Sunday, December 29, 2013


Dear Friends,

You really are my friends, despite the different ways in which we view the world.  We have grown up together, gone to school together, worked and played together, enjoyed good times and not such good times together.  And most of you probably didn’t realize that I saw things that differently from the way you did.  Until, that is, more recently when I decided to start speaking up.  

I have decided to put my Skeptic Reflections blog on hiatus for now.  I have plenty more to say, but I thought year-end might be a good time to give things a bit of a rest.  Some of you may be relieved; others of you may have just decided to stop reading the blog because it was so different from your own point of view and you really weren’t interested in questioning your perspective at this point in time.  But before I suspend my writing, I thought I would summarize some of the more important points I have been attempting to make.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Does life have meaning?  

Atheists are routinely accused of denying that there is any meaning to human life.  This accusation is based on a couple of characterizations.  First, atheists do not believe in a creator who has established a long-range plan for humanity.  Therefore, there is no ultimate goal--heaven, salvation--to work for or to look forward to.  Second, most atheists accept that we are nothing more than sophisticated collections of chemicals whose behavior and destiny are driven by the same blind laws of chemistry and physics as everything else in the universe.  That means that our lives are short and when they are over, they are over, and it doesn’t matter what happens after we are gone--we won’t know about it.    

I would agree with both characterizations, but that is not the end of the story.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


For years astronomers have speculated about the abundance of other intelligent life in the universe.  Recently a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting that an estimated 8.8 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy have earth-like planets orbiting in their “habitable zone,” where the star’s energy would permit the existence of liquid water at the planet’s surface.  The researchers made this conclusion based on a survey of some 42,000 sun-like stars in our local region of the Milky Way galaxy.  Only a few years ago the existence of so-called exoplanets--planets orbiting stars other than our sun--was still just theoretical.  Now astronomers are routinely discovering exoplanets, and their numbers are already in the hundreds.  Hence this study.

Monday, December 16, 2013


The following recollection doesn't really have much to do with religion or skepticism.  It does, though, reflect a facet of my mother's character, and she surely had a major influence on who I am and how I think, though not in the way she might have wished.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I would include it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Every three years or so our Seventh-day Adventist church would schedule a series of revival meetings.  These generally featured preachers who had found their calling because of the charismatic and emotional quality of their delivery style--real showmen.  They were from out of town and probably traveled a circuit around the country, most likely giving the same series of polished sermons again and again.  And for these events they came into town accompanied by an entourage of assistants and musicians who specialized in this sort of evangelical appeal.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I recently attended the monthly meeting of SWiFT, a freethinkers group for the Milwaukee area.  The group uses the term “freethinkers” I believe to widen the range of members and interests, but I think most of the members would consider themselves to be atheists.  They hold meetings on Sunday mornings . . . of course.  The December meeting included a good deal of discussion on a broad range of topics of mutual interest.  And the thread of discussion that most caught my attention concerned the issue of the extent to which freethinkers should actively oppose religious belief. 


I never believed in Santa Claus.

I do know of one time when our mother took my sisters and me to one of the department store Santas when I was perhaps four years old.  I even have a photo that was taken on the occasion.  I recall being very afraid of the Santa and crying and not wanting to sit on his lap.  But I didn’t believe he was real.

And as for Christmas presents, my parents always succumbed to my and my sisters’ pleas that we open our presents on Christmas eve, not Christmas morning.  So Santa never had a role.  Nor did my parents ever try to convince me of Santa’s existence.  I was the youngest child in the family, and it may be that our parents had simply tired of trying to sell the Santa story by the time I was around.

But my wife and I taught our two children to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m glad we did.  Here’s why.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


As children, most of us were taught that the world was created and is governed by a personal God who attends to our individual actions and who can answer prayers but who doesn’t always give the answers that we are seeking.  So how do we know that God is actually there, that he is paying attention, that he answers prayers?  Those of faith reply that the Holy Spirit or other agency speaks to us internally and that we need to rely on that internal voice.  

But there’s another approach, and that is to rely on science and rational thought.  This approach makes no assumption that something is true because an authority (viz., scriptures) has stated it is true.  Instead, it relies on objective observation, rational analysis, and the scientific method to gain a better understanding of the world and to find solutions to the problems we confront.  

And there’s an easy and objective way to see which approach actually works, to compare the efficacy of reliance on faith and prayer with reliance on a scientific, rational approach to furthering knowledge.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I had occasion recently to review the Humanist Manifesto.  I know it sounds like some sort of subversive political tract, but it is actually a set of fundamental philosophical principles of those who call themselves Humanists (or sometimes Secular Humanists).  The Humanist movement was formalized over 70 years ago.  Essentially, it is an effort to identify an ethical and moral philosophical position that does not rely on any supernatural authority for its justification.  The Manifesto is now in its third iteration.
The Manifesto’s principles can be broken down into two components.  One is a list of ethical and moral standards--how Humanists believe we should order and live our lives as members of the human community.  The other component can be viewed as the beliefs that underlie and inform those standards.  
I thought it might be interesting to conduct a little test.  I have done my best to make a list of the ethical standards that are delineated in the manifesto but without including the beliefs that underlie each of those standards.  My suggestion is that you read each of these and decide if they are consistent with your own ethical and moral standards.