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

The Control Group


When I’m filling out a form and I get to the question “religion?”, I fill in “atheist”. I know that some people think that this implies that atheism is a religion, but I don’t think it does. It is, in my opinion, simply the most concise way of answering the question. With just one word, I can make it clear that I don’t have a religion, indeed, that I’m not religious. Some people have suggested that we write “non-religious” instead, but this just appeases, and even encourages people’s misunderstanding of the word “atheist”. If anything, “non-religious” implies that atheism is a religion, by suggesting that “non-religion” is a different option from “atheism”. I think “atheist” is the right thing to put, and if people misunderstand it, then that is their fault. People most certainly do misunderstand it frequently, but we should not adjust for this misconception. We should continue to defiantly use the term in its correct context, thus confronting the ignorance of misunderstanding with which it is so often met. Only then, will people stop misunderstanding it.

So, is atheism a religion, or is it religious? It is a question of semantics. The meaning of the term “atheist” is consistent, but it depends on how you are using the term “religious”. Wiktionary lists, among other, these two definitions of the word “religion”.

A system of beliefs, including belief in the existence of at least one of the following: a human soul or spirit, a deity or higher being, or self after the death of one’s body.

“When it comes to religion, she doesn’t believe, but she loves to attend the ceremonies.”

Anything that involves the association of people in a manner resembling a religious institution or cult.

At this point, Star Trek has really become a religion.”

Under the second definition, atheism could, in some cases be said to be religious. But only in the way that people can be religious about Star Trek, football or stamp collecting. This colloquial expression of the term “religion” is widely used and accepted, but it is quite diluted. Personally, I don’t see it as harmful. It doesn’t really mean anything in concrete terms.

It is the first definition that really describes religion as we know it, and this is the one that people often try to fit, wrongly, to atheism. We clearly fail to meet this definition at any point. We don’t believe in souls, spirits, deities, higher beings, the afterlife or anything else that is supernatural. I would suggest that religion often also includes holy scriptures, and again we come up short (despite ludicrous claims of On the Origin of Species being our holy book). There is no room for interpretation here. Atheism simply is not a religion, at least not in the way that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are, which is the way that it is most frequently implied. There is a quote circulating the internet for which I can’t find an original source, that I think sums it up nicely, “if atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair colour”.

In a scientific study, say, a medical trial, the testers will include a group of people who are not given the drug being tested. They record the same statistics for this group as they do for experimental group. This is in order to have a point for comparison once the results are in. It allows the testers to be sure that their results can be attributed to the drug. If the results are the same for both groups, then they can be sure that the cause has not been the drug, but some other factor. This group that is not given the drug, is called the control group.

As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that religion, from its earliest point in history right up to the present, is a scientific study. Some groups of human beings are given Christianity, others are given Islam and so on. (Never mind about people converting and things like that. Of course, the real world is not a controlled environment and would not serve for a real experiment, but this is just a thought exercise.) Atheists are the control group. We are most certainly part of the experiment, but we are the group that does not actually have a religion. We are here for purposes of comparison.

This is why “atheist” is the answer to the question on the form. Atheism is not a religion, but as a term it only finds its meaning within the context of religion. If there were no religion, we would still be atheists, but the term would cease to have any meaning.

So, let’s look at the results of the experiment. We are the control group. Control. I think that’s very apt. As atheists, we are the only group in the experiment that has control over our own lives and destinies. Having not been ‘given’ a religion, there is nothing to affect us, our morality, our beliefs, our choices. We are free to decide for ourselves the best way to be happy, and to make others happy.

In stark contrast, religion relinquishes control to a supernatural being created, ironically, by the very people who follow him. A supernatural being who is obsessed with the suppression of sexuality, sin, ambition and desire. A supernatural being who revels in the blood spilt in his name, and splashes playfully in the tears of the bereaved like a baby in a paddling pool. A supernatural being far more concerned with his own happiness than that of any of his beloved creations.

This is why atheism is the path I chose. I do not wish to serve a god who hides from us, stealing credit for our hard work and petulantly refusing to accept the blame for our mistakes. I want to serve human beings, actual people that I can see and hear. People whose gratitude I can receive in the currency of smiles and words, and good deeds returned. People who will give me credit for my success, take credit for their own and help us all to deal out the blame fairly, when it is due.

Religion is at best, bad medicine, and at its most horrific extreme, a disease. Atheism is both the cure and the prevention. Its growth across humanity cannot repair the damage done in the past, but it can change things for the better in the present and protect us all from harm in the future. Not just our future, but all the time that lies before us. A future planet whose residents are yet to be born. Through atheism, which is not a religion, but the rejection of religion, we can take control and ensure that the generations to come are welcomed into a bright and happy home.

27 Responses to “The Control Group”

  1. So why is the word “atheism” so anathemic to people? Why all the negative connotations? It’s such a neutral word, and the position of atheists is one of neutrality.

    On another blog, some theist claimed that atheists proselytize just like Christians. But to proselytize means to try to convert someone. To become atheistic is to de-convert, not to convert to atheism. To de-convert is to bring one back to the natural state of neutrality on the subject of god’s existence, the one we were born with.

    I like the word. Everyone that hears it at least knows what it means. The problem is that some attach their culturally attained attributes to it, oftentimes distorting its meaning beyond normal comprehension. Hence, atheists then become kitty killers.

    “Atheism is a religion, like ‘off’ is a TV channel”.

  2. Sample Survey
    Religion: Atheist
    Brand of cigarette: Non-smoker
    Alcoholic beverage of choice: non-drinker
    steak or chicken: vegetarian

    Basically, we have some categories that we’re all used to seeing but don’t fit everyone. Where there’s a disparity, we simply list the term that describes us in relation to the topic. A vegetarian is no more a different kind of meat-eater than a non-smoker is one who is picking a different brand of ciggy.

    I suppose,

    Metaphysics:

    would be a fitting replacement, but

    Epistemology:

    would probably lose most people.
    Anyway, I think the most important thing is not to leave it blank. Let’s let ’em know we’re out here.🙂

  3. While I agree that “atheist” is clearly a viable word to put in the blank, I always just use “NONE,” written in big, bold caps.

  4. let’s see…there are movements in atheism, there are great debates to try and “convert” others to similiar beliefs, there are a certain set of consisitently quoted “prophets” that dictate the general rules of belief/disbelief…….seems prety similar to religion if you ask me.

  5. Liza said:

    there are movements in atheism

    Are there? Please explain. Even if there are, so what? There are movements everywhere. Does a political movement make a certain political idea a religion? (I’m talking about the first definition from the main article, not the second). What exactly would be supernatural or divine about it?

    there are great debates to try and “convert” others to similiar beliefs

    Yes, there are debates. The purpose of any debate is to get the other side to agree with you. This is not the same as religious conversion. Again, there are political debates. If a democrat and a republican debate with the purpose of getting the other one to change their mind, does this make either political party a religion?

    there are a certain set of consisitently quoted “prophets” that dictate the general rules of belief/disbelief

    A prophet is just someone who makes predictions about the future. So what? For the final time, politicians make predictions about the future but it doesn’t make politics, or any political party a religion. And who exactly dicatates the general rules of belief/disbelief?! There are no rules, we follow the evidence for ourselves.

    seems prety similar to religion if you ask me.

    Then I don’t think you’ve really read the article properly. You’ve just tried to fit words that you associate with what you think religion is to what you think atheism. I’ve sourced the definition of religion in the article, and shown that atheism doesn’t meet it.

  6. Well, you did choose the definition that best suited your arguments. That’s kind of convenient for you.

    Atheism is not a religion in the sense of belief in a higher being, but “educated” atheism revolves around very specific beliefs and personalities. I say educated only to differentiate between those who would call themselves atheist, but haven’t really put much effort to thinking about it, and those who are activist atheists that have poured time and effort into studying atheist arguments and thinkers.

    My only point is that you can cry foul all that you want to about being compared to religions, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid criticism.

    There are many religious movements that are not organized, codified, and centralized, but that lack of organiztion does not negate them as a world-view or belief system. After all, what is religion other than an effort to define life and its meaning through a set of beliefs or a certain interpretation?

  7. p.s….even “control” groups are likely to experience a placebo effect, basically experiencing the same benefits as the “experimental” group.

  8. Liza said:

    Well, you did choose the definition that best suited your arguments. That’s kind of convenient for you.

    I’m not sure what you mean. I chose the definitions that were relevant to the article I was writing. I mentioned that Wiktionary listed a number of definitions, and linked to the source. I aslo explained how atheism can be ‘religious’ in a certain, broad context, but not in the way that an organised religion is. What more could I have done?

    Atheism is not a religion in the sense of belief in a higher being, but “educated” atheism revolves around very specific beliefs and personalities. I say educated only to differentiate between those who would call themselves atheist, but haven’t really put much effort to thinking about it, and those who are activist atheists that have poured time and effort into studying atheist arguments and thinkers.

    Atheism is a lack of belief in any gods, nothing more. You’re right that some atheists are ‘active’ and others aren’t, but just being passionate about a subject still doesn’t make it a religion.

    My only point is that you can cry foul all that you want to about being compared to religions, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid criticism.

    You’re right that crying foul doesn’t mean it’s not a valid criticism. Pointing out that atheism doesn’t meet the criteria of any widely accepted or documented definition of religion (except for the broad sense I acknowledged) means it’s not a valid criticism.

    There are many religious movements that are not organized, codified, and centralized, but that lack of organiztion does not negate them as a world-view or belief system.

    I quite agree. I’m not sure what point you’re making, or what point of mine you’re responding to?

    After all, what is religion other than an effort to define life and its meaning through a set of beliefs or a certain interpretation?

    I’d say that’s much closer to a definition of philosophy than religion. This is your definition of religion. Can you offer a source to support it? If we all make up our own, private definitions, we end up with chaos.

    p.s….even “control” groups are likely to experience a placebo effect, basically experiencing the same benefits as the “experimental” group.

    Only if they’re actually given a drug or a placebo. When a control group is given nothing at all, as in my analogy, they cannot experience placebo effect because they know that they’ve not taken anything.

  9. I would say that part of the “drug” is being part of a community that believes similarly, chatsizes those who don’t believe similarly, and has certain main themes that flow through those beliefs.

    It is the head nod of like-mindedness that occurs between groups of people who claim certain beliefs, whatever they may be.

    My point is that humans behave and group in certain ways. Marc Hauser was recently interviewed in Discover about evolution and the development of morality. His studies have revolved around whether ALL humans have an innate predisposition to some form of morality, or social guidelines. His perspective is that this developed as a defense mechanism in evolution.

    I would say that’s taking information and making it fit on’s own preconceived notions–something Christians are always accused of.

    In a recent PBS documentary, The Brief History Of Disbelief, Richard Dawkins made a very telling statement. When discussing the purposes of various genetic mutations and forms in the geologic record, he said that EVERY mutation had a beneficial purpose, and that if we didn’t know what it was, it was simply that we didn’t have enough information rather than the fact that it might have been a random mistake. Then he chuckled to himself and admitted that was basically taken on pure FAITH in his mind—faith in the process of natural selection.

    So, faith in ther process of evolution, faith in a Higher Being…they really are not that far apart at their most basic level. Richard Dawkins when confronted with things that he can’t explain, and for which he has no empirical evidence, blindly believes and acts on something he believes in the core of his being.

  10. Liza said:

    I would say that part of the “drug” is being part of a community that believes similarly, chatsizes those who don’t believe similarly, and has certain main themes that flow through those beliefs.

    So, because we’re around religious people, we’ll be religious? Or that Atheism is a religion? What are you arguing? If it’s one of my suggestions, then it’s a non-sequitur.

    It is the head nod of like-mindedness that occurs between groups of people who claim certain beliefs, whatever they may be.

    See above.

    My point is that humans behave and group in certain ways. Marc Hauser was recently interviewed in Discover about evolution and the development of morality. His studies have revolved around whether ALL humans have an innate predisposition to some form of morality, or social guidelines. His perspective is that this developed as a defense mechanism in evolution.
    I would say that’s taking information and making it fit on’s own preconceived notions–something Christians are always accused of.

    You’ve lost me. Are you saying that you think morality evolved as a defense mechanism, which means we take information and fit it to what we want it to be, therefore atheism is a religion? If so, again, a non-sequitur.

    In a recent PBS documentary, The Brief History Of Disbelief, Richard Dawkins made a very telling statement. When discussing the purposes of various genetic mutations and forms in the geologic record, he said that EVERY mutation had a beneficial purpose, and that if we didn’t know what it was, it was simply that we didn’t have enough information rather than the fact that it might have been a random mistake. Then he chuckled to himself and admitted that was basically taken on pure FAITH in his mind—faith in the process of natural selection.

    I’ve searched for the video footage but I can’t find it. Until I see the video footage of what you’re claiming, I simply don’t believe you. I don’t believe that Richard Dawkins would state such an obvious false-hood about evolution, and say that it was based on faith! Particularly when I’ve read him give the correct version (that most mutations are neutral, some are bad and a very few, which are naturally selected for, are good) so many times. I suspect that you have either misquoted, quoted out of context, been misinformed or have misunderstood. If you have the link to the video, please present it and if you’re right, I will hold up my hands.

    So, faith in ther process of evolution, faith in a Higher Being…they really are not that far apart at their most basic level. Richard Dawkins when confronted with things that he can’t explain, and for which he has no empirical evidence, blindly believes and acts on something he believes in the core of his being.

    The reason that I’m not accepting your quote of Dawkins, is that you’re making an extroadinary claim, without evidence. I will believe it when I see the evidence. This is also how we approach evolution – evidence! Not faith. It is not believed ‘blindly’, and it is not a ‘core belief’.
    Two things that are constantly missing from your comments are sources and conclusions, and this is making hard work for me. I keep having to go searching for the evidence for your claims, which is your job, not mine! Please present sources. You also keep stating assumptions and then leaving me to guess what you’re conclusion is. Again, your job, not mine. Throw me a bone, tell me what you’re trying to say!

  11. no problem about believing me.

    I am not sure which part of the series that quote came in. When I was watching it, it was broken into 2 parts, but when I looked up the series online, some places say it has four parts, others say six parts to the complete series. The quote occurs as Jonathan Miller is interviewing Dawkins in a kitchen or some part of a home. But yes, he really says that, in a very quiet, smiling to himself, sort of way.

    Regarding Hauser…those are his beliefs, not mine. My point is that it is not uncommon for atheists to take a bottom-up approach to science and thinking. Hauser sees that all humans with various religious/non-religious beliefs all respond remarkably similar in deciding ethical/moral dillemas. There seems to be a universal sense of “right” and “wrong” that people innately have. For instance, we shouldn’t kill people.

    The problem is that when Hauser discovers this, because he has an assumption that evolution can account for every aspect of humanity, he has to find a way to work it into his belief sytem by postulating about why evolution would provide humans with a moral code. He starts with an assumption and fits the data to his assumption–hardly scientific. All of my rambling on about that is only to make the point that atheism can be very similar to religion. When atheists come to believe something so strongly, they are no better at being objective than any religious person.

    Heaven forbid that Hauser would see that humans come with hard-wired morality and really think about what the implications of that might be

    My comments here are not meant to be an exhaustive, peer-reviewed, officially stamped, backed up by 100 sources, type of comment. They are merely the musings of someone interested in how atheists piece things together and to simply say, “Me-thinks the lady doth protest too much”

  12. I like to say that atheism is a religion like zero is a number. It is a representation of a lack of any actual value. So as when zero is compared with other numbers, when the question is of demographic groups then yes, I think that atheism is a religion. But only then!

  13. @ Liza,

    I can’t respond to your points about Hauser without reading a bit more on what you’re talking about. Again, I can’t accept your version of his findings, or his interpretation of them. It feels like I’m getting information filtered through a Christian mind.

    My comments here are not meant to be an exhaustive, peer-reviewed, officially stamped, backed up by 100 sources, type of comment. They are merely the musings of someone interested in how atheists piece things together and to simply say, “Me-thinks the lady doth protest too much”

    Nobody’s asking you for 100 sources. One or two would be nice. It’s up to you, but you’re far less likely to have your points taken seriously if you don’t support them. Personally, as far as the protests go, I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘too much’.

    David W said:

    I like to say that atheism is a religion like zero is a number. It is a representation of a lack of any actual value. So as when zero is compared with other numbers, when the question is of demographic groups then yes, I think that atheism is a religion. But only then!

    It’s an excellent analogy, but I would use it to support my case that atheism is not a religion. Zero is not a number, it is a way of expressing the concept of “nothing” in a numerical context (for example, if zero is a number, is it odd or even? Prime or not? It has none of the characteristics that constitute a number. It is just there so we don’t have an empty space). Without numbers, “zero” would have no meaning. Equally, atheism is not a religion, it is a way of expressing “nothing” in a religious context. Again, without religion, “atheism”, as a term, has no real meaning.

  14. Well, I can only say that my comments here are simply the comments of somebody who happened upon your site and had a few thoughts. I did not bring detailed studies to back up my every point, because these are simply comments on a blog. I offer only a few examples that came to mind while thinking about your original post.

    Plus, while I find the interplay between atheistic thought and Christian thought interesting, it is only a hobby, not something to which I devote detailed record-keeping of things I have read or considered. So, I hope that you understand that I am not trying to be coy about having more detailed sources. I am just a cyber-passer-by that glimpsed your blog, while wandering about the Internet, and had a few thoughts.

    The Marc Hauser interview was in the May 2007 of Discover magazine. The interview with Dawkins was in the American version of A Brief HIstory Of Disbelief. It might have been repackaged to fit American PBS, but I haven’t been able to say for sure because Miller seems to have a similar series called, The Rough History Of Disbelief, previously. I don’t know if it is the same exact program as the American version.

    completely unrelated…..I have a hard time finding the cursor in this layout. The dark grey comment box obscures it, making it nearly invisible. Is it just my browser or has anyone else ever complained about it?

  15. Hi Liza,

    Please let me clear about this: your contribution to my blog is very much appreciated, and I do sometimes need reminding that not everyone shares my passion for this subject. I also acknowledge, and thank you for your subsequent efforts to present sources, which is always more difficult when they are not text, web based articles.

    You’re not the first person (by some way) to complain about an aesthetic/presentation aspect of my site. It appears to manifest itself differently in various web browsers and blog aggregators. As I have lamented before though, the selection offered by wordpress to its “.com” users is abysmal. I’ve looked through a few times and this really is the only one I like.

    I’m toying with the idea of upgrading to a “.org” account, in which case I will take on your, and everyone else’s criticisms about the current layout. For now, stuck with it, I’m afraid.

    Thanks again for the feedback🙂

  16. Zero is not a number, it is a way of expressing the concept of “nothing” in a numerical context (for example, if zero is a number, is it odd or even? Prime or not?

    Even, sir. It’s an integer multiple of two. And no, it’s not prime, although note that the question of whether one is prime or not is also disputable, depending on your definition; the way most number theory uses primes justifies leaving ‘one’ out of it, but really, you can’t use disputability of primeness to justify something not being a number. Zero is most definitely a number from a mathematician’s point of view. On the other hand, it is sometimes left out of the definition of the natural numbers (usually depending on whether we feel like it, notwithstanding the distinction between “natural numbers” (without zero) and “whole numbers” (including zero) that they taught me in school — mathematicians rely on context sometimes, too).

    You’re perfectly right that whether atheism is a religion depends on your definition. Personally, I would ask those who claim that atheism is a religion to eschew the dubious definition of religion required for that and instead detail how they consider atheism to be similar to a religion, giving evidence (as liza has in fact done, to some extent🙂 ). That way we can deal with the accusation directly, rather than having the semantic muddle at the beginning. I suspect that what most of them mean is that atheism is on a similar epistemological footing to any other religion. I can’t agree.

    Incidentally, I happen to have come across that Richard Dawkins segment on YouTube yesterday. It’s here. You can probably get sufficient context by starting from about the third minute. The statement referred to is at about 4:10 and reads:

    “I suppose that is a sort of matter of faith on my part, since the theory is SO coherent, and so powerful.”

    In other words, there is an extent to which Dawkins is willing to pass over gaps in the explanation of how a particular aspect of an organism came about, since the theory is so powerful that he suspects there is an answer, even if no-one has found it yet. That part about “since the theory is so coherent, and so powerful” really matters. If the existence of God were a coherent, powerful theory, we might be more willing to overlook small gaps there, too. Indeed, religious people, in passing over flaws in their explanations, treat the situation as if it were a matter of small gaps in an otherwise coherent theory that we can take on faith as having an explanation. The trouble is, that’s not the case. The theory as a whole is just not coherent if you ask me.

  17. @ Lynet

    I concede that zero is a number. It still doesn’t sit right with me, particularly because it can’t be said to be positive or negative, another attribute that I thought a number had to have. But I know you’ve got a very, very strong background in maths, and the bit of research I’ve done seems to prove you right.🙂

    I also agree with the rest of your comment. Thank you for the link to the Dawkins vid, which brings me nicely on to Liza.

    @ Liza

    Let’s refresh our memories of what you said:

    In a recent PBS documentary, The Brief History Of Disbelief, Richard Dawkins made a very telling statement. When discussing the purposes of various genetic mutations and forms in the geologic record, he said that EVERY mutation had a beneficial purpose, and that if we didn’t know what it was, it was simply that we didn’t have enough information rather than the fact that it might have been a random mistake. Then he chuckled to himself and admitted that was basically taken on pure FAITH in his mind—faith in the process of natural selection.

    The link to the video is here, thanks again to Lynet.

    First of all, let’s deal with that “EVERY mutation had a beneifical purpose” bit. What Dawkins actually says, word for word, is,

    Well, the novelties [that drive evolution] themselves of course, are genetic variations in the gene pool which ultimately come from mutation and more proximately come from sexual recombination. There’s nothing very inventive or ingenious about those novelties, I mean, they are random. And, um, they are mostly deleterious. Most mutations are bad.

    The emphasis is mine. How did you come to think that Dawkins said all mutations were beneficial? He clearly says that most mutations are harmful. Was this just a case of selective hearing? I think where you may have got it from was this bit:

    There cannot have been intermediate stages which were not beneficial. It’s…there’s no room in natural selection for the sort of foresight argument that says: “well, if we’re going to persist for the next million years it’ll start becoming useful”. That doesn’t work. There’s got to be a selection pressure all the way.

    This is completely different from what you quoted. He’s not saying all mutations are beneficial, he’s saying that only beneficial mutations can be naturally selected for. He’s saying that if a mutation doesn’t aid survival in some way, no matter how small, it will not be selected for, because natural selection does not have foresight, it will only reward what helps in the here and now.

    As for saying this is taken on faith, I happen to disagree with him. If, as in the example he uses, a bird has a feather and we don’t know how it was initially helpful, and we believe that it must have been beneficial some how even if we don’t know exactly why, we are accepting the most plausible explanation based on the evidence. This is not faith, it would take faith to believe that there wasn’t a benefit, because this would require a more miraculous explanation.

    This is what good science and critical thinking is all about. We tentatively assume the most likely explanation that fits with the evidence available. We always opt for the simplest explanation. The only time we believe a farfetched or seemingly miraculous explanation, is if the alternative is even more far fetched.

    A prime example of this principle, was me refusing to accept your version of Dawkins interview. It didn’t fit the available evidence, so I opted for the simplest explanation, that you were incorrect. I think the video has proved me right.

  18. I can’t see the video because my computer is SOOOOOOO SLOW!:-(

    However, I know from what you quoted, that that is not the portion of A Brief History Of Disbelief, which aired here on PBS to which I am referring.

    The portion that I am referring to occured as Miller is asking Dawkins about whether every mutation is beneficial. Then Miller launches into an example about a feather and why an animal would need a feather. He asks if before the feather appears would there be something kind of like a pimple…some way of getting ready to produce a feather. And he has some cutesy way of saying,” oh just be patient, it doesn’t look like much, but trust me it’s going to be a feather.”

    It is at this point that Dawkins says that there are no purposeless mutations. The whole exchange occurs in about the space of a minute. So, I am not sure how to respond. Because I can’t view the clip, I can’t be sure that it is the same version as I saw here, or the same portion of the program.

    Please keep in mind that things get re-edited and repackaged for American TV…which is something that I have reiterated several times in reference to this program.

    Regardless, you can think that I am just some crazy person making things up, but I assure you that I am not. Let me know if the video clip is the same as I have tried to describe.

  19. @ Liza

    The clip, and the conversation, happens exactly the way you described it, save for one minor detail: Dawkins never says that “there are no purposeless explanations”. As I’ve explained, he simply describes how the feather must have been beneficial at every single stage of its evolution, not just some of them. Once again, what he’s saying is that not all mutations are beneficial, but only the beneficial ones, by definition, will ever be naturally selected for.

    Please keep in mind that things get re-edited and repackaged for American TV…which is something that I have reiterated several times in reference to this program.

    I’m open to being corrected, but I don’t think that’s what has happened. They certainly do re-edit for various reasons, but Dawkins is unlikely to contradict himself in one interview, and then have either version shown in each re-edited program.

    you can think that I am just some crazy person making things up, but I assure you that I am not.

    I don’t think that. I think you genuinely believe what you are saying, but I think that you’re mistaken, and if you can find a way to watch the video (perhaps on someone else’s computer?) and then re-read my comments explaining it, you’ll see that for yourself. Perhaps you weren’t properly paying attention when you were watching it, and then confirmation bias and confabulation kicked in. Either way, there is a clear discrepancy between what you remember and what the video shows.

  20. My main point in this conversation was about Dawkins statement about “faith” in natural selection and his assurance that if we don’t know what caused a mutation it is simply that we don’t have the information, not an indication that the mutation was without purpose.

    Does that statement appear in the clip?

    Does he say,” I guess that ‘s a matter of faith on my part. Faith in natural selection.” ??

  21. @ Liza

    Yes, to be fair, it does. The critical difference though, is that what he actually said was attributable to “a sort of faith” is very different from the point that you said he said was attributable to faith.

    As Lynet pointed out, the theory of evolution and natural selection are so coherent that when there are minor gaps in our actual, hands-on knowledge, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that there is an explanation that fits in with natural selection that we aren’t aware of, rather than concluding that the theory of natural selection is false, which would take a lot more faith!

    Personally, I am surprised that Dawkins used those words, partly because I don’t agree with him and wouldn’t have expected him to take that view, and partly because a phrase like that makes him a sitting duck for quote minors. Personally, I still think that you’re trying to distort the context.

    Do you at least concede that your memory of the point Dawkins made about mutations being all positive may have been wrong?

  22. I will let my computer take the hour (at least) that it will take to download 8 measly minutes of air time and then get back to you.

  23. OK…several things I have to say.

    The first few minutes of this clip were not in the program I saw. Perhaps Miller said “umm” one too many times, perhaps the editors had to keep the film under a certain time limit, perhaps old, English men think Americans are too dumb to understand what’s being discussed. I am not really sure.

    Also, in the program I saw, Miller is not posing an argument to Dawkins about what people, referred to as “they” in this clip, might say. Instead he presents the whole feather issue in a devil’s advocate way, pretending that he is asking the question. He also elaborates on the feather thing a little more. After Dawkins makes the statement about his “sort of faith,” the interview with him is cut short and Miller moves on to other things in his film.

    So….that being said…

    The program I watched was aired the first week of May 2007. Miller’s other program A Rough HIstory of Disbelief aired in the UK in the fall of 2005. Why the different title and much later release date? I have no doubt that the clip on YouTube is probably from the original source material for the first program. There was heavy editing to the interview. For that, I cannot be held responsible

    Dawkins says, “there cannot have been intermediate stages that were not beneficial.” That is the quote that motivated me to write what I did. Without the previous 3 minutes of the interview, the implication is that there are no mistakes in natural selection. Perhaps, I should have said it that way as opposed to saying that he said all mutations were beneficial. My intent was not to misquote him, but only to get across the quote above.

    “sort of faith” vs. actual faith…I think it is a little nitpicky. It doesn’t change the fact that Dawkins has a belief that guides him when confronted with things that he cannot prove. If you want to argue about a gap’s size and what is an acceptable amount of mental bridging to get across it, then you are getting into something that is further away from the original point I was making.

    My point is only that everyone operates under a belief system. When confronted with things that cannot be sufficiently explained, they turn to those core beliefs to guide them. If one believes in elvolution, natural selection, and atheism, that is what will determine the routes to meaning that the brain is looking for.

  24. My point is only that everyone operates under a belief system. When confronted with things that cannot be sufficiently explained, they turn to those core beliefs to guide them.

    However, one can still ask which core beliefs are better justified by the evidence, and evolution is very well justified.

  25. @ Liza

    I’ll take your word for it about the difference between the UK and US versions. However,

    Dawkins says, “there cannot have been intermediate stages that were not beneficial.” That is the quote that motivated me to write what I did. Without the previous 3 minutes of the interview, the implication is that there are no mistakes in natural selection.

    I disagree. Even without the previous three minutes, I don’t think what Dawkins says implies anything of the sort.

    My point is only that everyone operates under a belief system. When confronted with things that cannot be sufficiently explained, they turn to those core beliefs to guide them. If one believes in elvolution, natural selection, and atheism, that is what will determine the routes to meaning that the brain is looking for.

    Richard Dawkins has a belief in evolution that is based on a huge amount of evidence. It is a belief that he would happily revoke if new evidence came to light disproving it. The same goes for atheism. We don’t use a belief system to bridge gaps in understanding, we ask: what is the simplest explanation based on all the evidence we have available? Neither atheism, nor evolution are ‘core beliefs’. The only thing that determines the route to meaning that our brains are looking for is… …evidence! That doesn’t necessarily mean proving something beyond any doubt, it just means the most likely explanation at the time. Christianity, at least in it’s fundamentalist strain, is not like this. It is based on a rigid, dogmatic belief that the claims of Christianity are true, and any evidence to the contrary is false.

  26. I’ll come at this from another angle. Do I personally care about the specifics of Dawkin’s belief/disbelief? In some sense…no.

    As I have read through this thread, and a few others on the site, I have repeatedly been struck by how similar some of the thinking and reactions are to Chrisitan reactions in similar situations. For instance, the whole “should I attend a Christening thing” makes sense to me. I actually get what you are saying about that. I would never attend a ceremony dedicating a baby to a Wiccan God/Goddess. It would go against everyhting that I believe, and I would want no part of condoning it with my presence.

    When Jerry Falwell died, and some rejoiced, I thought about what the reaction would be among certain Christians if Dawkins kicked the bucket, especially if it was by somehting dramatic like a lightning strike. I personally would find it repugnant to rejoice and gloat over anyone’s death, but not everyone shares the same sense of decorum.

    WHen I first related that Dawkin’s had used the word faith, your response was incredulous. You would not believe it could be possible. We have since discussed it and gone back and forth about it, but you discovered that it was true….even if you don’t agree on the interpretation.

    For some reason, my assertion that atheists do have beliefs that guide them has somehow been taken as almost a type of insult or weakness that has to be defended. Why?

    The conversation has turned into a discussion about who has the better grounding for their beliefs, not about whether belief exists in the athesit mind.

    My argument is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical one; namely, that human nature REQUIRES some sort of structure for interpreting the world around us and our place in it. We demand an explanation. For atheists, that explanation is natural selection.

    I would go even further and say that a layer below the belief in natural selection is the belief in an absolute truth, albeit one that only allows for the material world. If you have a belief in absolute truth, then you are only a stone’s throw from religion. If atheism is correct, than everything else must be wrong…which leads to the “passionate” nature of outspoken atheists.

    The beliefs may differ, but the actions, rhetoric, and desire to impart knowledge to those who lack it does not.

    Well, you’re probably sick of this conversation and want to move on with other blog posts, so I won’t pester you about it anymore.🙂

  27. @ Liza

    I would never attend a ceremony dedicating a baby to a Wiccan God/Goddess. It would go against everyhting that I believe, and I would want no part of condoning it with my presence.

    I think we have different reasons. I wouldn’t go because it’s religious indoctrination. It seems to me that you wouldn’t because it’s the wrong type of religious indoctrination.

    WHen I first related that Dawkin’s had used the word faith, your response was incredulous. You would not believe it could be possible. We have since discussed it and gone back and forth about it, but you discovered that it was true….even if you don’t agree on the interpretation.

    What I actually said at the time was:

    I don’t believe that Richard Dawkins would state such an obvious false-hood about evolution, and say that it was based on faith!

    I was incredulous, but not at Richard Dawkins using the word faith, but at what you claimed he attributed to faith. I was right to be sceptical. As the video showed, he didn’t state a falsehood about evolution and then attribute his belief in it to faith.

    For some reason, my assertion that atheists do have beliefs that guide them has somehow been taken as almost a type of insult or weakness that has to be defended. Why?

    Beliefs are fine, ‘core’ beliefs, which you have previously claimed, are not. We don’t take it as an insult, merely an error. It implies that our disbelief in God is fundamental to our worldview, that we could never revoke it. This is not the case. Our disbelief is tentative, pending further evidence. It is not a core belief.

    My argument is not a scientific argument, but a philosophical one; namely, that human nature REQUIRES some sort of structure for interpreting the world around us and our place in it. We demand an explanation. For atheists, that explanation is natural selection.

    Whether it’s scientific or philosophical is niether here nor there. The question is, is it rationally supported? Persoanally, I don’t think so. We don’t demand explanations, we seek them. If we can’t find them, we wait. We are patient! We don’t just come up with a shoddy, thrown together non-explanation until we find something better. What we do demand, is evidence. We do have a structure for interpreting the world – it’s called scepticism. And please, don’t confuse atheism with belief in evolution. It’s not the same thing. Most atheists believe in evolution, because of the evidence. We would change our minds if new evidence came to light disproving it.

    I would go even further and say that a layer below the belief in natural selection is the belief in an absolute truth, albeit one that only allows for the material world. If you have a belief in absolute truth, then you are only a stone’s throw from religion. If atheism is correct, than everything else must be wrong…which leads to the “passionate” nature of outspoken atheists.

    All of this would be right, if we were %100 sure, without any shadow of a doubt, that God doesn’t exist. We’re not. I only believe in the material world because I see no evidence to suggest otherwise. And, as Richard Dawkins said, please don’t confuse passion with fundamentalism. Passion, no matter how fervent, is based on evidence, and can just as easily be negated by evidence.

    Well, you’re probably sick of this conversation and want to move on with other blog posts, so I won’t pester you about it anymore.

    I’m not sick of it, but I do feel that I’m having to repeat myself a lot. It’s up to you, but if you don’t want to reply in the comments you can always feel free to email me.🙂


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