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Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?

Recently my friend and colleague in science and skepticism Neil deGrasse Tyson, issued a public statement via BigThink.com in which he stated that he dislikes labels because they carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label, and thus he prefers no label at all when it comes to the god question and simply calls himself an agnostic.

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The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this book, I present my theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Sam Harris calls The Believing Brain “a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief.” Leonard Mlodinow calls it “a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences.”

I have already written about this many times over the decades, and my 1999 book How We Believe outlines in detail why I too hate labels. In fact, in my later book, The Mind of the Market, I explained why I also do not like the label “libertarian” because people automatically think this means believing something that I very likely do not believe (e.g., that humans are by nature purely selfish, that we have no moral obligation to help others in need, that greed is the only motive that counts in business, and that Ayn Rand was actually the Messiah), and instead I prefer to go issue by issue. Nevertheless, the label “libertarian” and “atheist” stick, and as I explained in my latest book, The Believing Brain, I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocuters who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting. Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve, such as why not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla.

Still, it is worth thinking about what the difference is between atheist and agnostic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: Theism is “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” Agnosticism is “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.”

Agnosticism was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe his own beliefs:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like. Since I am a fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, and most definitely not a moral relativist, this association does not fit me. The word “atheist” is fine, but since I publish a magazine called Skeptic and write a monthly column for Scientific American called “Skeptic,” I prefer that as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.

The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason. So we return again to the nature of belief and the origin of belief in God. In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.

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Reason Rally Rocks

Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.

READ MY SPEECH AT SKEPTIC.COM

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Singularity 101: Be Skeptical! (Even of Skeptics)

Michael Shermer appeared on the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast after meeting its creator, Nikola (a.k.a “Socrates”), at a recent Singularity Summit in New York (watch Michael’s lecture). Discussion included a variety of topics such as: Michael’s education at a Christian college and original interest in religion and theology; his eventual transition to atheism, skepticism, science and the scientific method; SETI, the singularity and religion; scientific progress and the dots on the curve as precursors of big breakthroughs; life-extension, cloning and mind uploading; being a skeptic and an optimist at the same time; the “social singularity”; global warming; the tricky balance between being a skeptic while still being able to learn and make progress.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST AUDIO, or watch the videos below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Transhumanism, the Singularity and Skepticism

Michael Shermer is interviewed about his views on the future of Artificial Intelligence, the technological singularity, transhumanism, and skepticism. This is not something that Michael Shermer usually talks about. Michael also spoke at the Singularity Summit in the US this year (2011). This footage was taken at the 2011 Think Inc conference in Melbourne.

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The Flake Equation

Estimating the number of people who have
experienced the paranormal or supernatural

The Drake Equation is the famous formula developed by the astronomer Frank Drake for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations:

N = R × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L where…

  • N = the number of communicative civilizations,
  • R = the rate of formation of suitable stars,
  • fp = the fraction of those stars with planets,
  • ne = the number of earth-like planets per solar system,
  • fl = the fraction of planets with life,
  • fi = the fraction of planets with intelligent life,
  • fc = the fraction of planets with communicating technology, and
  • L = the lifetime of communicating civilizations.

The equation is so ubiquitous that it has even been employed in the popular television series The Big Bang Theory for computing the number of available sex partners within a 40-mile radius of Los Angeles (5,812). My favorite parody of it is by the cartoonist Randall Munroe as one in a series of his clever science send-ups, entitled “The Flake Equation” (on xkcd.com) for calculating the number of people who will mistakenly think they had an ET encounter.

Such multiplicative equations for calculating the product of an increasingly restrictive series of fractional values are effective tools for making back-of-the-envelope calculations to solve problems for which we do not have precise data. To that end I thought it a useful addition to the Skeptic toolbox to create a Flake Equation for all paranormal and supernatural experiences (and in the Flake Equation I’m interested not in beliefs but in actual experiences that people report and that we hear about, because this becomes the foundation of paranormal and supernatural beliefs):

N = Pw × fp × fm × ft × nt × no × fm where…

  • N = Number of people we hear about who report having experienced a paranormal or supernatural phenomena,
  • Pw = Population of the United States (January 1, 2012: 312,938,813),
  • fp = Fraction of people who report having had an anomalous psychological experience or witnessed an unusual physical phenomena (1/5),
  • fm = Fraction of people who interpret such experiences and phenomena as paranormal or supernatural (1/5),
  • ft = Fraction of people who tell someone about their experience (1/10),
  • nt = Number of people they tell (15),
  • no = Number of other people told the story by original hearers (15), and
  • fm = Fraction of such stories reported in the media or on Internet blogs, tweets, and forums (1/10).

N = 28,164,493, or about 9 percent of the U.S. population.

To compute this figure I used the 2005/2007 Baylor Religion Survey, which reports that

  • 23.2% say that they have “witnessed a miraculous, physical healing,”
  • 16.3% “received a miraculous, physical healing,”
  • 27.5% “witnessed people speaking in tongues at a place of worship,”
  • 7.7% “spoke or prayed in tongues,”
  • 54.5% experienced being “protected from harm by a guardian angel,”
  • 5.9% “personally had a vision of a religious figure while awake,”
  • 19.1% “heard the voice of God speaking to me,”
  • 26.1% “had a dream of religious significance,”
  • 52% “had an experience where you felt that you were filled with the spirit,”
  • 22.1% “felt at one with the universe,”
  • 25.7% “had a religious conversion experience,”
  • 13.8% “had an experience where you felt that you were in a state of religious ecstasy,”
  • 14.2% “had an experience where you felt that you left your body for a period of time,”
  • 40.4% “had a dream that later came true,” and
  • 16.7% “witnessed an object in the sky that you could not identify (UFO).”

This works out to an average of 24.4 percent, thereby justifying my conservative 20 percent figure for fp and fm. The other numbers I gleaned from research on gossip and social networks, conservatively estimating that 10 percent of people will tell someone about their unusual experience, and that within their average social network of 150 people they will tell at least 10 percent of them (15) who in turn will pass on the story to 10 percent of their social network of 150 (15). Finally, I estimate that 10 percent of such stories will be reported in the media or recounted in blogs, tweets, forums, and the like.

Of course the final figure for N will vary considerably depending on what numbers are plugged into the equation, but the result will almost always be a number in the tens of millions, which goes a long way toward explaining why belief in the paranormal and supernatural is so ubiquitous. Experiencing is believing!

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