Monday, December 28, 2009

A bit of biblical fun

I don't usually do the biblical bits here, but this one tickled me:

1. Jesus calls himself the Son of man (e.g. Matthew 16:24-28):

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

2. Numbers (23:19) points out that he's therefore NOT God:

God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent

My life is not a marketing exercise

I read so often from liberal theists, faitheists and people who want to frame science, that "aggressive" atheism is "hurting the cause" of atheism or reason or cute puppies, that it will convince nobody and turn off those we wish to convince.

These arguments are long on emotion and very short on evidence. They're also factually inaccurate (in that most so-called "aggressive" atheism is anything but aggressive).

My usual argument has been that not every atheist activity is about convincing others; in fact, hardly any of it, as far as I can see.

My life is not a marketing exercise.

But sometimes it actually does impact those we criticize, and sometimes they come to understand what we're getting at, whether that was the aim or not.

I have read a lot of deconversion stories and related discussion (hundreds by now).
I have seen many times former theists say things along the lines of "Well, actually, I had my faith criticized and it wasn't until that moment that I began to really think about my beliefs."

I've seen comments like that on blogs, in forums, on youtube, yahoo answers and reddit. I saw another only this morning.

Not every deconversion of course - a lot of the time people start thinking about these things themselves, or the trigger to start down that road is something different. But quite a lot of the time, an aggressive challenge to someone's beliefs is actually effective in getting them to think about it. Yes, it will also annoy plenty of people - people don't like having cherished beliefs criticized. You have to pick your moments. But that doesn't mean it is automatically counterproductive.

Being likeable is not often a catalyst for change.

I think being generally thought of as likeable is impossible. Atheists - unless we hide ourselves in a closet forever - will often be regarded as confrontational, simply for existing.

There's absolutely a place for people like Hemant Mehta, with those who seek to actively engage with the religious. More power to him. I think Hemant and people like him do a great deal of good, not only for atheism and reason, but for wider humanity. There's also a place for the louder, less compromising voices.

I have never once seen someone say "my former beliefs were respected and treated with deference - and that was what convinced me they were wrong".

Why would it? How could it?

Yes, if you want to work with theist allies in some other cause, be it gay marriage or proper health care or whatever, it might not be the occasion to critically discuss the truth of their beliefs, but to focus on the current priority. (On the other hand, it's probably never the time to agree to propositions you acually disagree with, or even to hold silent on them, simply for the sake of getting on.)

I think most atheists can manage the distinction between present priorities and longer term goals well enough.

But if we're talking about reason and evidence and skepticism, attempting to promote them and spread them, it makes no sense at all to ignore the most egregious transgressions against them.

If we are trying to get people to critically examine their beliefs, it makes no sense to pat them on the head and tell them we think their crazy beliefs are just dandy. Freedom of belief is only that - to believe as you like. It doesn't mean freedom never to be called on those beliefs. It is not freedom from criticism. It is not freedom from questions.

Our commitment to freedom of belief does not mean we must accept other people's fanstasies as perfectly valid, or that we must meekly hold our tongue when they're brought up. Indeed, we should not. The person you risk offending may also be the person you eventually goad into the line of thought that leads them to convincing themselves.

What could be better than people thinking for themselves?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How to mislead others for the sake of a zippier story

In which I spank Gallup's shiny arse a little, and maybe USA Today's

I wrote a much more detailed version of this post a couple of weeks ago, but my lameness resulted in me losing the whole damn file, and I didn't have time to rewrite... until now. This is not the same post. [Couldn't remember The Greatest Post in the World, no, no. This is a tribute...]

A couple of weeks ago, Gallup published a media release about its annual Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions survey, USA Today had an article on it, and Hemant Mehta expressed puzzlement at the fact that while overall approval for clergy had gone down, it went up amongst the non-religious. In his words, "What. The. Hell?".

Hemant quotes the USA Today article:
Ratings dropped year-over-year among Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and occasional churchgoers. However, they rose in one category: among those professing "no religion." Last year, 31% rated clergy honesty high or very high; in 2009, that figure inched up to 34%.

That came from Gallup's media release, where they published this graph, which deliberately sets out the comparison that was made in the USA Today article:

So what gives? Why would it go up for the non-religious?

The most likely explanation is sampling variation. Gallup mention sampling variation, but in this case, that's just not enough.

Gallup says, hidden away down the bottom:
"Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points."

Even with this disclaimer, this doesn't make sufficiently clear the magnitude of the problem. That 4% is a little more than the 3% figure for the difference, so maybe we should be a little bit cautious about the three percent being real (and caution is all it would suggest, since if we scale back from 95% confidence to say 75% confidence, it would go below the three percent difference).

But it's much, much worse.

First thing to note is that the 4% sampling variation figure that Gallup give only applies to the overall figures. [By the usual calculations, I get 3% rather than 4%. I assume Gallup is inserting some additional margin of caution there, but it's nowehere near enough, as we'll see.]

The 4% they give does NOT apply to percentages of subgroups.

There were about a thousand interviewed (1017). The proportion that are willing to give “no religion” for a question about their religion on a phone interview varies a bit, but it's generally around 10-15%. I can't tell what it was here, so let’s be generous to Gallup and say 15%.

That’s around 150 with no religion. The sampling variation for that subgroup is more than 2.5 times as big as it is for the original sample (sqrt(1017/150) times as big), or roughly 10% by Gallup’s reckoning of 4% for the original survey (their 4% is very rough so I am not worrying about being too precise - and I will err in Gallup's favour at each point).

Now, when you compare TWO surveys (31% vs 34%), the margin of error is bigger – if we can assume independence of the responses in the two surveys, you actually use good old Pythagoras’ theorem here.

So the margin of error on the change between two surveys on this subgroup is around 14%.


We have an increase of 3% give or take 14%.

There is no reason to assume anything happened at all. Maybe it went up, maybe it went down. We have NO clue. No way to tell if anything happened at all.

Yet Gallup clearly invite precisely the comparison USA Today made, and Hemant ran with.

It was irresponsible of Gallup not to point out that the comparison they made in the graph above had such a high margin of error that such comparison was meaningless. They should have pointed it out, or not made the comparison at all.

The disclaimer at the end is entirely insufficient. (And USA Today should have at least realized that even with a 4% margin of error their own comparison was at least a little dodgy, but you know, it's the media we're talking about. Probably didn't even read all the way to the bottom of the Gallup release. Take a look at approval figures for journalists some time.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Godless creep up to around 30% in Australia

A recent Nielsen survey in Australia on religious belief puts the number who don't believe in god at 24% and not sure/don't know at 6%.

The percentage of Christians is 64%, with other major faiths totalling around 5%.

The numbers are not changing rapidly, but disbelief is much higher among the young, so it looks like the numbers of nonbelievers will continue to grow, albeit slowly - census information from New Zealand shows that people don't adopt religion faster than they leave it as a cohort ages, and there's nothing to suggest that this trend would be any different in Australia; that is, the overall percentage of nobelievers will likely be well in the majority in a few decades.

Belief in life after death is only 53%, and belief that the bible/quran/etc is the word of god is only 34%.

But there were some worrying numbers, too, with Darwinian evolution not far in front of some form of "god guided" development (42% to 32%), and YE creationism coming in third, but with alarmingly high numbers (23%); in this case I'd particularly like to see the exact wording of the question that was put, because the numbers seem quite out of kilter; it would suggest that there are very few theists (only about 20% or so of theists in all) who accept Darwinian evolution, assuming almost all nontheists do.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What evidence would it take to make you believe in god?

I've answered this question a lot lately. So I thought I'd put down how I am answering it - that way I can just point to a reasonable answer, instead of having to write one every time. I may polish it slightly over time, to clarify what I am getting at.

So what evidence would it take to make me believe in god?

The short answer is "almost any evidence at all, if it meets a few criteria, and I know before we start what it is we're looking for evidence of".

Here's a longer version, slightly clarified from one I posted elsewhere to a question from a theist.

First, let's agree on what phenomenon we're investigating:
  1. Which god are we discussing? What are its properties?
  2. what observations would rule out such a being?

This is necessary because if its properties are undefined, how can *anything* constitute evidence for it? How would one distinguish between evidence for, evidence against and irrelevant information?

Given suitably clear answers to those, I will accept pretty much any evidence that's
  • sufficiently extraordinary to match the extraordinariness of the claimed god,
  • sufficient to rule out alternate non-supernatural explanations, and also
  • sufficient to rule out alternative supernatural ones

i.e. any evidence sufficiently strong to convince me we found what we were looking for (rather than something else extraordinary or even ordinary), and that we're not just fooling ourselves or being fooled by someone or something else.

In other words, if you specify which god hypothesis we're proposing up front, and what evidence could rule the hypothesis out (otherwise it's an hypothesis without any explanatory value at all), I'll then be prepared to consider evidence for it. To cover all those bases, it will have to be multiple, pretty consistent pieces of evidence, but I won't limit it. Lots of things will do.

[One problem I often run into is that frequently the theist asking the question's concept of what constitutes evidence is not what's normally regarded as actual evidence for a phenomenon at all. Feelings aren't evidence, for example. Nor is popular opinion. Nor is "it's written in this book" really evidence, because not everything written in books is true. Historians have ways of becoming reasonably convinced of certain things having happened, rather than relying on statements in a single work of unclear providence.]

Any real evidence. Almost anything that's demonstrably not just at some stage come out of people's heads.


Now your turn, theists: What observation(s), if any, would convince you that your particular god doesn't exist?

That offensive F-word

There's a word that I'm finding increasingly offensive, because people use it for dramatic effect rather than conveying meaning.

The F-word.

The F-bomb, if you will.

No, I don't mean "fuck". Fuck's a very useful word, as noun, verb and expletive.

I mean "faith".

You see, the problem is I see more and more two very different meanings of the word being conflated, using faith to refer to both making progress in the absence of complete, absolute knowledge and to refer to belief-in-the-absence-of-any-evidence-whatever.

That conflation, in turn, is used to equate the magnificent enterprise of extracting understanding out of the universe, and fuzzy-headed theological obscurantism.

These mythomaniacal word-games are designed to mislead, to paper over the oxymoron.

That's what's offensive.