An assertion is still not evidence of whatever it asserts

Sigh. I thought it was only theist trolls who did this… who spammed atheist groups with links to articles, the titles of which claim “indisputable proof of god” or “NASA confirms everything in the Bible is true”, when the articles themselves simply assert the claim by a third party. But they’re not the only ones…

Before I get to the one I’m referring to, let’s get one thing straight: An assertion, by definition, is a forceful statement of your belief (or fact). In other words, it is a claim made forcefully. The claim is not evidence of itself. Regardless of who makes the claim, how emphatically they assert it, and how tempted you may be to believe them because they are a figure of authority or someone you respect… a claim repeated is still only a claim.

With that in mind, look at this meme that was posted to the snopes Facebook group recently:

FYI

What do you see? I see some text with a few images. The text makes a claim, not even a very good claim… The Republican FBI? Russian diplomat confirms???

90% of dentists prefer Sensodyne toothpaste…

I know this is true because it was stated on television by a man wearing a white coat!!!

I commented to that effect, and obviously sensible people agreed (because the group is made up primarily of skeptics) but not everybody did. I was accused of having an agenda, where no amount of evidence will convince me… An agenda, in Africa? (Sorry but I can’t help but think of a sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life… “A tiger, in Africa?”)

The person had posted a video before that, so I reminded him that I was commenting purely on the meme and left it at that. Anyway, it doesn’t matter… A video from a source that’s a proponent of your conspiracy theory, where a statement is made by a man who is some sort of authority (to you) and repeats what you want to believe, is just a repetition of the claim. It’s an argument from dubious authority and also is just another example of the claim being asserted. That’s not evidence. For fuck’s sake, don’t people know this?

I don’t know if the Russian connection with Trump is true or not, although I have not seen any evidence that suggests it to be so. But asserting the claim doesn’t make the claim true.

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The frustration with being openly antitheist: having to be debated by people who have no business debating anyone.

Lately I’m starting to wonder if being open about my atheism all the time is really worthwhile. Four acquaintances recently decided to “debate” me… And the reason the word debate is quoted is, well, they have no idea how to debate. It was more like being ganged up on.

Theists, when they approach me with their arguments, just don’t seem to get this: I have heard all the arguments before. I’ve often heard them or read them articulated well. (Thus how I respond to a familiar argument articulated badly varies only according to my mood.) I debate when there are people present who may be undecided. I don’t argue with people who are indoctrinated such that they cannot think for themselves when there isn’t an audience, because it is a complete waste of time.

I had three arguments made against me that I intended writing about, but to keep this post short, I’ll only present one of them…

Argument from personal incredulity, about a credulously accepted second-hand anecdote that’s no better than an urban legend

Here’s the man’s argument: What if you heard of a couple, who tried for more than twenty years and did not have a child? Doctors told them they could not have a child, and then one day, she became pregnant, and the doctors could not explain it? That was it. That was his whole “argument”.

Firstly, that’s an argument from incredulity. “I don’t understand; therefore God.” Or, “I don’t know how; therefore GodDidIt.” He would not see that there is a gap between “I don’t understand” and “therefore God”. It’s a case where he doesn’t understand, and… Hey… Guess what? I already have a magical explanation for all things. Let me just accept that, so I don’t have to think and consider what an actual explanation might be.

Also see my sub-heading above. It’s an anecdote, but it’s not even a personal anecdote. It’s something that he heard, like the story I heard about the old lady who used to wash her dog, Fifi, and then dry her in the oven, until the day she bought a microwave oven. (Poor Fifi – she is no more.) We love anecdotes… First hand accounts of stuff that teach us something. I heard the one about the microwaved dog from my grade 9 biology teacher back in my school days when I was fourteen years old, and he told it like he knew the old woman personally or at least a friend of a friend did, because that’s how anecdotes work. But almost thirty later, I read the same urban legend, and it was written by a journalist in a foreign country, who’d heard it in a similar manner to myself.

Someone with a different religious background could very well use the same anecdote as “proof” of a completely different god, a god that, if believed in by my acquaintance, according to his religion, would land him in Hell. But he, and this theoretical other person who believes in some other god, will latch onto the anecdote because it takes only a small leap of faith (that they have already made) to confirm what they already believe.

Unlike the other people in the group, this acquaintance is quite stupid, and slow. But the others, who are quite intelligent, were only too keen to accept his story. They didn’t think of asking the obvious questions which would reveal the anecdote was not something he knew to be true, questions about the couple such as: How old are they? How long have they been married? Were they divorced and remarried, and if so, did either have a child before? What are their names? Where do they live? Do you have the names of the doctors who were baffled by their case? What is the medical reason that the doctors have, if any, that pregnancy could not occur?

They didn’t ask those questions because it is easier to accept a story that conforms what you already believe, even if that story is brought to you by an idiot.


I feel bad for calling my acquaintance stupid, but when somebody passes on such an anecdote without even the slightest hint of skepticism, it is difficult to call him anything else. (And I really do feel bad. He’s a good guy, a likeable guy – he just isn’t too bright.) I don’t know where he heard the anecdote… Maybe it was from someone in his church… maybe the pastor. But it doesn’t matter… The story is too vague. Maybe it is based on truth, but there is no way of knowing what’s true and what’s embellished. Even if a man had an exceptionally low sperm count but was not infertile, and he and his wife tried to have a child, the probability of success would increase every time they tried. Also, the probability of success would increase if she was unfaithful… When someone tells me a story and it includes unnamed doctors who have no explanation for some fucking miracle, of course I will not believe it, and of course I will question the intelligence of the person telling me the story. What leaves me bemused is that the other people in the room were only too keen to accept the story too, in spite of their intelligence.

An interesting example of someone fishing for answers they want to hear (Confirmation Bias)

Recently I was confounded by this share… (Note that there were a lot of replies. I’ve included only some of them; my own require less name and picture blurring.)

HappyTheyDied

Context… once again this is an “atheist versus theist” debate group. The person who made the odd statement that we should not be sad when people die (because it’s natural?) is a theist.

What’s odd here is that he disregarded every comment that explained how we are sad if people we love die because we miss them. He took offense to my comments in particular for some reason, so at least I managed to make him state his case, but it’s a case that doesn’t make sense. (You can’t see because of the way I cut and pasted parts of the conversation via Photoshop, but that long thread at the end starts with him replying to one of my comments that isn’t shown.) He is saying that death is natural and that we (atheists) have accepted that; therefore we should not be sad.

Of course that is a non sequitur. The two statements are unrelated: The premise being accepting death as natural, while the conclusion being a lack of sadness. He must know that the conclusion does not follow from the premise, yet he insists that this is the case for atheists and is not interested in any answer that contradicts this notion. So what’s really going on here? Obviously I am not psychic (and neither is anybody else by the way), but I can make an educated guess as to what his thinking is, even if he doesn’t realize it himself. No, he is not a psychopath…

What’s really going on here is an implicit (and as usual unstated) argument from morality. (Described in detail here and here.) That is, he assumes that all morals come from god – from his religion’s god in particular, which in itself refutes the argument – but he will never see that.

So he is thinking that all atheists lack morals, and empathy, and all that go along with morality, because we have rejected his god-given morality. Therefore we are incapable of feeling sadness… in other words we are all logical “robots” like Mr Spock. Or we are all psychopaths… something to that effect because his straw man of an atheist has no morals and even no humanity without god.

So his post is written only to satisfy his confirmation bias. He will disregard every comment that doesn’t confirm this odd straw man version of atheism, no matter how much sense it makes. This fascinates me because it is an example of confirmation bias taken to an extreme. My comment, and the comments of many others, explain quite clearly why we would be sad to lose loved ones, but he remains unconvinced. Nothing will change his mind. He will learn nothing from this debate. He will only be satisfied when someone writes something that he can reinterpret (that is deliberately misconstrue) to confirm his conception of what it means to be an atheist.

And that fascinates me. There is no way I or anybody else can ever get through to that person. I wonder how many others there are out there just like him?

Also of interest to me is that this is once again an example of someone telling atheists his definition of what atheists are. (Indirectly of course.) He assumes it and wants us to confirm this straw man, but essentially that’s what it comes down to: To him an atheist is a sinner, but more than that, an atheist is someone who has rejected his god-given morals, where all morals come from god, and is therefore incapable of feeling empathy, incapable of feeling sadness or loss, but rather lives by logic alone and is evil and a danger to every god-loving theist out there. And when any atheist says anything that contradicts this strange view, it should be discarded without even a moment of thought.

This theist is in many ways the polar opposite of someone like myself… I rejected all gods because I realized that there is not only a lack of evidence for them – there is plenty of evidence indicating that man created all gods… gods are a by-product of our cultures and are interesting in terms of understanding human development over history. Morals are also a by-product of human culture where a lack thereof would be a disadvantage to survival. To come to my opinions took critical thinking and a willingness to question what I had been taught. (My indoctrination.) My opinions are always fluid and I have changed them drastically over the years, responding to my improved understanding of reality, and this leaves me a perpetual student of life; my worldview is filled with wonder at nature as I grow old and have a better understanding of this amazing place in which we live and the truly astounding animals that we are. Whereas his worldview requires dogmatic belief and unyielding faith, faith that is so rigid it can not be questioned at any cost, even if he must assume that anyone who does not share that belief is inhuman. Moreover, he then “debates” people who do not share his views, but chooses not to engage with them but to present them with his assumptions about what they believe instead. (No irony here. I don’t go to Christian groups and tell them what they believe.) How pitiful it must be, to be such a person, to be incapable of even a solitary, independent, critical thought.