Friday, November 20, 2009

Important Terms and Definitions

If I could start this blog over again, this article would have been one of the first posted, because it is an important first step in writing and discussing the topic of religion.  My experience in talking with others has shown that there is a lot of confusion with these terms. This is likely because schools and religious institutions do not emphasize and clarify the meanings of these terms, perhaps with the exception of science classes for some of the terms.  Many of these words have multiple definitions and in some cases, colloquial definitions are quite different from original or more literal definitions.  In this article, I will clarify the definitions of these terms and discuss how they are relevant to religious discussion for the purpose of clear communication, as clear communication can only take place when there is a mutual understanding of terms.

What I will provide are basic and clear definitions of certain terms.  Mountains of pages have been written about all these terms, so in no way will I try to go into all they entail.  I will only offer as much as I feel is important to point out why they are relevant and in fact necessary to the discussion of religion.

Science: "A continuing effort to discover and increase knowledge and understanding through disciplined research." -Wikipedia   I have mixed feelings about wikipedia, but was very impressed by their definition and explanation of science.  Science is the human construct used to understand, explain, and make predictions about reality.  Another definition of science I like was made by James Randi, who said, "Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence." 

There are many things I love about science.  One may say that the goal of science is to find and communicate truth, to the best extent that we are presently able to with our current tools, methods and knowledge.  In order to reach the best truth possible, science uses competition and everyone is not only welcome, but encouraged to participate.  No scientific conclusions are sacred.  Nothing is ever 100% guaranteed.  Anything and everything is up for questioning and critique.  In this respect, science is the very antithesis of religion, where questions, critical thinking and skepticism are taught to be not only socially rude, but immoral.  Yet it is through this process of encouraging questions, critical thinking, and skepticism that science grows and improves over time and the benefits of which are astounding.

Our scientific understanding has grown so large, that we need to break this knowledge down into different fields, as no person could possibly specialize is every field.  However, the most important thing that all sciences have in common is the use of the scientific method, which I will define next.

The Scientific Method:  The scientific method is a specific and unique process people use to find answers to questions and determine to what extent the answers are true.  Here are the broad steps of the scientific method:  1.  Form a question you would like answered.  2.  Research information already known or published which is relevant to the question.  3.  Construct a hypothesis.  4.  Use scientific experimentation to test the hypothesis.  5.  Analyze the resulting data and draw a conclusion.  6.  Communicate and/or publish the results so other people can learn from you and test the validity and reliability of your conclusions themselves. 

The scientific method is currently the best and most effective way of discerning what is true from what is not true. To me, this statement cannot be overstated.  If you do not believe this is true and have another method which is better at this discernment, please let me know and be prepared to be acknowledged for what is likely to be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the world.

Of course, there is a great deal more to each of these steps than is written here.  It is not necessary for me to go into detail here about each of these steps, as so many science books have already been written about the scientific method.  I certainly would encourage anyone unfamiliar with the details of these steps to look up and study them.  However, it is important to point out that these steps entail many rules and methods to ensure that the conclusions reached are free from biases, such as feelings, emotions, faulty reasoning, motivations, and desired outcomes.  This last point cannot be overstated, so I will restate it in a different way.  The scientific method controls for bias.  This is a large part about what makes the scientific method so powerful and important.

One of the greatest mistakes I see people make in attempting to prove the existence of god or anything else which is supernatural, is that they start with the conclusion they want to reach and try to shape evidence to support the conclusion they began with.  This is not valid science and people who do this have the process backwards.  Valid science starts with observations and evidence, from which conclusions are then drawn.

Assertion:  "A positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason."
It is important to point out that all assertions made without support, evidence or reason are equally invalid.  The following assertions are equally valid/invalid:  "Unicorns exist."  "Leprechauns exist."  "Ghosts exist."  "The Easter Bunny exists."  "A human energy field called chi exists."  "God exists."  There has been no valid proof that any of these things exist.  I could be wrong about these statements.  If anyone reading this has proof of the existence of these things, please let me know so I can correct the error.

Evidence: "Information which tends to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion." -Wikipedia.  Evidence stems from the word "evident", which means "plain, clear, or obvious".  Therefore, evidence obviously must be empirical, or capable of being perceived through the five senses, because other people must be able to observe the information.  If someone claims to have information, but cannot demonstrate the information, then the person is making an assertion.  Evidence by definition must be demonstrable.

Falsifiable: "Capable of being proven false."  The requirement that all hypotheses must be falsifiable is a core principle of the scientific method and another way in which scientific and almost all religious assertions and beliefs are different.  In science, there are no sacred cows.  Anything is and must be subject to the possibility of refutation.  However I find most theists are completely unwilling for the existence of god or other supernatural claims or beliefs to be framed in a way that is falsifiable.  An example of this would be the article I wrote on the concept of prayer, where prayer is used to prove the existence of god. Theists will hold on to their beliefs despite any evidence to the contrary.  This is one of the primary difference between theists and Atheists.  Atheists are willing and in fact eager to learn and have their beliefs questioned.  They are willing to change their minds based on new and better evidence.  Most theists simply are not.

Reason: "The mental faculty that is able to generate conclusions from assumptions or premises." -Wikipedia.  The first part of this definition is the most important point, which is that reason, or reasoning, is a mental process.  The second part of the definition has to do with logic.

Logic:  "The humanly constructed rules, principles, and methods which allow us to draw correct conclusions from premises or propositions."  -Chris Peters.  I pieced this definition together from a group of different sources.

Rational/Rationality: Guided by reason and logic, or optimal.

Prove:  "To establish the truth or validity of, by presentation of argument or evidence."  Based on previous definitions, proof can only happen through empirical means. 

Fact:  Something demonstrated to exist, which can be checked and confirmed by others.  This is a definition I formed by blending definitions from multiple sources.  Therefore the statement, "God exists" is not a fact, as it can neither be demonstrated, nor checked and confirmed by others.  The statement is an assertion, or an opinion.

Theory:  Before I define the word theory, it is important to point out that it is likely the most misunderstood word in science by lay people, especially by proponents of what is called "creationism" or "Intelligent Design".  The problem with the word "theory" is that it has two definitions in particular which mean entirely different things.  I will clarify the difference in this part.  I do have some compassion and understanding for people who are innocently incorrect in the use of this words, however I have little patience for proponents of creationism or Intelligent Design who misuse this words as they are either willfully ignorant, lazy, or intellectually dishonest.

The first definition of the word theory is "speculation".  I have heard and read from many creationists, that "evolutionary theory" is just a "theory", meaning an unsupported hypothesis or guess.  However, this is not at all what "theory" means in science.

The second definition of the word theory is the scientific definition.  In this sense, "theory" means, "A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."  I'll give two examples of scientific theories.  It is a scientific theory that the earth is round.  It is a scientific theory that the earth and other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun.  In fact, there is just as much evidence for the theory of evolution as there are for these other two theories.  For more information which demonstrates that evolution is a fact, I suggest the book, "The Greatest Show on Earth", by Richard Dawkins.

Reliability and Validity:  These words are often confused, so I will define them here.  Reliability means the conclusions we reach can be consistently replicated by others in an objective way.  Repeatability is a core principal of science.  In order for a conclusion to be a reliable conclusion, other people must be able to consistently demonstrate the same conclusion themselves using the same methods.  It is because of reliability that internal "spiritual or religious experiences" are not "proof" of god's existence, because the same experiences cannot consistently be replicated by others in an objective way.  Validity:  the degree of closeness between our results or conclusions and the accurate or correct results or conclusions.  In scientific experimentation, "A test is valid if it measures what you think it measures, as determined by some independent way of measuring the same thing."  -Dr. Dewey.

Essence:  In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.

Faith:  Belief in something for which there is no evidence.  Faith therefore is the very antithesis of scientific thinking and understanding.  In Christianity, faith is not only a good thing and a requirement of salvation, but the Bible makes it clear that god kills people who do not have faith, such as in Jude 1:5.  Christian teaching does a terrible disservice to humanity by frequently repeating the virtues and goodness of faith while remaining silent, through either willfulness or ignorance, about the very real dangers of faith.  I am in the midst of writing a series on the concept of faith, where I will discuss these dangers such thinking has already caused humanity.

I have always felt an inherent desire and interest in finding truth.  As Matt Dillahunty says, "I want to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible.  Both science and religion purport to be interested in finding truth, yet it is the beauty, simplicity, complexity, and strength of science which clearly offers the best way of finding it.


  1. *REPOSTED FROM JOHN RUMMEL, November 21, 2009 7:36 AM

    This is an important post. I have many discussions with friends that end up fruitless and pointless because we realize too late that we don't agree on the definitions of the important terms. I like particularly the way you've stated the definition of "evidence" but I think you ended too weak with "then it is indistinguishable from nothing and is useless and invalid." How about "indistinguishable from opinion" or "indistinguishable from emotional response." I'm thinking of those believers who report their strongest evidence for the existence of God as the "witness in their own hearts" or words to that effect. Points like that always send me stumbling back to define terms like "evidence" but by then, it's too late and the argument has lost steam.

    Nice work!

  2. John:

    Thank you John. You make excellent points. I'll work on changing that piece to make it more clear.

  3. *REPOSTED FROM JEREMY C, November 24, 2009 3:18 PM

    This is great! I like it. Here's a few things off of the top of my head. Please feel free to incorporate or ignore at your discretion if my focus is too far off the mark on what you're trying to accomplish. Also if you want me to expound on anything and create a more complete entry I would be happy to do so as well.
    A few categories you could possibly add:
    Logical fallacies - You could provide a brief overview of different types that are mostly employed in pro-religions arguments: Argument from Authority, Argument from Antiquity, Argument from Ignorance, False Premise, Begging the Question (big one here for the literal interpretation of the bible), False Dichotomy, Moving the Goalpost etc.

    Anecdote (may fall under logical fallacy, but needs to be outlined since most "evidence" for religious doctrine is based on anecdote) - How anecdote is useful (enough reliable sources report a story gives us a place to begin investigating) and how it is dangerous or misleading.

    Laws of science and how they differentiate from theory (why we say Theory of Evolution and Law of Gravity for example) and how this is used to obfuscate and confuse by anti-science advocates

    Psuedo science/Anti-science (anti-intellectualism) - Quite a bit of Intelligent Design proponents are actively anti-science, with claims of evolution proponents being "Darwinists" and allegations that critical thinkers and scientists absolutely adhere to the teachings of Darwin in a closed ranked fashion and will not allow his works to be questioned (ironic really). The fact remians that several things postulated by Darwin have been demonstarted as incorrect or incomplete as modern science has a more sophisticated toolbox and a more detailed understanding of the natural world, genetics, epidemeology, etc.
    Psudeo-science and science generally part ways once a claim cannot be supported and speical pleading is required to maintain a theory. This often results in ridiculously complex conspiracy theories to silence non-mainstream science advocates, or as is often the case in religion, once the psuedo-science is rejected (Intelligent Designers' inability to get published in peer review journals for example) foul play is often cried and they claim they have become silenced victims at the hands of mainstream scientists. The fact is that if claims can be held up to the light of testable and repeatable evidence they automatically get folded into science and no special realm outside of science is required to explain them.

    Skeptic/skepticism - not to be confused with cynic/cynicism. Skepticism being a tool and not a viewpoint.

    Something to think about for the entry on science:
    Science is based on verifiable and repeatable results based on a body of collected knowledge. It is not reasonable or necessary to "reinvent the wheel" each time a new avenue of scientific inquiry is to be explored and by the same measure it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel each time an implausible piece of pseudo-scientific evidence (usually in the form of anecdote) is presented. If a claim flies in the face of basic, long established laws of science, the onus is on the claimant to provide testable and repeatable evidence and explanation to revise theories which have been verified by multiple experts over a period of time. The longer the amount of time that elapses for a theory that has consistent and repeatable evidence the more established it is and the more difficult it is to erode that credibility.

  4. Jeremy:

    Thanks for your comments. I've been very busy over the last month. Please don't take my delayed response as disinterest in your thoughtful and well worded comments.

    I am planning on writing an article that lists the different logical fallacies and examples of each. I also loved what you said about pseudoscience, anti-intellectualism, and science. I very much agree.

  5. *REPOSTED FROM BRET, December 2, 2009 7:39 PM

    I think it is a good idea to post definitions. I also think that out entire nation has lost touch with definitions. We hear so many phrases interchanged in an attempt to draw analogies and similies that things have become very confusing whether we are talking sports, economics or religion. That said, I also view these rigid definitions as an attempt to frame the argument in a way that all people of faith would undoubtedly lose and look silly. This is probably one of the reasons why many would rather not hammer down definitions. The Bible tells me that I will be looked upon as foolish by this world, so I do not really mind framing the arugment within your terms.
    1 Corinthians chapter 1 states, "26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him."
    Notice the other commenter to this blog post used the word "argument" which is why I have used the word argument. Why does he have arguments? While this blog is a place to post your ideas, does it not also contain arguments against religion and for atheism? Furthermore, would Richard Dawkins and yourself support outlawing religion since it is not scientifically sound? The only reason I get uncomfortable at the demands to argue within your framework is that I believe there is an agenda among atheists to suspend my religious freedom. I choose to believe against any scientific proof or any argument - as a free person I should be able to do that. I believe that atheists who are actively arguing against a god actually believe in god but became angry and rebelious to him due to circumstances within their lives. The functional athiest who never stops to consider these matters or the mn who has decided there is no god and thinks of it no more seems to truly not believe in god more so that a person actively arguing against god. What do the activists do not really want? Richard Dawkins alludes to a better world. That seems suspect since athiest communists killed more people in the 20th century than the rest of history combined. Also the nations that currently outlaw or severly restrict religion have the worst human rights records. I'd be interested to hear about the benefits we can expect from getting rid of religion by choice or by force. So far the results have not been good. The intentions seemed good, but then again the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


    Thank you as well Bret for your comments. Likewise, please do not take my delayed response as disinterest in what you wrote. I will make efforts to respond more quickly in the future. I will try to respond to your comments in the order you presented them.

    I really do agree with you that many people have lost touch with definitions of terms and that interchanging terms and definitions causes problems. One recent conversation with someone seemed to get stuck around the definition of "proof" and I have had other conversations which became stuck regarding this word. I will add more to the definition of "prove" to clarify.

    Regarding the word “argument”, I think this is another term for which different definitions exist and these cause confusion. In one sense, the word argument means a conflictual and angry verbal interaction between people. However in logic, an argument means very much the same thing as a syllogism, or a set of statements which lead to a logical conclusion. It is this latter sense that the commenter is using.

    You are also correct when you write that this blog is where I post my ideas, which contain ideas and “arguments” (not meaning the first previous sense) against religion and for Atheism.

    You ask whether Richard Dawkins and I support outlawing religion. My answer, which is also Richard Dawkins’ answer, is ABSOLUTELY NOT. I strongly support free speech and the right of people to think what they choose. I also know no Atheist who supports outlawing religion. You may rest assured that I have no intention of suspending your or anyone’s religious freedom in the very same way that I rest assured that you would never burn me at a stake for what I think. It is for this very reason that I am glad that we are able to talk calmly and honestly with each other about these ideas, so that we can share our ideas, clarify misunderstandings and weed out false assumptions.


    I, without a doubt, am actively arguing against beliefs in gods as well as other supernatural beliefs and I can say unequivocally that I do not believe in any god. I do not believe in god for all the reasons I have written about in this blog and more reasons I have yet to write about, but will. Obviously I am not angry at god due to any circumstances in my life. I am not angry at things that do not exist. However, I can say that I know there are people who fit the description you gave. Specifically, in the past I talked with someone who called themselves an Atheist, but through talking with him, he said he was choosing to not believe in a god because bad things had happened in his life and so he was angry at god. His statements made no sense to me. Obviously he was not an Atheist, but a theist who was angry at his conception of a god for events in his life. I would caution you however that just because there are people like him, doesn’t mean all Atheists are like him. To say so would be a Fallacy of False Generalization. I am not writing these articles to work against some god I am angry at, nor to try to convince myself of something I deep down really believe. You can find the reasons I write this blog under the article already posted about its “Purpose”. I also write it to work against such beliefs as I think such beliefs are harmful and I also believe that religious/spiritual/supernatural beliefs provide nothing positive which cannot be achieved through secular means, but that is another article I plan to write.

    I would be interested in you providing evidence of this statement: “athiest communists killed more people in the 20th century than the rest of history combined.”

    I see no benefits of getting rid of religion by force. I do think there would be benefits of people getting rid of their religious beliefs. I think future articles I write will address that.

    As for the statement, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, all I can say is that I don’t believe in a hell, as I think I made clear in my previous article, “Thoughts on the Christian God”. Further, any god who would send people to hell for doing what they truly believed was good, in my opinion would be an evil god.

  8. *REPOSTED FROM BRET, December 26, 2009 8:01 PM

    The evidence is well documented and readily available. Mao killed 50-70 million. We know that many more millions were killed in the USSR under Stalin than by Nazi Germany. We also know that the Vietnamese and the Kmher Rouge killed mass amounts. Some of the simple reasons more were killed in the 20th century than the rest of history combined are that the weapons were greatly improved and the fact that there are a lot more people populating the planet. The USSR, China and Vietnam all had an official state position of atheism. I am not saying that they killed because they were atheists, but I have heard many functional atheists bemoan all the killing in the name of religion throughout history - which did occur. But it would only be fair to also point out all the death that came from communism and the fact that most communists are atheists. So far I see very few positive results "achieved through secular means". Maybe modern Europe? The history is really to short to tell isn't it? This is food for thought. Hopefully I am not asked to present evidence of the Holocaust next or I'll wonder if Ahmadinejad stole your computer. Bad humor I know. It would probably be helpful to know that I have worked with quite a few atheists when I was in the military. So, I do make some generalizations about atheists because I have known some. Not saying it's right, but just saying I do. I assume that you'll bring up the inquisition as proof of the harmful effects of religion, which is why I bring up the mass slaughters of communists.

  9. Bret:

    Okay, I see what you're saying. Thank you for clarifying.

    First, I need you to please define "functional atheists", because I'm not sure what you mean.

    Many of your statements are absolutely correct. The number of people killed is accurate from what I've read. I appreciate how you pointed out that the numbers you cite are so large relative to the past because of population increases over time as well as improved weapons technologies. I’ve heard theists claim that these people were so much worse because of the sheer numbers of people killed, but they don’t take what you pointed out into account. I give you credit for that. We can only speculate as to the numbers that would have been killed if the Inquisition and the Crusades occurred with present day populations and weapons. It is clear and quite scary that in our contemporary world, much smaller groups of people, or even individuals, are able to kill many more people than in the past for the very same reasons you pointed out. For example, a small group of people were able to kill thousands of people by flying planes into buildings in 2001, partially due to their religious beliefs.

    You are right that the USSR, China and Vietnam all had an official state position of Atheism. However, I do see a difference between the historical killings you cite and the religious killings which Atheists bemoan. You actually point out this difference as well. The difference is that the killing which Atheists bemoan, were/are based on religious beliefs. The atrocities you cite were not based on Atheism. Atheism is simply a belief that no gods exist. Period. Atheism says nothing about killing other people. Atheism has no doctrine, laws, or rules.

    Further, it's important to point out that Atheism and communism have nothing to do with each other. Atheism is a belief that no gods exist and communism is a political system. They have nothing to do with each other. Nor do either have anything necessarily to do with atrocities. Atrocities can be committed by anyone, regardless of religious or political belief. To me, these atrocities that you point out had to do with power and control. These people were tyrants, who were looking to kill dissidents to maintain their power structure. Just because some communists were Atheists, doesn’t mean communism and Atheism are related, in the same way that not all fiscal conservatives are social conservatives.

    You said you see very few positive results achieved through secular means. I appreciate you saying that. I think too little has been written about such positive results, so many people do not know about them. I have started a series which I call “The Benefits of Atheism”, though I have only written one such article so far. I will make a point to write an article in this series which enumerates such positive results.

  10. REPOSTED FROM BRET,January 13, 2010 1:17 AM

    A functional atheist is what many people in Europe or even the United States are. While they may not have declared they are an atheist as you have, they function as an atheist. They passively do not beleive in a god and they live a purely secular life. They beleive responsibility for everything resides with humans or with the scientific principles of nature for example the weather. Though there are some people who think that Dubya can create hurricanes.
    I'll take functional atheist a step further. Let's say someone claims to be an athelete. This person wears sporty clothing regularly. This person is also obese and particpates in no sports or physical activity. Is this person an athelete? No. Now let's say someone attends church here and there and says they believe in a god. This person never studies a bible, never prays and relies on themselves or others for every part of their life - mental, spiritual, emotional, etc. This person also is a functional atheist. They go to a church and say certain things as part of a culture and have no real beleif in a deity, at least none of any consequence. To date, I have heard or read the term "functional atheist" as used by Christian teachers and various scholars at religious universities - some conservative and some liberal. I have also heard it used by National Geographic and by a university teacher on a lecture about Europe. So it is not commonly used, but it certainly applies to a large part of the world population.