Sometimes I wonder whether, as a churchless blogger, it makes sense for me to spend so much time in comment conversations about posts that I've written.
Recently I came to a fuller realization that yes, it does make sense, and why this is so.
There's an interesting correlation between religion and the Internet: both are full of often-anonymous sources making claims that lack persuasive supporting evidence.
So when someone leaves a comment on a web site or blog -- such as this one -- it's an opportunity to practice bullshit detection skills that will come in handy when assessing the validity of a religious belief.
Also in other areas of life, such as deciding whether to respond to an enticing email offer that just arrived from someone in Nigeria who is offering you lots of money in exchange for helping them deal with an inheritance problem.
Anonymity is both a blessing and a curse.
Sometimes it's nice to be able to communicate without anyone knowing who you are, like when you need to blow the whistle on a boss who is doing something wrong and you're worried about getting fired.
But when the person on the other end of the communication doesn't know who the source is, skepticism about what's being said is justified.
Most holy books are full of purported statements from people who are either long gone and may not even have existed (such as Jesus), or are conveniently amorphously identified (such as "ascended masters").
Similarly, most comments left on this blog's posts -- and this is typical on the Internet -- can't be linked to an actual person whose background and credentials can be verified.
So communications in both the religious sphere, and the blogosphere, need to be read with a properly skeptical mind. By "properly," I mean balanced between excessive open- and closed-mindedness.
In the scientific method, as in everyday life, it's necessary to be open-minded enough to let truth in but also closed-minded enough to keep falsities out.
Michael Shermer has a Boundary Detection Kit that helps differentiate between Science, Semi-science, and Nonsense. The first three items are:
(1) How reliable is the source of the claim?
(2) Has the source often made similar claims?
(3) Have the claims been verified by another source?
And the first three items in Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit are:
(1) Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
(2) Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
(3) Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
In other words, don't believe something just because someone says it is true. Especially if you don't know who that someone is.
Many people take on false identities for one reason or another. Hiding behind a curtain of anonymity, like the "Wizard of Oz," they attempt to convince others to trust their authority.
But if the author can't be identified, how can his or her authority? As Carl Sagan said above, only by giving arguments from authority little weight.
Whether the purported authority is a religious personage, or a guy who left a note on your door claiming he knows how to re-roof your house for an amazingly low price, the guiding principle is: prove it.
The proof needs to be stronger if the known background of the supposed authority is weaker.
By and large I trust the auto mechanics at the Toyota dealership where we take our cars for service. I know that they have certain qualifications, which could be verified if I had any doubts about their competence.
However, whenever my wife and I don't know much about the person or firm we're considering hiring, we do some checking into their qualifications.
Amazingly, many people don't do this either when they embrace a religion, or some "fact" they've come across on the Internet. I can't tell you how often I get emails from people who breathlessly share a Did you hear that... sort of message.
Usually, two minutes of Googling turns up solid evidence that "that" isn't true.
So skepticism is a virtue.
Don't believe anything you read in a holy book or on the Internet (particularly from an anonymous source) unless there's other convincing demonstrable evidence of its truthfulness.
Here's the exception, though: this only applies to the "common ground" that I talked about in my previous post -- not to "private ground."
People often confuse these two areas where truth can reside. The common ground is public, the domain of the scientific method, objective reality that we all can observe and, ideally, agree upon.
The private ground is personal, inside each of our heads, where imagination, emotion, intuition, and direct experience hold sway.
Nobody has the right to claim knowledge of someone else's private ground. Have you ever had someone say to you, "You don't feel that way!" And replied, "How the hell could you know that?" (I have.)
On this blog I see both types of mistakes being made in comment conversations.
I see people uncritically accepting "public ground" statements that should be questioned skeptically. I also see people over-critically rejecting "private ground" statements that should be taken on face value.
For example, if a religious believer says "I feel wonderful when I think of Jesus," it isn't possible to argue with that. Usually I'll respond with "That's great."
And it is. There's nothing wrong with feeling wonderful.
However, if someone tells me, "Jesus died for our sins, and you need to accept him in order to avoid hellfire," my attitude is You don't know that, and No, I don't.
Once you make a public ground statement about a supposed objective truth, you're treading onto the territory we all inhabit. If that statement doesn't make sense, or lacks demonstrable evidence, expect skepticism.
But if you just want to share how you feel, go right ahead. That's your private ground, not mine.