Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Factual Claims and Fear of Religion

On 26 October 2015, some poor teacher, who was slightly less paranoid than perhaps she should have been, got into a little hot water after she presented her class with an activity worksheet:

Now, believe it or not, she did not get into trouble because of the blatant and apparently unapologetic use of Comic Sans font*, and she did not get into trouble because of the unnecessary use of the Oxford comma in the activity's title (and again in the title of the Anchor Chart).  No, there was instead a storm in a tea cup about her use of the statement "There is a God."

This story was picked up by a few outlets, including ABC13 Eyewitness News (which quotes the school district's statement) and Live Leak (which has a video of the child's testimony to the school board, as also linked to in the school district's statement - see agenda item 8).  I came across both of these representations of the story in /r/atheism.

Within the context of discussing the ABC13 coverage of this event, I made a comment that I thought the teacher was wrong because (in my opinion) the statement "There is a god." is actually a factual claim, rather than an opinion or a commonplace assertion (and I also distinguish between "facts" and "factual claims" as I shall explain below).  Here it is, as recorded in internet history:

I smell a beat-up. And, even speaking as an atheist, I have to say that if the teacher was claiming that the statement "There is a god" is not factual claim and only an opinion, then that teacher was wrong.
For some people making that statement, it most certainly is a factual claim - it is simply not a correct claim. Some people will make that statement as no more than an opinion (weak theists). In some parts of the world it's also a commonplace assertion (particularly if Dennett is right about "believing in belief".

Now this comment didn't get much of a response, probably not enough to truly warrant a blog article all by itself, but I also asked around and found that quite a few people are labouring under the misapprehension that a "factual claim" is the same as a "correct claim" (or a "fact").  My interlocutor on /r/atheism even went so far as to provide me with an extract of the definition of the word "factual":

adjective, concerned with what is actually the case rather than interpretations of or reactions to it.

Now I have no huge issue with this definition of the term "factual" - so long as it is understood that it is only a partial definition of the term and that this partial definition only works within certain contexts.  It is interesting that when presenting a definition, the commenter chose to take one from (which in turn presented a definition from the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English).  They didn't just go with what a google search on "define factual" provided:

concerned with what is actually the case

Nor did they go with

1. of or relating to facts; concerning facts: factual accuracy.
2. based on or restricted to facts: a factual report.


1:  of or relating to facts <a factual error>

2:  restricted to or based on fact <a factual statement>

These definitions are not hugely different, but there is a subtle difference that perhaps he was aware of (leading him to seek out a definition that he thought was more supportive of his position).  Note that both, in the primary definition, leave open the possibility of talking about things being factually correct or factually incorrect.

But let's assume that my interlocutor was factually correct in his apparent claim that factual had no more than the contorted and somewhat limited definition that he dug up for it.  The facts of the matter (as presented in ABC13 news article) were that the teacher presented an "assignment () to classify each statement as an 'opinion', 'factual claim' or 'commonplace assertion.'"

We are at a bit of a disadvantage of course, because we only have a snippet from the teaching materials - we don't have access to the "Anchor Chart on Facts, Opinions, and Commonplace Assertions".  It is likely that there were clear definitions of the terms, although I do have mild reservations about her use of the word "facts", but I have not seen them presented anywhere.  Using only what we have to hand (as presented in ABC13 news article) there is no reason to believe that the teacher was asking students to provide an opinion on whether the statements were correct or not.  In the context of the activity, it would be totally bizarre if she were - but then this was happening in Texas, so who knows.

What we need to look at, if we are going to make the attempt to be reasoned, is the meaning of "factual claim".

My position is that this term refers to the nature of the claim being made, particularly from the perspective of the person making the claim, and nothing about the veracity (or otherwise) of the claim.

Imagine for a moment that you know someone who would be entirely comfortable saying that aliens exist and, furthermore, they are working together with the UN in order to enslave humanity.  If this person said "There are aliens", would this be an opinion, a factual claim or a commonplace assertion?

It's certainly not a commonplace assertion where I live, so I can eliminate that.

I asked some people whether such a statement would be an opinion or a factual claim and they were all quick to categorise it as an opinion.  But when I asked whether this conspiracy nut would categorise his own claim as "opinion", they wavered - no, they said, from his perspective it would a factual claim.  And then they conceded that the conspiracy nut would likely have "facts" and "evidence" to support his wild theories (the problem of course is that these facts and evidence would be cherry picked and carefully interpreted to support his preferred conspiracy).

Imagine now that I make a statement that is clearly an opinion - such as "black cats are attractive".  The problem here is that our language can be a bit vague as to whether a statement is being presented as an opinion or as a fact.  Few people would seriously claim that it is factually correct that black cats are attractive (and in my opinion such people are likely to be witches).

If we were anally retentive, or in a formal debate, we might clarify things by saying "in my opinion black cats are attractive " but most of us can distinguish between clear cases of opinion and statements that are clearly being presented as facts (also known as "factual claims").   And this is the very point of the activity in question, drawing attention to the fact that "X is Y" is sometimes an opinion, sometimes an assertion of fact (a factual claim) and sometimes just an echoing of something that everyone says without actually thinking too much about it (a commonplace assertion).

The problem, in my opinion, is that if we were to say that statements such as "There is a god." are merely opinions then we are effectively saying that this statement resolves down to "In my opinion, there is a god."  Such a statement can never be shown to be wrong.  It's possible that there are situations where, as Dennett points out, people might be lying about their religious beliefs, but even then this just means that such a person would be using a different code - something to effect of "In my opinion, it is beneficial to make statements to the effect that there is a god, such as this statement, even if one does not in actuality believe that there is a god."

I accept that there may well be people who claim there is a god while either knowing that they don't actually mean it or understanding the claim to be no more than an opinion.  But these are surely in the minority.  Most people making the statement "There is a god." will be of the opinion that they are making a factual claim.  The fact that atheists consider such a claim to be either incorrect or indefensible doesn't change the fact that it is a claim about an asserted fact regarding the universe - which I believe to be a reasonable definition of a "factual claim".  And if a theist is making a factual claim about the existence of a god, as opposed to stating an opinion or reporting a commonplace assertion, then we are entitled to challenge that claim either in an attempt to show that that claim is false or in order to show that the claim stands up to scrutiny.

It seems pretty bizarre to me that some extreme theists might blow up family planning centres or abortion clinics on the basis that they have an opinion that there is a god who disapproves of such things.  Surely such people sincerely believe that the existence of their god is a fact?

There is also the rhetorical trick of taking someone's assertion of fact (factual claim) and saying "well, that's your opinion".  It's certainly a good way to rattle someone, to annoy them and belittle them, but it's not an honest tactic.  If an assertion of fact is made and that assertion of fact is erroneous, and you care about what is being asserted, then you should address the factual problems with the assertion.


At the beginning of this article, I presented an image of the activity that the students were given.  This was taken from the school district's FAQs Regarding 7th grade Classroom Activity.

It's really worth scrolling down and looking at the actual question and answer section.  Note that the school asserts that the teacher did not tell her students that god is a myth, that no students cried and that there were no arguments.  Despite this, "personnel action will be taken" and the activity would no longer be used.

It's quite disturbing that an activity like this, "designed to encourage critical thinking skills and dialogue", should have such an outcome.  It's almost like a section of society are uncomfortable with children being given critical thinking skills …

And the school's actions seem to indicate a fear of religion which is very sad indeed.


* The absence of Comic Sans from Google Fonts destroyed my hilarious running joke in which "There is a God." always appeared in that font.  My apologies for any inconvenience caused.


  1. Very well written and thought out! Unfortunately, I'm inclined to believe that most redditors, 7th grade teachers, and school administrators aren't very well versed in or even familiar with logic as a discipline.

    1. Thanks. It is quite sad if your belief is correct and, to be honest, I am inclined to agree with you.

  2. I agree with your conclusion that the statement "There is a God" is a factual claim. The statement "the moon is made of cheese" is also a factual claim. It seems that many people don't understand the difference between an opinion and a false factual claim. These same people take "There is a God" to be a incorrect statement, and then conclude that the statement is a mere opinion. I'm glad you don't see it that way. Claiming that such a statement is an opinion will obviously upset a theist, but it will similarly upset an atheist (for the reasons you pointed out--it entitles the atheist to challenge the claim).

    As an aside, I think it was rather tactless of the teacher to even enter the realm of discussing the existence of God, surely knowing the kind of hornet's nest it could stir up. Completely unnecessary for the exercise.


  3. About God it has been said that he is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. About this same God it has also been said that he is spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, all-pervading, one, unborn, uncreated, without any beginning, without an end, everlasting and non-composite. If atheists deny the existence of any God, then that will mean that in this universe there is no one about whom it can be said that he/she is omnipotent, omniscient, spaceless, timeless etc. & etc. Now it might be the case that although there is no such God, yet there is something in this universe which is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, but about which it can still be said that it is spaceless, timeless, changeless etc. & etc. If atheists deny the existence of that thing also, then that will mean there is no one or nothing in this universe that is spaceless, timeless etc. If special theory of relativity (STR) is not a pseudo-science, then STR clearly shows that even infinite distance becomes zero for light. Volume of an entire universe full of light only will be simply zero due to this property of light. As zero volume means no space, so here we are getting an explanation of spacelessness from science. Again from STR we come to know that time totally stops at the speed of light. So here we are getting an explanation of timelessness from science. So it can in no way be denied that science has shown how it is possible to be spaceless and timeless. If no one or nothing in this universe is spaceless and timeless, then why was it necessary for science to provide such and such explanation?

    1. You've got things back to front, my friend. Once SR and GR finally got accepted, theologians and apologists had to deal with it. The spacelessness and timelessness of god are relatively (ha-ha) new concepts. Before SR, the term incorporeal was more common, but just means not instantiated in a body.

      But in any event, your argument seems to be implying that your god is a photon. Or the photon, since all photons could be considered the same photon (not really my argument, someone else used to always argue this) - in that case, your god would be ... the light. (Note however, that a photon is not made of light, so you can't take this seriously, it's merely a jest on my part.)

  4. I know that you have a distaste for William lane Craig's writings. Still I am quoting a passage from Craig's writing just to show that spacelessness and timelessness of God are not at all relatively new concepts:

    "And then on the rest of the page it's fairly obvious how I deduce the remainder of these attributes which form the central core of the theistic notion of God: a personal Creator, uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, enormously powerful, and intelligent. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, this is what everybody means by God."
    Ref: (Dr. Craig’s opening arguments)

    Here Dr. Craig is merely echoing the words of Thomas Aquinas. In Thomas Aquinas’ words also God is spaceless and timeless. I do not think you will now say that Thomas Aquinas is our contemporary. Actually spacelessness and timelessness are the two most common attributes of God that have been mentioned in almost every religion, either eastern or western. When I first began surfing in the internet, I was astonished to find that in almost every discussion on God by the theists as well as by the atheists, only these three attributes of God were mentioned: his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. But never his other attributes like spacelessness and timelessness. I do not know why it was so.

    So it is not at all true that “The spacelessness and timelessness of god are relatively (ha-ha) new concepts”.

    In the year 2003 I published a book in Bengali in which I had shown that the existence of a spaceless and timeless being in this universe implies the relativity of space and time. The gist of my argument was this: Space and time are non-real, non-existent for that being, whereas they are very much real and existent for us human beings. So if such a being is really there, then space and time cannot have absolute values, because for those to be absolute they must have to have the same values for everybody, which is impossible in such a case. Special theory of relativity (STR) has also shown that space and time are indeed relative. So if STR is not a pseudo-science, then on the basis of the findings of this theory we can no longer discard mystical experience as a hallucination, because mystics have repeatedly said that God is spaceless and timeless. But the reviewer of my book (an atheist) was dishonest, and so he very scrupulously remained totally silent in his review about that particular portion of my book where I had given my reason as to why mystical experience could not be discarded as a mere hallucination, whereas he could have easily shown where I have faltered in my argument and why therefore on the basis of such argument I should not claim that the existence of God was proven.

    So it is not true that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Only that when any such evidence is offered, it is usually ignored by the atheistic community.


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