Posts Tagged ‘Atheism’

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Sleeping with the Enemy

In Christianity & Atheism on July 2, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

In response to my writing about why I didn’t think The God Delusion was very good (here), Hitch asked how I — clearly part of the ideal target market for that kind of apologetic — would write such a book.  It’s an interesting thought experiment of a sleeping with the enemy sort, and here are some of my preliminary thoughts on it, even though I don’t wish to be seen as telling atheists what to do.  But for me, the problem isn’t so much writing the right book, it’s implementing the right strategy. 

1.  I’d start with a different approach.  The stereotypical atheist seems to be an angry, young, white male, perhaps with Asperger’s, who hates religion and says so, loudly and incessantly.  As with most stereotypes, it’s unfair in general, but also has an element of truth.  The atheist apologetic literature, in toto, seems targeted towards the stereotype in approach and style.  I’d change that. 

2.  I’m all in favor of evidence-based thinking, but the common atheist apologetic focusing primarily on evidence misses a crucial preliminary step.  This literature seems to presume a major ethical obligation to examine the evidence intensely on every point and at every step.  I think that’s unrealistic and even a bit daft.  For most people, and especially with respect to their foundational commitments, if they see something as working in general, they’re not going to invest the time and energy to question it very much.  It’s a key point and one the atheist apologetic literature doesn’t get (and often can’t seem to conceive).  Most religious people think their religion is a positive force in their lives.  Harping about how evil and wrong it is, especially angrily, isn’t likely to change that anymore than foreign demonstrations about evil American imperialism are likely to change American minds.

3.  Atheists need to recognize all the reasons people find religion valuable and provide viable alternatives.  Despite the dispute between Josh Rosenau and P.Z. Myers over how much people actually believe of what they profess and what that means, everyone should recognize the powerful human benefits of religion and, at present, how devoid of those elements the atheist “movement” (to the extent that’s even a coherent idea) is.  Humans are social and thrive in community.  Churches provide that.  In most areas of the USA, church groups provide crucial services to people in need and a positive social outlet to the general populace.  To this point, the atheist “community” offers precious little of any of that.  Since this is a key component of how and why religion “works” for people, having similar outlets would make it more likely that you can be heard on why you’re right and seen as viable lifestyle alternative.  The atheist apologetic literature seems to suggest that it’s an intellectual and philosophical alternative.  But I don’t think it can hope to succeed without being a substantive lifestyle alternative.

4.  Atheists also need to stand for something.  This is a tricky point because, on the one hand, atheism implies no necessary affirmative belief and, on the other hand (as I’ll discuss later), pushing any sort of ideological purity isn’t likely to help either.  But if you’re going to ask people to jettison an important affirmative basis for who they are, I think you need to offer something in its place.  Offering little more than a lack of belief and general skepticism (as powerful and helpful as skepticism can be) is a pretty pitiful alternative.

5.  There is nothing particularly winsome about atheism as generally presented.  I suppose that some people are attracted to being one of the “Brights” (one of the most misconceived campaigns imaginable), but beyond the stereotypical atheist, I don’t think what’s offered looks particularly appealing.  I can appreciate that anger and vitriol can be useful means to attack prevailing paradigms, but atheists are asking people to choose them and their key life choices.  It’s one thing to be angry and harsh to get people to recognize you and accept your place in society.  It’s quite another to act like jerks and yet expect people to join you. 

6.  I suspect that atheist triumphalism is as tiring and off-putting to the general public as American triumphalism is to the rest of the world.  At the risk of sounding like Chris Mooney, is spending all your time telling people how much better than them you are really the best marketing strategy and is that really the brand niche you want? 

7.  Atheism claims that it implies no ideology but acts as if it does.  Generally speaking, based upon the polling data I’ve seen, 30% of the American population is politically liberal (by U.S. standards), 30% moderate, and 40% conservative.  Much of the atheist apologetic literature (including TGD) seems to say that only 30% need apply.  Since I think reasonable and secular grounds can be offered for the other general alternatives, I think it is a major mistake to do so.  It’s also a mistake because it enhances the us versus them divide that I think you should want to overcome.  Even if I thought the anti-accomodationist position were justifiable intellectually and philosophically, I would still see it as bad strategically. 

Am I on to something?  I hope not….

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Surrebuttal to The Courtier’s Reply

In Christianity & Atheism on June 25, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Richard Dawkins & P.Z. Myers

Much criticism of The God Delusion (and Richard Dawkins in general, who claims that religious faith is one of the world’s great evils and is analogous to the smallpox virus, though more difficult to eradicate. ) is similar to that offered by Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books:

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Indeed, Alister McGrath maintains that Dawkins is “ignorant” of Christianity and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. p. 81 (2006). In reply, Dawkins asks “do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” Ever anxious to be seen sucking up and racing to the defense of Professor Dawkins, my favorite sycophant P.Z. Myers crafted The Courtier’s Reply to deal glibly with criticisms like those offered by Orr and McGrath (it’s even endorsed by Saint Richard himself — he quotes it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of TGD too):

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

To put it mildly, I am not impressed with Peezy’s The Courtier’s Reply. Here’s why.

1. Peezy encourages intellectual ignorance. Essentially, Peezy’s claim boils down to the bare assertion that it’s stupid to believe in God because His non-existence is so obvious. He makes this claim notwithstanding centuries of gifted thinkers who came to a different conclusion and who made careful arguments in support of their ideas. Is it ever a good idea to remain willfully ignorant (and to rejoice in that ignorance) in the face of tightly argued opposition? I think not.

Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding a noteworthy point. “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He even goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention. Thus, if one’s conclusion is based solely upon what is seemingly obvious and intuitive, evolution is patently ridiculous. In that context, we’re perfectly reasonable if we conclude that there are clear signs of functional design in nature — for example, that eyes were built for seeing — and that evolution is thus ridiculous on its face.

Based upon the intellectual laziness postulated by The Courtier’s Reply, seeing that “obvious” design is an appropriate end to the discussion and, accordingly, there is no obligation even to consider (much less analyze and refute) Darwin and his intellectual progeny. But doing so, as with Dawkins and Myers concerning the God question, would be nonsensical and silly. What seems obvious ain’t necessarily so.

2. Peezy enables intellectual arrogance. Karl Popper famously encouraged a sort of charity principle when examining and interpreting works with which one disagrees. The idea is to put the other side in as favorable a light as possible to begin the discussion. That way, one is looking at the best the other side has to offer before opposing it, requiring the best available counters. Popper even advocated the strengthening of an opposing position before criticizing it for the sake of ultimate understanding. Myers and Dawkins see no need for such charity, despite the obvious benefits to such an approach described by Popper. Such arrogance is unbecoming, obviously. But more importantly, Myers and Dawkins neglect an obvious and crucial point of critical thought (also emphasized by Popper) — we may well be wrong. If Myers and Dawkins are so sure of themselves, they should be more than willing to meet the best arguments of theism charitably and directly. Arrogant dismissal simply doesn’t cut it.

3. Peezy epitomizes intellectual laziness. An atheist may reasonably conclude that there is not sufficient evidence of and that there are no good arguments for God. That atheist may even conclude that God’s non-existence is obvious, say so strongly and base that position entirely upon theism’s purported failure to carry its burden of proof. But writing a book about the subject demands more. Good scholarship means meeting the other side(s) carefully and fully. The intellectual laziness of demolishing strawmen and then declaring victory simply isn’t good enough, especially for a quality scholar like Dawkins (even when writing in an area of abject ignorance).

4.  Finally, Peezy endorses intellectual impracticality.  Quite obviously, in any formal disputation, one making the affirmative claim bears the burden of persuasion.  Accordingly, in the usual course, one making God claims bears the burden.  However, these procedural niceties don’t really apply in everyday life.  Especially when one is seeking to overturn a dominant paradigm (such as the existence of God), the one seeking to do the overturning bears a practical burden of persuasion unrelated to the formal burden.  Simply put, if you want your minority position to rule the day, you need to convince people that you’re right.  Standing pat and claiming a win by default (“You didn’t bear your burden of persuasion!“) isn’t going to cut it.

So please try again, Peezy. Maybe you’ll make a decent case (and cover your “dangling genitalia”) next time.

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Ignominiously Defining (Faith), Redux

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 24, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Atheist apologists seem always eager to assert that faith is belief without evidence, notwithstanding that no religion I’m aware of sees it that way (Christianity surely does not) and that dictionaries don’t define it that way. 

That this idea is wrong gets further support from Diana L. Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University and Director of The Pluralism Project:

Traditionally, “believe” means “belove.” It doesn’t mean, “I think so, but I’m not sure.” It doesn’t mean, “I accept this intellectually because I have the evidence.” No, believing is a matter of the heart. The Latin credo with which the great Christian creeds begin means: I give my heart to this.

The word “believe” has gradually changed its meaning from conveying certainty so deep that I commit my life to it, to conveying uncertainty so unstable that only the “credulous” would rely on it. But faith is simply not about propositions, but about commitment.

To say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say “I love this Jesus Christ,” and I do. Jesus enables me to see something of God that I do not know in any other way: God truly grounded in the soil of human life and death, and hope beyond death. God who does not rescue us out of this world, but who accompanies us in this world, even in the darkest times. God who is as close to us as our neighbor, as close to us as the stranger. God who surprises us with divine presence as we walk along the road to a familiar place. God who comes not as a judge, but as a child.

To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is not to subscribe to a dogma or proposition, but to express a deep commitment to God among us, to God’s presence, justice, and love here on earth.

Amen to that.

Addendum:  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry today on Faith.

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Ignominiously Defining (Atheism)

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 23, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Stained Glass Window, Reason Cathedral, Glenn Lodge, Idaho

One popular tactic used by certain atheists is to try to define atheism so as to avoid any burden of persuasion. Unfortunately, evangelization by deception is far too common among everyone trying to persuade, theist and atheist alike.

Traditionally, theism and atheism are seen as poles on a continuum where agnosticism occupies a middle ground. Thus theism encompasses those who believe in a god, atheism encompasses those who think no god exists and agnosticism encompasses those who take no position on the question of gods. Many atheists today want to alter this traditional view. They want atheism defined as a mere lack of belief in any gods. Pursuant to such a rubric, anyone without a current god-belief – like babies, a Christian sleeping or thinking about something else or even someone who is mentally ill – is an atheist. Moreover, they say that agnosticism isn’t about belief at all, but rather relates to knowledge. Accordingly, a Christian who doesn’t claim certainty (who doesn’t claim to know) is also an agnostic.

Why this attack on the traditional view? Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some atheists because it allows them to define the territory of debate in their favor. The goal is essentially two-fold. Firstly, a change would dramatically increase the number of atheists and make atheism seem more popular. Secondly, defining atheism as a default position – a mere lack of belief – allows atheists to avoid any proof burden in formal debate. They should not, however, be permitted to define and misrepresent basic categories in this manner without challenge.

Let’s be clear from the outset that an argument as to the better definition of atheism is perfectly reasonable. But many atheists want to avoid that discussion altogether and presume that the argument is already decided and to accuse theists (usually Christians) of dishonesty for not having yielded to the presumption.

As best as I can tell, dictionaries are split over whether atheism is a mere lack of belief or whether atheism includes a specific denial. However, the more specific professional works, such as philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedia, all define atheism as something like “‘[a]theism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” (J.J.C. Smart in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Atheists will concede, as they must, that professional works reject the definition they propose, but claim that it reflects mere professional jargon.

The OED defines atheism as “[d]isbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God” and, to be clear, defines disbelief as “[t]he action or an act of disbelieving; mental rejection of a statement or assertion; positive unbelief.” Accord, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd Ed. 2001)(atheism is “the doctrine or belief that there is no God” {#1} and “disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings” {#2}, while disbelief is “the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true”). The Compact Oxford agrees (atheism is “the belief that God does not exist”). So does Merriam-Webster (atheism is “a disbelief in the existence of deity”; disbelief is “the act of disbelieving: mental rejection of something as untrue”). Moreover, no less an authority than Michael Martin (in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification) makes the same admission: “If you look up ‘atheism’ in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and …[Martin goes on to argue for his preferred definition].” Even the Skeptic’s Dictionary concedes the point: “Atheism is traditionally defined as disbelief in the existence of God. As such, atheism involves active rejection of belief in the existence of God.”

Some atheists wish to stress the point that some comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries include the passive definition of atheism. True enough. Activist atheist efforts have borne some fruit. Moreover, comprehensive dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive and tend to include all possible options. But concise dictionaries, designed to provide the most common and best definitions without all the baggage, go the other way. See, e.g., Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (atheism is “a disbelief in the existence of a deity” while disbelief is “the act of disbelieving”); The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Ed. 2005)(atheism is “the theory or belief that God doesn’t exist”); allwords.com; Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary; and the American Heritage Dictionary.

Note that in his famous “The Presumption of Atheism,” Antony Flew (ironic, no?) conceded that the new atheist view requires that atheism “be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ’someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition 1999) addresses this very point. It provides that “atheism [is] the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.”

So the next time an atheist activist claims that atheism is necessarily a default position — a mere lack of belief — don’t be afraid to call the bluff.  That said, I generally think adherents to a particular position ought to have the right to define what it is and what it entails.  Christians should have that right when it comes to defining what faith is.  Accordingly, I am willing to accede to the view that atheism is a mere default position with no substantive content, so long as the history behind it can readily be made clear.

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Ignominiously Defining (Faith)

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 22, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

As it happens, I have spent a fair amount of time discussing and debating God with atheists. Popular books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, among others, have provided more heat to the ongoing dialogue, but not much light. These books (not to mention blogs and internet atheist discussion boards) pretty consistently try to define faith as “belief without evidence.” However, that isn’t faith in a Christian context and doesn’t conform to standard dictionary definitions. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as

“a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

“b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

For the Christian (at least), faith is confident belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t relate to a set of propositions at all and thus evidence as to the truth or falsity of such propositions is manifestly irrelevant. That is not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist, however.

The Bible’s view of faith is consistent with this approach.  Some atheist apologists will point to Heb. 11:1-2 (“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”) to support their claim that faith really means belief without evidence or in spite of the evidence.  Yet the heroes of faith “roll call” that follows for the rest of the chapter includes hero after hero who had directly experienced God and seen Him in action, suggesting that faith allows more confidence than the evidence might otherwise allow, not that there is no evidence.  Those same critics often point to Thomas and his failure to believe in the resurrection without seeing Jesus firsthand (John 20:29:  “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'”) as further basis for their preferred definition of faith.  Yet Thomas wasn’t criticized for not believing without evidence.  He was criticized for not taking Jesus at His word with respect to His resurrection.   

The unsupported claim that faith is belief without evidence is a purported argument disguised as a definition.  And it’s a pretty lousy argument at that.

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“We’re Superior to You,” he whined…

In Christianity & Atheism,Science & Religion on June 22, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , ,

Take a look at the comment by Eric MacDonald in this thread (#22) to get a good look at fundamatheism at work.  There’s too much nonsense in the comment to deal with it all concisely, but even a quick review of the “highlights” provides ample evidence of how hard it can be to deal with fundamatheists.

1.  “One of the things that bothers me more than anything in the absurd assumption that is being made when people talk about the compatibility of religion and science is the sheer diversity, and, so often, perversity, of religious belief.”

There isn’t more diversity among religious beliefs than among — say — political beliefs, I don’t think.  It’s the nature of the beast when dealing with issues incapable of anything like conclusive demonstration.  Are politics and science incompatible?

2.  “Religions come in so many different shapes and sizes, that the claim that religion is consistent with science is almost certainly false for most religions and for most religious beliefs.”

This is yet another unevidenced claim masquerading as profundity.  Some religious beliefs, such as a 6,000 year-old earth, are inconsistent with science.  But most?  I highly doubt it.  I surely won’t be taking Big Mac’s word for it.

3.  “Nor is there room for dialogue with this sort of thing.”

We’re so dangerous and stupid that we’re unworthy even of dialogue?  And they’re surprised that they are being left off panels seeking dialogue on the issues of science and religion?

4.  “Until people start to recognise that when they speak about religion they are not speaking only about the nice people in the church across the street, who seem so culturally warm and fuzzy, and probably pretty fuzzy minded too about what their beliefs imply, they are also speaking of pretty distressing forms of belief and the injustices and inhumanities that flow from then.”

People of faith only seem nice.  They’re really evil and committed to propping up an evil hegemony.  Sheesh.

5. “For, religion, despite all the warm and fuzzy notions that it seems to connote for so many people, is not warm and fuzzy. It misleads and misdirects. It abuses children, not only by deforming their lives with physical and emotional and sexual abuse, but by much of the religion that is taught, which is of an incredibly destructive sort, very often indelibly so. It ruins lives and imaginations, it binds them to forms of thinking that are the product of ancient cultures, when people banded together on the side of their god against others on the side of theirs, and while it may have given them protection, it also required their submission and all the hatreds that are born of it.”

Ol’ MacDonald has a severe hyperbole problem.  In his deranged hatred, we’re all misleading child abusers set upon sexual abuse and destruction.  We’re not just wrong — we’re evil and inferior.

6. “There is no other way to teach religion. It is a form of authoritarianism, and even those who attempt to convey a more humane, even secular form of religious thought, will be constantly undermined by people who, in faithfulness to tradition, return people to the faith once delivered to the saints, or whatever group happened to be first and therefore the model of faithfulness.”

Oh, and we’re all authoritarian demagogues too.  Don’t forget that.

7.  “And it is really tiresome that someone like Chris Mooney, who obviously knows nothing whatsoever about religion and its claims, continues to blight the world with his assinine [sic] slurs….”

Pot.  Kettle.  Introductions.

8.  “I say we adopt the [New Atheist] name, because it’s a good way of making a distinction between people who think that religious believers have something to contribute to the future of the world other than theocracy and injustice….”

Now we don’t even have anything to contribute to society.

And they wonder why the folks promoting various panels and dialogue opportunities dealing with science and religion don’t treat them seriously and respectfully….

Update (6am PT, 6/22/10):  Jerry Coyne posts praising MacDonald’s bile here.  Russell Blackford joins the sycophantic choir here.  Typically, Coyne is bitter about not being invited in by the evil hoards so that he can tell them off directly.  He also complains that “the claim that ‘we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists,’ is ridiculous, of course.”  Jerry is attacking a straw man, of course.  The issue is not whether some religious people give up their faith, but rather that faith works at least in some sense for millions of people.  Unless and until the practical value of faith is undercut, it will be hard for Jerry’s message to get heard.  That’s why (or so it seems to me) a mere default position atheism, devoid of any substantive content, doesn’t get more popular traction.  A viewpoint defined by what it doesn’t contain is necessarily weak.  It’s rather pitiful, actually.

Jerry then goes on to complain about parents passing religion on to their children:  “I would guess that if religious brainwashing of children were prohibited, atheism would increase drastically within a generation.”  He doesn’t quite advocate a legal prohibition on religious communication from parents to children — perhaps there is something that is too draconian for Coyne in the fight against religion after all — but it’s clear he thinks it’s a good idea.  Might it be a good idea to preclude parents teaching children “bad” political ideas?  “Bad” social constructs?  It should come as no surprise that parents want to communicate the values that are most important to them to their children because, in the vast majority of cases, they want the best for them. 

I bet even Jerry does it.

Update (6:30am PT, 6/23/10):  Larry Moran weighs in here; I reply here.

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“Stop Victimizing Your Sister with Reason

In Christianity & Atheism on June 21, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Wiley Miller’s July 22, 2007 Non Sequitur includes a tag line reminiscent of claims I have heard often from those who are eager to attack faith: “Stop victimizing your sister with reason.” It’s a good line and one we should all bear in mind. But Wiley’s strip isn’t as one-sided as scientism’s advocates might assert. Danae is floating after all. Kate denies the reality of what she observes because of her preconceived notions of what the rules are.

So much for empiricism.