Saturday, 30 January 2010

New dinosaur discovery solves evolutionary bird puzzle

From a news report today:
"A newly discovered fossil has shed light on why a group of dinosaurs looks like birds, say scientists. Haplocheirus Sollers may not be as charismatic as T. rex or as agile as a pterodactyl but it's thought to solve a long standing puzzle. Researchers believe its short arms and large claw show how bird-like dinosaurs evolved independently of birds."

Those who promote "Intelligent Design" are keen to point to apparent gaps in fossil records, and a lack of evidence of transitional creatures. This seems to ignore the fact that new fossils are being found all the time, and each time something like this is found it fills further gaps.

By contrast, I am not aware of any new discoveries which add weight to the argument for Intelligent Design. Any suggestions?

Friday, 29 January 2010

The man with the lottery ticket...

Here's a thought - A man who buys a lottery ticket is aware that it is incredibly unlikely that he will win, and he may also realise that logically he would be better advised to spend it on something tangible rather than "waste" it on a very unlikely hunch.

But surely what this man is indulging is his need for hope for something greater than his everyday existence. Each week he selects his numbers, and each week he does not win, but he still keeps going back week after week to buy another ticket, because he has not lost hope that one day he will win.

Each time he checks the results he fantasises about what it would be like to be that winner. He also worries that the week he does not buy his ticket will be the week that those numbers come up. So he works himself inot believing that he must follow this path.

Isn't religion a bit like that?

Things are the way they are because.....

There is an argument put forward by those who believe in divine creation that there has to be an intelligent creator. In essence they argue that if parameters and physical laws which govern the Universe were not precisely as they are, when they could so easily have been different, then we would not exist. Ergo, there must be a intelligent being who created them thus.
If one is already convinced that there is a God then I guess that this argument provides a reassuring riposte to those who point to a scientific explanation.
But is it really so astounding that these paramenters are exactly as they are? Well, yes, but they are, and it is perfectly possible and logical for these conditions to exist without divine intervention. The argument is put forward that the chances of exactly the right conditions for life existing are so incredibly small that it just can't have happened without a guiding hand.
But consider this. If I buy a ticket for the UK national Lottery, the chances of my winning the jackpot are so infinitessimally small, that many people call it a "tax on stupid people", but the fact remains that almost every week one person who buys their ticket in the knowledge that winning is incredibly unlikely, wins that jackpot.
There is a fundamental difference between something being highly improbable and being impossible Our existence may be highly improbable, given the vast range of alternative values that could have existed, but it is not impossible, and it can be deduced and explained using the basic building blocks of the structure of our Universe. There is no need for God.

The Periodic Table

I watched a fascinating programme on TV last night. It was part of a series explaining how the elements were discovered, and how a process of experimentation and the rational application of logic enabled scientists to predict elements which were not yet discovered. Within the space of a hundred or so years we progressed from a World where many still thought that there were only 4 elements from which all things were made - Earth, Water, Air and Fire - to the spectrum of around 100 naturally occuring elements we know today.

This is to me a shining example of the triumph of human inspiration over wilful ignorance and superstition. I feel so privileged that I should be living in the present day and not at any time in the past. And I'm excited to think that withion my lifetime there may be further astounding discoveries, which change forever our understanding of our World.

The wonder of the Universe in which we live is truly astounding, and the more we discover about the real causes of our existence, the less reason we have to believe in something which is not a physical part of all this.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Life after Death?

I don't understand (a) why the afterlife is necessary, and (b) why it is assumed that if we behave appropriately in this short life, we will benefit from eternal bliss. What would eternal bliss be like anyway? There are some pre-conditions if it is to mean anything: 1) we would retain our identity independent of our early bodies, and be aware of our previous living persona, 2) we would be aware that we were in a state of bliss.
I find point 2 particularly hard to reconcile. As humans, the thing that enables us to enjoy the experience of happines is having opposite feelings. Just as a spoilt child does not appreciate the struggle to provide food and clothing, because they never go without, so surely would we be unable to appreciate bliss if there were not regular contrasting reminders of unhappiness or pain.
Hmmm. All seems most unsatisfactory. Delighted to hear other views, preferably not the type that say it will be so because the Bible says so. That does not cut it for me.

Whistling down the wind

It's probably just as well that I don't have lots of people reading this blog. I'm a newcomer this arena, and judging from the reactions of many readers of more established blogs, there is much room for vilification, usually ill informed and/or plain unhelpful and rude.
Why are we all so polarised by religion? It's as if we are all supporting our own "team" and trying to score points. To read many of the critiques you would have thought they feel a whoop of delight each time they believe they have trumped the opposing "team".
It's interesting that Christian apologists appear to focus much of their spleen on atheists, instead of other (presumably competing) religions? Is that because they feel that questioning someone's sincerely held belief in a supernatural force is out of bounds? "If we question the basis for their deity then they will do the same to us, wheras atheists are fair game becasue there is no deity to compare." I know that sounds ridiculous, but that's how a number of those blogs come across, and I can see it's a tempting avenue to follow. Ah well, they are only words, and all this is just ephemeral. Does not stop me being happy that the Sun is shining brightly through my window.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Mudslinging and Biased Reporting

I'd be the first to admit that some atheists go over the top in slinging mud at those who believe in supernatural origins, but I would be hard pressed to find a position argued from anything but carefully researched and balanced sources. On the other hand, judging by material on the internet, those who argue for a supernatural creator do not appear to see any wrong in manipulating facts, quoting out of context, willfully misinterpreting data, and demonising anyone who speaks out passionately for a World without Gods.
I have just been reading the entry on "Atheism" on the "Conservapedia" website. I don't think I'd be overstating it to say that this is a dismal attempt to denigrate atheists using spurious out of context references, and trying to tie all atheists in with repressive regimes. It's like saying "My dog has fleas. Therefore all dogs have fleas".
The saddest thing is that this site masquerades as an alternative to Wikipedia, and is laid out to mimic the layout as far as possible, thereby lending an impression of moderated scholarship which is most definitrly absent. How can students be expected to grow up with a balanced view of the World and their fellow humans, if they are subjected to this iresponsible "education"?

Coming Out...

It seems extraordinary that in this supposedly secular and enlightened society, it should be so difficult to make the decision to declare myself an atheist. If, for instance, I tick a box on an application form to say that I am a Christian or a Muslim no one is surprised, but if instead I add that simple word "Atheist", it immediately seems to ring alarm bells - Radical - Freethinker - Independent - Nonconformist - Dangerous - Fanatical - Won't fit...
And yet I am no extremist, and honestly believe I lead a moral life, living by the creed that I should not do to anyone else what I would not like them to do to me similar circumstances. I am comforted by the knowledge that this is our one life, and that I need fear neither the wrath of a vindictive God, nor the futility of eternal immaterial "paradise".
Why do people feel so threatened by sincere discrete atheists?

Sunday, 24 January 2010

With what will we replace the Church?

About twice a month I give talks about the work of a particular charity to groups of individuals and clubs in the South of England. As an atheist I do this not from any religious conviction, but because I think it is the right thing to do to help my fellow humans. I am always amazed by the generosity of my audiences.
Something that strikes me is the number of occasions that the venue is a Church Hall, or the group has close links with the local Church. Whether or not my audience have any deeply held religious convictions I cannot tell, but from the various discussions I have had, it would appear that many are really there because it provides them with a group of friends and sense of belonging. That fact that it is centred on the Church appears to be incidental, and they hold no strong religious views.
There is a part of me that would like people to do away with Churches, and replace superstition with enlightenment, but what I can't fathom is what will replace the Church as a pastoral support.
The steady downward trend in congregations appears to continue inexorably. The average age of active members of the churches gets ever older. Parishes amalgamate or cease to exist. Churches are sold and converted to other uses. Will secular organisations emerge to take the place of the Church as it finally fades away to a sideline in history?

Is arguing with a believer a waste of time?

A few days ago I came a cross a thread on a calvinist blog with a title along the lines of "Christians - Why did your God create the earthquake in Haiti?" There were the usual nutty ravings and silly responses on both sides of the argument - but there were also some sincere and thoughtful posts. I decided to join the discussion, and put the naturalistic case, without the need for God. It was like dangling a juicy worm in a lake full of hungry fish, and soon I had the host of responses, ranging from those assuring me that I would roast in hell unless I repented, to those who sympathised and tried to convert me.
I guess what I found was exactly the same as many others before me - You cannot have a rigorous logical debate with a deeply religious person. It's bizarre that two people might share a common language and yet completely fail to understand each other. Every time I produced what appeared to me to be a watertight argument for a straightforward non-God reason for something, an answer would come back which defied argument. For instance I would get the response: "Only God can understand why He did this, and we cannot comprehend His reasons." Another resonse was to quote from the Bible, and explain that something happened because it said so in Bible, which is God's word, and which is infallible. This is a circular argument and there's really no point in further discussion.
Something in me really wants to help free these people from the tyranny of their narrow minded and artificial view of the World, and to marvel instead at the amazing and awe inspiring beauty of everything around us, without this God which humans have created. But I wonder if it is wise to try. What would be the effect of losing such a deeply held belief? I found it a very scary and shattering experience! But looking back from this disatnce it's one of the best things that ever happened to me.