Can all our beliefs be based on evidence?

Jonny Scaramanga (a former British fundamentalist I interviewed here) wrote an interesting article about the way children may become persuaded of the truth of far fetched beliefs.

Jonny Scaramanga teaching a class
Jonny Scaramanga, former fundamentalist, activist and PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London, studying student experiences of Accelerated Christian Education.


Children are not that gullible, which makes indoctrination even more odious

I recently submitted an article on indoctrination for publication in an academic journal. I was attempting to explain what indoctrination looks like in practice in an educational environment, and along the way I made an assertion that I think most people would accept: “Young children … in most cases will believe whatever they are told”.

This is a widely assumed to be true, so I am grateful to my anonymous peer reviewer for pointing out that I was mistaken. The reviewer recommended I read a paper by Dan Sperber et al, “Epistemic vigilance”, which, happily, is freely available online. The section on children begins on page 371. The evidence suggests that children from very young ages use sophisticated techniques to work out who to trust.

Even at a very early age, children do not treat all communicated information as equally reliable. At 16 months, they notice when a familiar word is inappropriately used (Koenig and Echols, 2003). By the age of two, they often attempt to contradict and correct assertions that they believe to be false (e.g. Pea, 1982). These studies challenge the widespread assumption that young children are simply gullible.

Do young children have the cognitive resources to allocate trust on the basis of relevant evidence about an informant’s trustworthiness? Given the choice, three-year-olds seem to prefer informants who are both benevolent (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009) and competent (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004). In preferring benevolent informants, they take into account not only their own observations but also what they have been told about the informant’s moral character (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009), and in preferring competent informants, they take past accuracy into account (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004; Birch et al., 2008; Scofield and Behrend, 2008). By the age of four, they not only have appropriate preferences for reliable informants, but also show some grasp of what this reliability involves. For instance, they can predict that a dishonest informant will provide false information (Couillard and Woodward, 1999), or that an incompetent informant will be less reliable (Call and Tomasello, 1999; Lampinen and Smith, 1995; Clément et al., 2004). Moreover, they make such predictions despite the fact that unreliable informants typically present themselves as benevolent and competent.

The paper goes on to explain that four- and five-year-olds develop methods of spotting deception and also hypocrisy. Further, they are good at interpreting signals about what other people think about information (and the informers), and they use this to assist their own judgements about who is a trustworthy informant and what information is reliable. They’re also pretty good at spotting when someone intends to deceive them, and they know to ignore that information. From the age of four, children are particularly careful about who to trust.

All of which is not to say that children can’t be fooled, of course, but adults can be fooled too. It turns out children are not the trusting dopes they are sometimes depicted as.

But I know, and you know too, that if you stick a class of children in a room with a teacher who tells them that God made the Earth in six days six thousand years ago, most of them are going to believe it (and this was my point when I said that children generally believe what they are told). So what’s going on?

The answer, of course, is that children have excellent reasons to trust their teachers and their parents. Even in the most extreme cults, the vast majority of the verifiable information we learn from our parents in our formative years turns out to be true. Stoves are indeed hot and plug sockets are dangerous. Waiting for the green man does make it safer to cross the road. The food they recommend is generally good tasting and non-poisonous, and the things they recommend for entertainment are usually enjoyable. Up to the age of four, most of what we know about the world comes from parents, and most of it is right.

Then our parents hand us over to the care of teachers, which implicitly tells us that they are to be trusted. Our parents may also explicitly tell us to trust our teachers, with phrases like “You should listen to what your teacher says”. We trust our parents because they haven’t steered us wrong so far, and sure enough the teacher does seem to be reliable as well. She teaches us to read, which is very useful, and when we read signs using the methods she taught us, we arrive in the right places. She shows us that when we connect wires to metal contacts, the bulb lights up, and when we connect them to plastic, nothing happens.

Our parents and teachers tell us stories, and from quite early on they distinguish between true stories and those which are ‘only stories’. So when they tell us about Noah’s Ark, the exodus from Egypt, and the walls of Jericho, we trust them. We have every reason to do so—they have demonstrated their reliability. We would, as Sperber’s paper argues, be pretty good at telling if they were trying to deceive us, but of course they aren’t.

In short, when children are taught creationism by their parents and teachers, they accept it because this is the rational thing to do. Even the most committed skeptic cannot check everything out first hand. We all gain much of our knowledge from reliable others, and for most of us parents and teachers are the most reliable others we will ever know. It would be insane to trust them on everything except religion when religion is presented as true in the same way as all other knowledge taught at home or school. Of course the children believe you. That’s what you’re for. When you use that fact to make children believe things for which there is insufficient evidence, you are abusing your power and abusing their trust.

Presenting religious ideas as though we can believe them with the same confidence we can believe that clouds make rain or electricity flows through metal better than plastic is just immoral. I find it difficult to overstate how wrong this is. There are not many things I would call sacred, but the duty of care to children must be one of them. Ironically, I find myself wanting to use religious language to emphasise the gravity of this point. From the point of view of the Christian teacher, God has put these children in your care. It is despicable to use this position to present scientific and religious information as though they are both equally knowledge. Your job is to educate children, and you’re lying to them. It is the educational equivalent of a doctor poisoning patients.


I think this raised quite important questions about the nature of faith and what our convictions should be grounded on.

Here was my response.

Hi Jonny.

I certainly agree it may be pretty harmful to teach far-fetched beliefs to children.

I don’t think, however, that one can generally say that fundies are being immoral for doing so.

Most I talked with are sincerely convinced that there are good arguments for a young earth or an exodus out of Egypt and that if it doesn’t belong to public knowledge, it is only because “godless” scientists “suppress the truth”.

Young earth creationism: poor dinosaurs are seeing the ark departing while the raging water is about to flood them.
Young earth creationism in all its glory.

So they teach what they are honesty convinced of and I think that very few of them teach things they know very well to be false.

Of course, I believe they are either utterly irrational or terribly uninformed. But that changes nothing to their sincerity.

Otherwise, I doubt it is possible to only believe in things we’ve evidence for.

Consider the proposition:

“We do not live in a simulation ran by beings we know nothing about.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know nothing.

Almost all human beings accept this.
Yet, I strongly doubt it is possible to bring up evidence for this without already making assumptions about reality, i.e. without begging the question.

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the Muenchhausen dilemna,

All justifications in pursuit of ‘certain’ knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification. Therefore, there can be no end. We are faced with the hopeless situation of ‘infinite regression’.
One can justify with a circular argument, but this sacrifices its validity.

The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.
Circular reasoning.

One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles or speaking ex cathedra or at any other evidence, but in doing so, the intention to install ‘certain’ justification is abandoned.

An English translation of a quote from the original German text by Albert is as follows:[8]

Here, one has a mere choice between:

An infinite regression, which appears because of the necessity to go ever further back, but is not practically feasible and does not, therefore, provide a certain foundation.
A logical circle in the deduction, which is caused by the fact that one, in the need to found, falls back on statements which had already appeared before as requiring a foundation, and which circle does not lead to any certain foundation either.
A break of searching at a certain point, which indeed appears principally feasible, but would mean a random suspension of the principle of sufficient reason.

Consequently, I think there are some very basic beliefs we hold which cannot be justified.
This leads me to reject claims of knowing how things really are and to adopt a pragmatic view of our beliefs.
I view “faith” as hope in something highly desirable even if evidence is unavailable or insufficient.

According to that definition, it is my contention that everyone walks by faith.
I don’t have children but I think I would try to explain this to them as soon as they are old enough to grasp that (without hopefully making them too dizzy).
To my mind, these considerations lead to a humble pluralism rather than to a confident materialism.

I don’t, however, hold anything I said dogmatically and would be glad to see your objections, if you have some.

I certainly sympathize with the children of fundamentalists who go through terrible ordeals as you did.


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Erlösung durch die Liebe

English version


Das Fundament meiner Theologie ist Gottes Vollkommenheit, denn Er muss perfekt sein, um Gott zu sein und Er ist zwangsläufig viel besser als die heiligste Person auf der Erde.

Wenn ich auf alle Religionen schaue, erscheint es mir wahrscheinlich, dass Gottes Offenbarung zum Menschen das Leben, Tod und Auferstehung von Jesus von Nazareth war, der uns gelehrt hat, sogar unsere schlimmsten Feinden zu lieben.
Während alle Christen immer an die Notwendigkeit von Gottes Gnade für das Heil geglaubt haben, glauben römische Katholiken, dass zusätzliche gute Werke nötig sind, wie es im Buch von Jakobus berichtet wird, während Protestanten weitaus das Buch von Jakobus ignorieren und sich auf Paulus konzentrieren, der vermeintlich lehrte, dass man durch reine Gnade errettet wird.

Unter Protestanten lehren Arminianer, dass man die freie Wahl treffen muss, Seine Gnade anzunehmen, während Calvinisten lehren, dass Gott manche Menschen zwingt, seine Gnade zu akzeptieren, während sich die anderen geradlinig zur Hölle bewegen.

Meine eigenen auf Gottes Vollkommenheit basierten Gedanken führten mich zu den folgenden Schlussfolgerungen:

1) Gott will, dass jeder Mensch eine immer währende Beziehung mit Ihm erleben wird.
2) Menschen begehen viele Sünden, die Gott verletzen und die er nicht nur vergessen kann.
3) Deshalb wird Gott jede Sünde jedem vergeben, denn es ist die Liebe, die sein Wesen definiert
4) Gott wird jedem vorschlagen, die Ewigkeit mit Ihm zu verbringen

Bedeutet es, dass alle Menschen bei Gott im Himmel sein werden? Vermutlich nicht, denn zumindest einige Menschen, wie viele in den Evangelien beschriebenen Pharisäer den in Jesus von Nazareth offenbarten Gott ablehnen werden. Und Gott wird ihren freien Willen respektieren. Und wenn es gar keine Hoffnung auf Erlösung für sie gibt, werden sie letztendlich aufhören, zu existieren.

Ich persönlich weiß, dass ich im Himmel sein werde, weil Gott mich liebt, ich Ihn liebe und Seine Liebe viel größer als alle meine Übertretungen ist. Und ich habe den ehrlichen Wunsch, mich dieser ultimativen Liebe immer mehr zu nähern, indem ich Jesus Christus nachfolge, der den Tod und die Sünde am Kreuz und am leeren Grab besiegt hat.


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The Good Godless Gay

Youtube Version.

Jesus wandered in Nashville while challenging the religious folks there. Yet nobody recognized Him as the savior of the world but all took great offense at His teaching.

“If you believe you can rely on faith alone for despising the works of compassion towards your neighbor, I assure you that you won’t see the kingdom of God.”

Utterly indignant about this, an influential member of the Southern Baptist Confession rushed to Him.

“What are you talking about? We are not saved by works!!! And who is this neighbor?”

Jesus looked at him tenderly and smiled.

“A man was going down from Franklin to Spring Hills, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 
A presbyterian happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. He had no time to lose, for he had to give a talk at an important conference aiming at saving the true nature of marriage.  
So too, an Evangelical Lutheran, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. He had no time to lose, for he had to give a talk to expose false unbiblical teaching polluting the Church which had to remain doctrinally pure.

So too, a pentecostal business man, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. He had no time to lose, for he had to give a talk to hinder the progression of universal healthcare which was the first step towards a worldwide government which will itself eventually be led by the Antichrist.

 But a queer atheist, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He knew he was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, but at that very moment he managed to overcome his anger and just saw him as a fellow human in need of his help.

 The hated fagot went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on the most delicious and precious oil of Marijuana in the whole world. Then he put the man on his own car, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two thousand dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

 “Which of these four do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

 The southern Baptist wept and gnashed his teeth before reluctantly answering:

“The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


P.S: If you want to quote this, you ought to refer to it as the inerrant gospel of Lotharson, written under the guidance of the Holy Ghost and delivered once and for all to all progressive saints.



Evangelicalism, intellectual honesty and academic freedom

 Evangelikalismus, intellektuelle Ehrlichkeit und akademische Freiheit

First of all it is vital to realize there are two types of Evangelicals.

1) Conservative Evangelicals believing that everything the Biblical writers intended is true and the Bible is the unique revelation of God to man.

2) Progressive Evangelicals holding the counter-intuitive view that the Biblical writers did mistakes but that everything that God intended through the text is without errors and that the Bible is the unique revelation of God to man.

It turns out that a considerable number of ID-creationists (proponents of Intelligent Design) are conservative Evangelicals.


They complained very loudly about the alleged lack of academic freedom of defending their form of creationism within the Academia through their film Expelled.

This raises the obvious question: how well does academic freedom fare in Evangelical universities, seminaries and colleges?
The answer is: it is very far from being perfect (which is probably the understatement of the year).

Thom Stark relates the case of Dr. Rollston who got fired because he accurately reported that in most parts of the Bible, women get described as humans of second class (like in all other cultures of the Ancient Near East).

Even more baffling is the fact that Mike Licona got fired, tough he is himself a conservative Evangelical. He wrote in one of his books about the resurrection of Jesus that he believed that Matthew at end of his Gospel did not mean that an army of zombies invaded Jerusalem but intended this as an allegory.

Atheist anti-apologist John Loftus reports similar cases on his blog.

All this non-sense led progressive Evangelical Peter Enns to write a post about the intellectual suicide many honest academics have to go trough within Evangelical institutions because they have no other choice than holding fast to narrow views.

However one might disagree with progressive Evangelicalism, it cannot be denied that this does not lead to the intellectual disasters one sees in fundamentalist circles.

Before whining because they are not allow to teach ID-creationism in public schools, conservative Evangelicals would do much better to keep themselves in check.

Let Jesus have the final word.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

(Mattew 7.3)

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Blogging as a spiritual experience

Deutsche Version: Das Bloggen als spirituelle Erfahrung .


I have begun to blog several months ago after I realized it would be good to write down some of the numerous thoughts which go though my mind. Despite their tentative and evolving nature I have the hope they can be useful to other people dealing and struggling with similar issues.

I am deeply disturbed by the fact that legitimate debates and discussions between Christians and atheists are degenerating into rhetorical tricks, name-calling and emotional bullying.

Since I began blogging and commenting I’ve been confronted with very hostile people from both extremes of the political and religious spectrum (needless to say that their enmity was sometimes due to mistakes I did).

I have progressively realized that this represents a wonderful opportunity for me to follow one of Jesus hardest comments, namely loving one’s enemies like oneself.



I haven’t real enemies in my real life and I almost never encounter people showing any kind of hostility against me. Things look really different on the Internet where many folks can allow themselves to be aggressive, disdainful and hateful without having to fear any personal consequence, being protected by the veil of anonymity.

This is where the temptation comes in to respond to this by using the same means. As Christians, it is vital to ask oneself, at that moment how one can love the other person in spite of her behavior, that is how to search her good despite all the anger one might feel inside.

Rebuking and using irony might sometimes be in order but NEVER with the goal to break her.

All this Internet experiences show me I have a lot of progresses to achieve in many respects. But this can be a marvelous way to become more and more loving and compassionate.

And as the apostle Paul would say, if I possess the best arguments of the world but don’t have love, I am nothing.



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