as some forms of religion. Neither is perfect.
    You keep referring to my own definitions. I assume this is a device to try to ridicule my views – otherwise it is a dogmatic refusal to accept new ideas. Wasn’t this a ‘rationalist’ argument against religionists?
    How do you evaluate the evidence for or against God? Where do you start? All you can say is that scientific theory as it stands at present does not include a place for God. This is fair enough, but not as conclusive as is thought.
    My comment about emotional need and knowledge is cast aside with the same dismissiveness as you claim I cast aside Red Menace. We must be equally guilty.
    A few words about balance. I think you will agree that the greatest thinkers who devised our world were the likes of Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, Descartes, Locke, James.
    Newton was a closet occultist in search of the great spirit of the universe, even writing a million words on alchemy. Darwin held back on publishing his theory because of the damage it would do to God. Mendel was a monk. Einstein accepted a role for God in society. Descartes was a godly man, his first ‘proof’ being God’s existence. Locke gave us liberal democracy but also wrote a great tract on religious toleration. He wrote in a world where God existed. As for James, he gave us pragmatism, but had a life long belief in Spiritualist mediums.
    What does this tell us? These thinkers existed in a world where rationalism was growing and the popular God dying. Prior to this, thought was stilted by beliefs in God. Since Einstein there hasn’t been a single fundamental scientific paradigm shift of note. This tells us that we think best when we are challenged by a dual system of belief and reason.
    Atheism is the opposite of religionism. If religionism is an extreme, so too must be atheism. Atheism has had its own share of atrocities. Atheism has had its own share of dogmatic unreason. Balance comes between the two.
    I’ll be off-line until tomorrow if you want to carry this on, though I’m not sure there’s anywhere else to go. But I’ll leave you with a thought:
    I think we essentially agree, but you want to excuse atheism it share of blame and responsibility, and I want them to accept it and do something about it.

  22. In pointing out that communism was based on atheism I was not tarring all atheists by the same brush; simply pointing out that some forms of atheism can be as bad as some forms of religion. Neither is perfect.

    And in the process you’ve completely missed the point that atheism was not the cause of the atrocities that took place in Communist regimes. Atheism doesn’t claim to be perfect. It is simply the lack of belief in any gods, until the evidence is presented.

    You keep referring to my own definitions. I assume this is a device to try to ridicule my views – otherwise it is a dogmatic refusal to accept new ideas. Wasn’t this a ‘rationalist’ argument against religionists?

    No, it’s an invitation to use terms with the same meaning, or as close as possible, that everyone else uses them with. Not what you think they should mean. Otherwise people won’t understand you.

    How do you evaluate the evidence for or against God? Where do you start?

    Easy. First, you take into account that there is no empirical evidence for God. Then you assess the ‘rational’ arguments for God’s existence, i.e. cosmological, teleological, ontological, Pascal’s wager, moral, lord/liar/lunatic, transcendental etc. You realise that none of them are logically coherent. You can’t believe in God rationally based on what you’ve got so far. Then, you wait for theists to present new evidence, because the burden of proof is on them. Personally, I’m not holding my breath.

    All you can say is that scientific theory as it stands at present does not include a place for God. This is fair enough, but not as conclusive as is thought.

    God, by definition is supernatural, and therefore can’t be studied by science, which by definition can only study the natural world. If this is what you’re trying to say (and I’m by no means certain), you’re right. What do you mean it’s not “as conclusive as is thought”? Science has made no conclusions about God.

    My comment about emotional need and knowledge is cast aside with the same dismissiveness as you claim I cast aside Red Menace. We must be equally guilty.

    We are not equally guilty. You dismissed a lengthy, well researched, well supported article with a weak response that didn’t even remotely threaten the arguments made. I simply asked you to explain two unsupported assertions that I couldn’t make any sense of.

    A few words about balance. I think you will agree that the greatest thinkers who devised our world were the likes of Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, Descartes, Locke, James.
    Newton was a closet occultist in search of the great spirit of the universe, even writing a million words on alchemy. Darwin held back on publishing his theory because of the damage it would do to God. Mendel was a monk. Einstein accepted a role for God in society. Descartes was a godly man, his first ‘proof’ being God’s existence. Locke gave us liberal democracy but also wrote a great tract on religious toleration. He wrote in a world where God existed. As for James, he gave us pragmatism, but had a life long belief in Spiritualist mediums.
    What does this tell us? These thinkers existed in a world where rationalism was growing and the popular God dying. Prior to this, thought was stilted by beliefs in God. Since Einstein there hasn’t been a single fundamental scientific paradigm shift of note. This tells us that we think best when we are challenged by a dual system of belief and reason.

    That may be what it tells you, it tells me something different. It tells me that science is hindered and dragged back by irrational beliefs of all sorts. For example, as Richard Dawkins says, biologists should be able to get on with their work without having to fight against creationism. It takes up valuable time and resources that could be spent doing valuable scientific research and experiments. Notice the pattern of events you point out. As the popular God declined, rationalism and knowledge flourished? Personally, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The fact that these people believed or allowed for supernatural beliefs doesn’t make them true, or our acceptance of them valid. It simply shows that they were human beings, and that we shouldn’t accept everything they said simply because of who they were. The work that we do accept from these people is accepted because it is supported by evidence. Science has grown stronger and stronger since Einstein. All of the people you named would be amazed at what we’ve learned and achieved in the last 50 years. Einstein didn’t even see us land on the moon!

    Atheism is the opposite of religionism.

    No, it’s not. It is merely the absence of belief. Opposite means two points facing each other across the diameter of the circle. Think of religion being all the different beliefs around the circumference, and atheism being in the centre.

    If religionism is an extreme, so too must be atheism.

    Extreme in what sense? Religion is dogmatic, atheism is not.

    Atheism has had its own share of atrocities. Atheism has had its own share of dogmatic unreason. Balance comes between the two.

    No, no, no, no, no. Yet another full circle. Atheism and it’s atrocities – go back and read Red Crimes again and see if it sinks in this time. Atheism can’t be dogmatic or unreasonable, it is based on reason, at least for 99.9% of atheists.

    I’ll be off-line until tomorrow if you want to carry this on, though I’m not sure there’s anywhere else to go.

    No, I don’t think there’s a lot else to cover. If you want to reply to this, we’ll see where it goes from there.

    But I’ll leave you with a thought:
    I think we essentially agree, but you want to excuse atheism it share of blame and responsibility, and I want them to accept it and do something about it.

    And I will ask you, yet again, to provide the evidence that atheism has something for which to accept blame and responsibility. The evidence is there against religion. And please, don’t say atheism is just another religion, it’s not. Saying atheism is a religion is like calling baldness a hair colour (not my quote, but I don’t have a source).

  23. Just had a moment to pop on line and discovered that it seems nothing I have said is correct. Nothing, it seems, can shake your conviction. You have, it seems, absolutely no doubt of your opinions. Sadly I will not be back for I’m speaking to a blank wall. I will simply refer to the beginning of modern thought, and Descartes insistence that we doubt everything. Including our own worldview.
    And I bet you’ll even reply to this, even though I won’t be here.

  24. Anthony,

    You win the bet – I’m replying. My bet is that you come back to see if you’ve won your bet, although I don’t think you’ll let me know.

    If you do read this, all I can say is that I’m neither apologising for, nor retracting anything I’ve said, I stand by every word. However, I do apologise if I seemed hostile as that is something I try to avoid, even if I don’t always succeed. The best debates are always passionate, if you feel I went over the top, then I regret that.

    Again, all I need to shake my conviction is evidence, although I doubt that point will get through if it didn’t before. As far as the blank wall goes, and I don’t mean this flippantly, the feeling is truly mutual.

    I’m sorry that the debate has ended on a sour note and that you won’t be back. Please feel free at any time to change your mind, you’ll be welcomed with open arms, as everyone is here.

  25. Awesome discussion! For believers and non believers alike, one hour of what I can trully call great entertainment. I do not by that want to diminish the importance of the discussion; My first 2 sentences mean only what they literally mean, nothing else.

    But I do have to add something about the blank wall bits:

    Talking to a skeptic is not like talking to a blank wall. It’s just that our walls are usually built on solid foundations, but they are usually ready to fall – you just have to show us a big enough hammer.

    That almost came out nice! So go ahead and quote me!

  26. In case someone really wants to quote it (are you out of your mind?), the name is Fabio ‘Petrucio’ Stange.

  27. Thanks for your feedback, Petrucio.

    I think you make a good point. I’ve had similar outcomes before. I’m accused of stuborness, fanatacism, that I’m in “absolutely no doubts about my opinions”. When really, it’s just that someone has spent a lot of time trying to convince me with poor arguments, not the high standards of evidence I demand in order to believe something.


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