Sunday, 28 February 2010

The truth about scientific theories...

Religious evolution deniers are often fond of stressing that Evolution is only a theory.

Interesting quote from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould:

Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

People who live in Glasshouses... (again)

A mildly amusing post by someone responding to George Pitcher's (who he calls church mouse) Telegraph column, in which Mr Pitcher dismisses the National Secular Society (NSS)as being very small, but with a loud voice.

The churchmouse confuses a pressure group with voluntary membership (the NSS) and a movement which has had two thousand years to expand its control, although in that last 300 years its control has slipped as science has blown away much of the ignorance that bred its silly religious superstitions.

Tell you what, churchmouse, cut me a deal. Let the NSS have just the next 50 years to develop its membership but with these provisos:

1) The NSS gets to ban books, films, web sites or plays that challenge its position.

2) The NSS gets to hold an Inquisition in which it seeks out, with impunity, those heretics who disagree with it, and tortures and burns them at the stake, and confiscates their estates to add to its funds.

3) The NSS gets loads of taxpayer funds to run secular schools and discriminate against religious parents and teachers – and pupils, since the NSS will be allowed to select the brightest ones

4) The NSS gets 26 free seats in the House of Lords with which it can veto any legislation that it finds objectionable to its cause.

5) NSS officers get to have their buildings subsidised by the taxpayer, and get an exemption from personal Council Tax.

There you go, churchmouse, I’ve given you some 1950 years’ advantage but I’ll bet the NSS membership will grow significantly in the other 50.  What do you say?

The Bible and Submissive Women

Two ministers in the Church of England are refusing to backpedal from their reiteration of the biblical teaching that wives should “submit” to their husbands. The Rev. Angus MacLeay, and his assistant, Mark Oden, have come under fire in the media after they recently issued a pamphlet and sermon, that quoted Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:22-33) and said that old fashioned values would save marriage.
The quote from Ephesians states: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
I've been participating in a blog discussing the submissive role of women in the Christian church.  I find it revealing that without exception the proponents of female submission appear to be grey haired middle class and/or extreme right wing men.  I just cannot understand, try as I might, why anyone in 2010 should cling to the dubious theological figleaf that is Peter's mysogynist preaching - apparently because he was the vessel for God's infallible wisdom.
Count me out of this ridiculous religion!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Old Arguments in New Clothes

I have been reading a long philosophical article by Professor Ernan McMullin, titled catchily: "Cosmic Purpose and the Contingency of Human Evolution".   Over 37 closely argued pages he expounds his thesis, and backs it up with 11 pages of references.  It is basically an examination of the argument for and against God as the creator.

His conclusion?  If you strip away all the esoteric language he basically says:  "I cannot prove whether God exists, but I assume that he does, and I present here my admittedly unproveable reasons for thinking this.  Some people think that they can prove he does not exist, but they are wrong, and here's why."

In other words we cannot prove either that God exists, or that he does not. 
Haven't we heard that before?  Oh, no more than many thousand times... 
Crikey!  Does this man get paid to do this?

Police and the Power of Prayer?

There was a rather bizarre and disturbing article in the UK Daily Express today.  Extract:

A SENIOR police officer claims he has slashed the crime rate in his home town – by praying. Inspector Roger Bartlett says the power of prayer has helped catch criminals, boosted crime detection rates and even reduced the number of ­people killed on the roads.  Insp Bartlett, who has 23 years’ experience, is ­“convinced” that faith work has had a positive impact on policing in Barnstaple, Devon.
The 44-year-old Christian arranges prayer meetings where locals are encouraged to pray in a bid to cut crime. He claims his prayers have been answered “on a number of occasions”.
The officer, who is part of the ­leadership team of the local Christian Policing Association, said: “For the past six years or so, I have reported to quarterly meetings of Christians from different churches in Barnstaple who want to pray for local policing issues."
“I have seen a number of specific answers to their prayers like the unprecedented Halloween night in the town when the police did not have to attend a single incident of disorder."
“Also, a prolific serial dwelling ­burglar who, after a significant series of offences, was apprehended in very unusual circumstances within three days of that group praying that he would trip up and be caught.”
This is not just another quirky story.  It is rather disturbing.  Firstly, what possessed the Police to allow this officer to appear in a national newspaper with a story about using supernatural assistance to solve crime?  Second, it is disturbing to know that there are police officers out there who engage in this kind of activity. 

I would be seriously worried if I knew that my local police force were trying to use the power of prayer to catch criminals.  Moreover, what does this say for the impartiality of the Police?  If I were a devout Hindu or Muslim, I would at best be suspicious that this officer would treat me with impartiality, and at worst I would be deeply offended by his behaviour.

If policemen practice their faith in private that is entirely their own business, but this should not be allowed to to become an apparent influence in the discharge of their professional duties.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

"Against all Gods"

You may recall the recent poster campaign on London busses, which read:
"There's probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
I saw an interesting suggested variant on a blog today:
"There's probably no God.  Now stop killing each other and enjoy your life."
I was reminded of another passage by A.C. Grayling at the conclusion of one of his thoughtful essays in his book "Against All Gods":
"For over a centrury after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenburg's church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight.  Milions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war.  We are witnessing a repeat today, this time with Islamism resisting the encroachment of a way of life that threatens it, and as other religious groups join them in a strictly temporary (given the exclusivity of faith) alliance for the cause of religion in general.

As before, the grinding of historical tectonic plates will be painful and protracted. But the outcome is not in doubt.  As private observance, religion will of course survive among minorities; as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last - characteristically bloody - fling."
I do not share Grayling's optimism that we are witnessing in militant Islamism what might be religions' last fling, but it is certainly bloody.

Friday, 19 February 2010

London For a Secular Europe 2010

Following quote is from the BHA wbsite. I was there. I think I'm just visible in the photo. It was an interesting Rally. Very good natured and civilised. There was a sprinkling of more outlandishly dressed attendees, and a few slightly oddball remarks, but most were distinguished only by their very straightforward views and unremarkable dress.

Around 250 demonstrators met Sunday outside Westminster Cathedral and marched to the Italian Embassy, as part of the second annual London for a Secular Europe demonstration.

Addressing the rally, the organiser from the Central London Humanist Group, Marco Tranchino, said:

'The Vatican is not an immutable fact of life. It is relatively young, and in fact it is younger than the current pope. The Vatican was created by the dictator Mussolini on the 11th of February 1929 with the Lateran Treaty and since then it has gained more and more financial privileges and power on the global political scene interfering insidiously in debates in the United Nations, especially against women's rights and gay rights.

‘11th of February 1929; and that's why on the anniversary of the Lateran Treaty, every year in Rome, thousands of Italians demonstrate against the Vatican and its undemocratic power. We are here to support the Italian demonstration "NO VAT" [“No Vatican”] and demand a secular Europe. We don't ask this of the Vatican. We ask it of the democratic institutions, and that's why we are here at the Italian embassy.

‘Last year, the British Humanist Association, together with the Central London Humanist Group, was the first to support this event in solidarity with the Italian march.’

Representatives from several organisations spoke at the rally, including Bob Churchill, Head of Membership at the British Humanist Association. Afterwards he said:

‘The speakers addressed many issues of anti-secularism, including state-funded ‘faith’ schools in the UK, increasing EU collusion with religious institutions, ‘blasphemy’ laws such as the new law in Ireland, and the impact that is felt around the world when European states compromise on the basic principles of secularism.'

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Atheists can't think for themselves

This guy has done a series of videos on Atheism vs. Christianity. Interestingly it's not immediately obvious where he's coming from. Judge for yourself. Actually this is one of the more obvious ones. Have a look at his other videos.  Actually, now I come to think of it, he looks uncannily like one of my previous bosses...

Irish Child Abuse Scandal - Bishops Chastised

Crikey! I guess this is progress. Pity it took so long coming! Extract from Ecumenical News International 17Feb10:

Twenty-four Irish Roman Catholic bishops received a tongue-lashing on 15 February 2010 from a top Vatican official as they began two days of unprecedented meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and his officials - writes Ray McMenamin.

The bishops are in Rome following the publication, on 26 November 2009, of an Irish government-commissioned report, led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, into how the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin dealt with allegations against priests of sexual abuse.

The day began with a Mass for the 24 Irish bishops before their encounter at the Vatican.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, a right-hand man of the Pope, described the abuse scandal as "humiliating" and "abominable". "Yes, storms spark fear, even those that rock the boat of the church because of the sins of its members," said Bertone.

The Irish report had concluded that church authorities had covered up abuse from 1975 to 2004 and that bishops in the archdiocese were more concerned with the reputation of the church than the welfare of children.

The bishops are in Rome to discuss the implications of the report with the Pope Benedict, who is due to write a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics in the near future. The Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is among those in attendance. He spoke to journalists at St Patrick's church in Rome on 14 February.

Our genome is an unmitigated mess

Interesting book review in New Scientist of which the following is an extract. Read this and tell me you still believe in an omnipotent creator...
Lesch-Nyhan syndrome causes compulsive self-mutilation. Children eat their lips or fingers, and stab their faces with sharp objects. They feel the pain, but they cannot stop themselves. Why would a loving, all-powerful creator allow anyone to be born with such an awful disease?

Lesch-Nyhan is just one of the tens of thousands of genetic disorders discovered so far. At least a tenth of people have some kind of debilitating genetic disease, and most of us will become sick at some point during our lifetime as a result of mutations that cause diseases such as cancer.

The reason? Our genome is an unmitigated mess. The replication and repair mechanisms are inadequate, making mutations commonplace. The genome is infested with parasitic DNA that often wreaks havoc. The convoluted control mechanisms are prone to error. The huge amount of junk, not just between genes but within them, wastes resources. And some crucial bits of DNA are kept in the power factories - mitochondria - where they are exposed to mutagenic byproducts. "It is downright ludicrous!" declares John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Irvine.

The human genome, Avise concludes, offers no shred of comfort for those seeking evidence of a loving, all-powerful creator who had a direct hand in designing us, as not just creationists but many believers who accept evolution think was the case. If some entity did meddle with life on Earth, it either did not know what it was doing or did not care, or both.

Religion no more comfort than atheism in old age...

A study, published in Society and Ageing from the Cambridge University Press, looks at whether religion helps people cope better with ageing and was carried out by Peter J. Wilkinson and Peter G. Coleman.

Although a variety of research projects have been conducted on the benefits of religious coping in older adults, no direct comparison between atheism and religious faith has been published. The study reported in this paper tackled this issue by interviewing two matched groups of people aged over 60 years living in southern England, one of 11 informants with strong atheistic beliefs, and the other of eight informants with strong religious beliefs. Five paired comparisons were undertaken to examine the role of the content of the belief system itself in coping with different negative stresses and losses commonly associated with ageing and old age. The pairs were matched for the nature of the loss or stress that the two people had experienced, but the two individuals had opposed atheistic and religious beliefs.

The analyses showed that all the study participants — regardless of their beliefs — were coping well, and suggested that a strong atheistic belief system can fulfil the same role as a strong religious belief system in providing support, explanation, consolation and inspiration. It is postulated that the strength of people’s beliefs and how those beliefs are used might have more influence on the efficacy of coping than the specific nature of the beliefs.

The authors say further research into the strength of belief systems, “including atheism”, is required to test and elaborate this hypothesis.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Reading the Bible - Who'd have thought it!

I guess one of the few positive outcomes of being severely ill is the time to think and study whilst convalescing. Something for which my work would not normally allow me time.

I have become intrigued by religious motivation. It is simply beyond my understanding that intelligent well educated humans can regard wilful dimissal of reality or just plain refusal to develop as a virtue. For how else can those who call themselves true believers reconcile their belief with reality?

Something I've noticed particularly is that when some ardent believers are threatened, it is a common recourse to hide behind a Bible quote, rather than argue the point from simple reason. I cannot argue with them unless I familiarise myself with the context of the verses they quote, so I have found myself reading large parts of the Bible, and I've become quite familar again with many parts of it. (But before anyone reading this gets ideas - no, it has not converted me - in fact quite the reverse. It seems so very much less impressive than when I first read it all those years ago.

From a believer's perspective am I a sinner if I simply cannot, try as I might, find faith? Am I worse than someone who goes to Church every Sunday, who knows orders of service by heart, who behaves in every way like a true believer, and yet who does not really believe in their heart? I wonder how many humans really, really believe? How many have been through the torture and sacrifice that real faith requires?

My search for truth continues.

The Animal Padre

It's tempting to brand someone who conducts religious burial services for pets as more than a little eccentric. But even as a sceptic I am touched by Pastor Thompson's thoughtful idea. Humans do become so very attached to their pets. When these pets die it feels every bit as awful as losing a human relation. He provides a service which clearly is very much appreciated. I hope there is always room for such warm gestures towards fellow humans, even if from a rational perspective they do appear quite bizarre. Thank you Pastor Thompson.

Pastor denies the existence of God

I saw an article on Ekklesia about a Dutch Pastor who has recently been allowed to continue in his ministry by his regional Church body despite making it clear that he did not believe the existence in God.

In 2007, Hendrikse hit the headlines with the publication of his book titled "Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor" (Geloven in een God die niet bestaat - manifest van een atheïstische dominee). In the book, Hendrikse distinguishes between believing in God, which he affirms, and believing in the existence of God, which he rejects. Instead, he refers to God as, "happening".

The article goes on to state:

Research published in 2006 by the ecumenical broadcaster Ikon and the Free University of Amsterdam found that one in six clergy of the Protestant Church were either not sure about or did not believe in the existence of God.

The survey also found that clergy aged 35 years or younger tended to be the most certain of God’s existence, while clergy aged between 55 and 65 years were the most unsure. "Overall, the survey indicated that the younger generation was more 'pious' than older generations," the research report said.
With acknowledgements to Ecumenical News International.

I've frequently wondered whether it is an urban myth that some priests come out of theological college as non-believers, and yet go on to successful ministries. Where's the integrity? There are plenty of ways to provide spiritual and emotional support to the community without living a lie.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Religion and Stoning - An unfortunate corollary?

I found this tragic story recently. It's interesting that the Koran does not condone stoning as a punishment, and yet Sharia law is used to condemn individuals to this barbaric death, without even the benefit of a fair trial.

It really worries me that whilst the practice of one of the World's largest religions may in its purest form be relatively harmless, it does not take much for self-important sadistic humans to subvert its teachings to their own twisted morality.

The 2009 film The Stoning of Soraya M. is about the harrowing true story of a woman sentenced to death by stoning because her husband accused her of infidelity. The film is based on a book by journalist Friedoune Sahebjam. He wrote this after hearing the story of 35-year-old Soraya Manutchehri (mother of seven) and her brutal stoning from her aunt while he was stranded in a rural village in Iran. According to the Washington Examiner, Soraya was innocent but the deadly mix of misogyny and extremist Islamic law, allowed that she was stoned to death because her husband wanted to marry another woman:

The victim was Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old mother of seven who, in her own prophetic words, had become "an inconvenient wife." Bartered away in an arranged marriage at 13 to a petty criminal named Ghorban-Ali, who was 20 years old at the time, Soraya bore nine children over the next two decades, enduring two stillborn births and regular beatings from her husband, along with his insults, his consorting with prostitutes, and his campaign to turn her two oldest sons against her.

On August 15, 1986, with the complicity of a local mullah who had been imprisoned for child molesting under the Shah, Ghorban-Ali showed himself to be more than a garden variety sociopath and town bully; he was a sadistic monster, and Islamic fundamentalism was his enabler, his aider, his abettor.
In the anarchic days of the Iranian Revolution, Ghorban-Ali had found work as a prison guard in a neighboring town. There, he met a 14-year-old girl whom he wanted to marry. Polygamy was encouraged in Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, but Ghorban-Ali didn't want to support two families, and did not desire to return his wife's dowry. How to rid himself of his "old" wife? That was the easy part. Accuse her of infidelity. No matter that her husband had not actually seen anything untoward, or that Soraya was completely innocent, or that her husband's cynical accusations were only backed up by his cousin, who as it turned out had been coerced into concurring with the vaguest of accusations: a smile here, a brushed hand there.
What court of law would find someone guilty on such flimsy evidence? A "sharia" court is the answer. And so Soraya was convicted. The sentence was death-death by stoning.

It is even more troubling to see how the religion of Islam is being subverted to justify utterly barbarous murders. I am informed that nowhere in the Koran is stoning mentioned as a punishment.

It is also quite appalling that the majority of cases of stoning sentences have been against women. 9 out of 10 of the people recently awaiting stoning in Iran were women. It is unacceptable for anyone to die by being stoned to death, but it is even more unacceptable that this punishment is being disproportionately meted out to women.

Furthermore, the underlying misogyny at play in extremist Islam must also be called into question. There is a maddening double standard at play here. Men are free in their sexual relationships yet women can be stoned to death for simply doing the same things as their husbands.

For instance, in the Iranian Penal Code, a married woman has no right to divorce, a privilege which is reserved for the husband. Women have no custody rights of their children after age seven. As a result, women who can obtain a divorce by proving their husbands are either abusive or an addict, choose not to do so for fear of losing their children. A man can marry up to four wives simultaneously, and may establish a sexual relationship with any other single woman through a temporary marriage, without the requirements of marriage registration, ceremony, or obligation to any possible child that may result. Furthermore, a woman is legally obliged to submit to her husband’s sexual demands and to do her best to satisfy him sexually. Hence if a man is sexually unsatisfied or in an unhappy relationship, he has many avenues open to him to dissolve the marriage and/or satisfy his sexual needs in a temporary “marriage”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these legal options are denied to Iranian women, and any woman seeking alternative intimate relationships is, in the eyes of the law, “committing adultery”

The practice of stoning is more widespread. For example, on October 27, 2008, Aisha Ibrahim Duholow, a young Sudanese girl, was stoned to death in a stadium in front of 1,000 spectators. According to the government she had begged for the "Islamic punishment" after confessing to infidelity; but according to Amnesty International, she was just a 13-year old girl who had gone to the authorities to report a gang-rape. The gang rapists were never charged.

Laws condoning stoning are still on the books in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Does God exist - 2 - The Cosmological Argument

Why does anything exist? - why something rather than nothing? The argument is that unless God exists, the question is unanswerable. If the Universe had a beginning, who created the Universe if not God? Human experience informs us that something can't come out of nothing. What we need, it seems, is a cause which itself has no cause; and God fits the bill.

Claims and counterclaims have been made since the idea was first postulated. Bertrand Russell said something simple but profound:
"...the Universe is just there, and that's all".
Why cannot the Universe be infinite, regardless of whether we can comprehend that. We are after all just short lived carbon life forms living precariously on a small planet revolving around an unremarkable star.

We seem to be tantalisingly close to a scientific explanation for the origin of our Universe and the apparent "Big Bang" that started it all. But let's suppose that humankind is not able to fully understand the origin of the Universe, before our brief existence (In Cosmic terms) is snuffed out by our dying Sun. The fact that we do not understand something is not sufficient cause to say "God did it".

Let's imagine that every day my cat sees me taking food from the cupboard to feed him, but is never there when I replenish the cupboard. My cat has no idea why everything always comes from that cupboard or why it is there, but he knows that it does, he knows that it always has done, and has no reason to doubt that it always will. He has no facility to understand the process. But might it not seem reasonable to him that a God lives in the cupboard, a God which always provides, and apparently from nothing? There is a perfectly logical process, but he is mentally unequipped to understand it. As far as he is concerned I am the one who acts as an intercessor (I know how to open a can and he marvels at that!), and therefore perhaps I am the equivalent to his High Priest, if you like.

At a different scale and level of complexity, doesn't the God that humans assume exists fit the same mould? OK, so this is a gross oversimplification, but surely the basic prionciple is the same.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Does God exist? - (1) The Ontological Argument

Christian apologists are fond of "proving" that God exists using logic or philosophical arguments. Are the proofs mere word games, or is there more to them? One of the oldest widely disseminated arguments is the so called "Ontological" argument. In the late 11th Century St Anselm argued that we can deduce the existence of God from the mere idea of God. Just by thinking about what God is we can deduce that He exists. St Anselm's argument was:

By definition God is greater than which none can be conceived.
God can be conceived of as just an idea, or as really existing.
It is greater to exist than not to exist.
Therefore, God must exist.

Over time various philosphers have exposed the flaws in this argument.
Initially Anselm's contemporary, the monk Gaunilo, objected that logically one could prove anything exists by this argument. St Anselm's response was that this argument could only be applied to God, because only He could be perfect and unique.

But it was not until Emmanual Kant in the late 18th Century that the Ontological argument appears to be have been conclusively rebutted. Kant showed that the argument wrongly assumes that existence is a property. According to St Anselm the concept "God" contains contains the idea of existence. So the statement "God does not exist is a contradiction in terms. Therefore he must exist. But Kant claimed that existence does not add anything to, or define, a concept. To say something exists merely means that some object corresponds to the concept. Existence is not the same as a concept. Therefore it is not true that "God exists" must be true.

However, this argument is still used today in various forms, and with further justifications and explanations.

In future posts I'll summarize further arguments. Next will be the "Cosmological Argument"

Friday, 12 February 2010

Amsterdam Declaration 2002 - What we're all about...

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1.Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.
2.Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.
3.Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.
4.Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.
5.Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process: of observation, evaluation and revision.
6.Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.
7.Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.
Our primary task is to make human beings aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Charles Kingsley on the fossil record

I've just recalled a quote by 19th century writer Charles Kingsley, made when discussing his doubt that God made the World complete with fossils that appear to predate the Creation. He said:
"I cannot believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie"
I find myself ever more perplexed by the creationist view of the World. How can they sustain their belief, when every argument they produce can so easily be refuted, and when the much simpler rational solution is so blindingly apparent? I find it scary that people can be so intent on self delusion. Of what else are they capable?
I do acknowledge, however, that most Christians do not subscribe to such a literal view.

The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?

There is an interesting piece at Trends in Cognitive Sciences which debates whether morality is a product of religion or religion is a product of morality. Click on the title to read.
Thought provoking. But is it really so surprising that they find people without religion to be as moral as those with religion?

Christopher Hitchens interviewed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell

Click on the title to listen to a great interview with Christopher Hitchens by liberal US Christian, Marilynn Sewell. A fascinating exchange in which there appears to be a meeting of minds. Are Unitarians really Christian in name only?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Apologists and epistemology

Why is it that Christian apologists are so entranced by arcane vocabulary? In almost any American Christian treatise one can guarantee there will be a free use of such words as "epistemology" (the theory of knowledge, especially the critical study of its validity, methods and scope), even where their use is really not required by the discussion.
Is this just an attempt to add authority to their arguments - by demonstrating that they have an educated background? For instance, just look at any of the blogs by the apologist Mariano for examples. This person is so wrapped up in his own intellect and importance, that whenever his view is challenged he tries to defeat his opponent by ridiculously verbose and pedantic responses.
The main problem for me is that too often these people use this form of writing to "explain" in complex terms a quote from the Bible for which there is invariably a much simpler, but less convincing explanation, which is more appropriate to the time it was written. Much wasted energy is expended trying to relate outdated writings to the present day.
It seems to me that part of the problem is the common belief amongst religious apologists that morality is absolute. But deeds and words in the Bible which may have appeared moral or self-evident at the time they were written, now often appear just plain weird, unless they are wrapped up in "interpretation" by these people, to make them palatable and reasonable to the modern ear. To take one of many examples - the possession of slaves was thought of as quite normal and acceptable in biblical times, and this is reflected in the Bible.

The Bible is also full of truisms and common sense advice on how to live in an enlightened society. At the time these ideas may have been revolutionary, and fired people's imagination. But are they still? I think not. Most of us now live in a far more sophisticated, educated and enlightened society. Maybe that is one of the reasons that the Bible has ceased to be such a compelling read, and why apologists have to resort to ever more inventive ways to recreate interest and belief.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Is human morality a result of evolution or God given?

I discovered a fascinating study at the "Trends in Cognitive Science" website. The following is an extract. The full report is at the link, including sources. Click on the title above to go to the link.
See also my earlier post: "A monopoly on moral behaviour?"

For some, there is no morality without religion. For others, religion is merely one way of expressing and legitimating one's moral intuitions. Religion can be linked to morality in different ways: moral principles are either decided by gods or by ancestors, or saints and holy individuals provide a model to be followed. Alternatively, gods and ancestors are regarded as interested parties that pay attention to what people do and people thus feel that their moral choices are never merely a private matter.

It is important to distinguish explicitly held religious beliefs and affiliations from religious intuitions. Bering, for example, presents experimental evidence that even non-religious subjects intuitively consider some mental states and processes, such as emotions, more likely to continue after death than others, such as hunger. Bloom argues that all humans are intuitive dualists in the sense that we feel our self to be the owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies. Thus, in folk psychology, the death of the body does not mean the cessation of personhood. Furthermore, because human reasoning is characterized by a promiscuous teleology, a capacity that causes us to see meaning and intentionality in everything that happens, we automatically postulate an agent as an explanation of various events; often this is some god -like concept.

Arguably, these tendencies make religious beliefs contagious in the sense that they are easy to spread and propagate because they functionally resonate with many of the basic operations of the mind. Consequently, they are also easy to use in moral reasoning. This does not mean, however, that there is a necessary link between morality and religion. There is evidence that at least some religious concepts and beliefs need certain cultural input in order to become adopted and to persist. The Vezo of Madagascar, for instance, seem to have two conceptions of death. Guided by their everyday experience, they construe death in biological terms as the breakdown of all vital functions, but see it as the beginning of a different form of existence in a ritual context. These two conceptions of death are activated in different contexts, and thus the Vezo do not feel that there is a tension between them.

Thus, although it seems undebatable that religiously colored intuitions can affect moral reasoning, and that religious primes can affect prosocial behavior, these observations do not license the conclusion that the mechanisms are specific to religion, nor that religion provides the central explanatory factor. Even when the intuitive content is interpreted as religious, the mechanisms that support reasoning are more general in scope.
There are endless often pointless web arguments about whether religion is necessary for humans to be moral. But surely that's the wrong question. I think most of us would agree that humans have an innate sense of morality. The really important question is surely whether this is God given. I hold the belief that it is not, but I cannot prove that, any more than someone else can prove that it is.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

An alternative version of the Noah's Ark story

Yes, I know it's silly, and there will be Christians who will explain away Genesis as a parable or as an analogy. My concern is the way that apologists selectively discount those parts of the Bible that do not make sense and still feel enabled to quote other parts that do appear to make sense. I am reminded of a colleague who assembled many details about his birth, and sent them away for a horoscope reading. Back came a 4 page horoscope "specially compiled" using his details. He was delighted with the result and showed it to me. He had used a yellow highlighter to show all those parts that were "true" and he said he was amazed at how they had got it so right. I pointed out to him that although there was an even distribution of yellow throughout the piece, only about 30% of the the report was coloured yellow, and that many of the highlighted sections could equally apply to me or many other people. I then used a different coloured marker to show the statements that applied to me, and guess what, the ratio was about the same! Interestingly he was not convinced by my argument. I wonder which parts of the Bible he highlights and which he does not?

"The Ten Commandments and Me" - Ann Widdecombe

I just watched a programme on UK Channel 4 with MP Ann Widdecombe explaining why she thought the Biblical Ten Commandments were so relevant, and suggesting that society today would be a better place if we took more account of them. There was a subtext running through the programme that Christianity had served our country well down the centuries, and we would be well advised to stick with it as an alternative to our current obsession with consumerism and celebrity.

I have no problem with a majority of the exhortations in the ten commandments. I do however have an issue with the notion that without these biblical commendments we would lose our way in the moral maze of life. Are we seriously to consider that "Thou shalt not kill" is a uniquely Christian idea, or that without it we would all feel that it was acceptable to kill

At this point fundamentalists are liable to quote Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot as examples of how atheism leads to people being "permitted" to indulge in mass slaughter. Oh pleease! They did not commit those crimes BECAUSE they were atheists. I am an atheist, but I don't think that gives me a licence to kill. It's a basic tenet of a civilised human society not to kill fellow humans. The same shared values apply equally to all the other non-supernatural Biblical commandents.

However, atheists and humanists are individuals rather than subscribers to a specific creed. I think we tend to see ethics and morals as self evident. There are many religions and cultures amongst humans around the World, but I'm not aware of any that have a markedly different view to the Christian code of behaviour. These values are absolutely not unique to Christians.
Perhaps we should nail our colours to the mast a bit more and declare what we all share in common. Hmmm... Something to think about. It is absurd to accept some Christians' position that we need to embrace their religion to be truly moral humans.

The curious sport of Bible bashing...

“[If] people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant and unkind about other people’s [beliefs], they are not ‘skilful’. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, then they are good, helpful and sound.” - Karen Armstrong

I'm not a great fan of Karen Armstong, but I have to agree with this statement. It puzzles me why so many non-religious people take such pleasure in pouring scorn on those who are religious. One wonders about their motivations. Usually abuse just hardens existing beliefs and makes the recipient even more determined to defend their position. So this abuse surely cannot be a constructive attempt to persuade religious people to modify their view. It's just a form of mindless bullying.

I guess there is always a need for extremism to achieve moderate change, but people too often confuse assertiveness and conviction with rudeness and outrageous personal attacks.

So, I've decided that wherever possible when I see evidence of this type of abuse I will try to inject moderation. If we have to be abusive to make our points, then it does not say much for the strength of our argument.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

What's the difference between an atheist and a secular humanist?

I am indebted to "reme1" at Yahoo Answers for this answer. In turn some of the text is from Wikipedia. I find it a helpful description:

Secular humanism is a humanist philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as the basis of moral reflection and decision-making. Like other types of humanism, secular humanism is a life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead good, happy and functional lives.
The term "Secular Humanism" was coined in the 20th century to make a clear distinction from "religious humanism". A related concept is "scientific humanism", which biologist Edward O. Wilson claimed to be "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature".
Atheism, as an explicit position, can be either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism.
Many self-described atheists are sceptical of all supernatural beings and cite a lack of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. Others argue for atheism on philosophical, social or historical grounds. Although many self-described atheists tend toward secular philosophies such as humanism, and naturalism, there is no one ideology or set of behaviours to which all atheists adhere; and some religions, such as Jainism and Buddhism, do not require belief in a personal god.

I have met some Humanists who still profess a belief in the supernatural. People often use the terms atheism and humanism synonymously (including me sometimes) but there is a difference.
Some use the atheist label as a statement of their intent, while others use the humanist label as a confrirmation of their belief in the betterment and empowerment of humankind in the here and now, rather than worrying about the existence of a hypothetical God.
Underneath we all share our common heritage as humankind!

A curious video...

The Prosperity Gospel from The Global Conversation on Vimeo.

Do you find this as disturbing as I do? Roll on the truly secular state!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Yes, it really is in the dictionary. Came across it completely by accident. Guess there's a weird sort of parallel with people who apparently can open up the Bible at random and find words that seem to fit the need.
"Uniformitarianism - the concept that the earth's surface was shaped in the past by gradual processes, such as erosion, and by small sudden changes, such as earthquakes, rather than by sudden divine acts, such as Noah's flood."
Cool huh?

Which is the greater threat?

Which is the greater threat to Christianity - competing faiths or lack of faith?

Many Christians on the web seem to focus their attacks against atheism, secularism or materialism, and yet they are silent on Islam or any other competing religion. Surely these competing belief systems pose a much greater threat to the future health of Christianity than a simple lack of belief? Is the criticism of other religions taboo? Or is there real fear of reprisals? - Today’s “new atheists” are a pretty safe bet because whilst they may be capable of harsh invective, they are not by inclination violent, or prepared to die for their lack of faith.

I have to say that as an atheist in a Western democracy I am more concerned by the growth of Islam than anything the Christian Church could throw at me. Islam appears to have the potential to undermine the very fabric of our secular society.

Am I alone in this view?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

One way Street?

I can understand how someone who believes in a God can become a non-believer, but I’m puzzled as to how a thoughtful and well informed atheist can go the other way, and “convert” to Deism. Though I note that some Christian websites take great pleasure in showcasing people who have made this leap.

As a small child I believed in all sorts of illogical things, from a jolly fellow called Father Christmas, to the Tooth Fairy who would leave money under my pillow. Gradually as I became more aware of the rational reality of the World around me these acts of faith were discarded. Along the way I learnt why parents went along with these bizarre concepts, in their sincere and thoughtful belief that it would make our childhood more wonderful and full of joy. Understandable and maybe laudable, but no way to continue to live one's life as a fulfilled adult.

Last to go, after an immense struggle to hold onto it, was my belief in the Christian God. For months - even years - before I finally admitted it, I struggled and tortured myself to hang onto my belief, but I just could not do it. Everything around me screamed that this belief could not be upheld.

When I finally accepted my new state it was probably the most wonderfully liberating moment in my entire life. To borrow from Biblical parlance, it was as if the shackles that weighed me down were cast off, and I became intoxicated by the light of reason and the loss of fear. Suddenly the World made sense, and I could experience the joy of being, without questioning everything for otherworldly meaning, without doubting my motives, or being ashamed of any ideas that did not fit into the Christian view of the World.

Since that time my journey has been one of great excitement, and I have found inner peace that I had not thought possible. It does not matter that there is no higher being, no higher purpose to life. This World is so incredibly awe inspiring that there is no need for anything else, and the Gods worshipped by the mainstream religions appear so petty and tawdry when compared to the wonderful symmetry and rationality of an evolved Universe. Yes, there are gaps in our understanding of the natural Universe, but almost every month some new part of the jigsaw is discovered that brings us closer to a fuller understanding. As short lived and physically restrained humans there will remain some things our minds are not equipped to understand, such as the unimaginable vastness of space and of time. We will most likely, however, find better ways to explain them conceptually, and that will have to suffice.

I cannot prove the non-existence of God, any more than I can prove the non-existence of fairies, but that is insufficient reason to devote my life to belief in a God. The arguments for belief are surely so self-serving and circular that I still find it incredible that so many people can suspend belief in everything they learn about our pysical nature, and instead make a blind leap into belief in Gods who are so full of contradictions and who often exhibit signs of human frailty and imperfection. For everything around us we can find a reason that does not include a God, despite the tortuous, circular arguments put forward by the apologists, which so often are the result of selective misquotation or which exhibit basic flaws in logical reasoning. And the argument that deists too readily propose that "we are too imperfect to comprehend the workings of God" is such a cop out for any action or lack of action that cannot be explained satisfactorily in terms of innate human morality.

I intend to find someone who has made this apparent leap from non-belief to belief, to try to understand the motivation, and the truth that this person has found that I have not. I feel that there may well be a fault in me that I cannot find empathy with these people, who I have to assume are still sane and rational.

I will come back to this again…

A monopoly on moral behaviour?

It suprises me how often religions tend to claim a monopoly on moral behaviour. They imply that without God given rules for behaviour, we humans would lose our moral compass, and be subject to selfish "base instincts". Well known figures of hate in the Western World, including Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, are cited as classic examples of what happens when religion is displaced by atheism. But isn't this assertion yet another example of flawed logic? Rather like that old chestnut: My dog always has fleas. Therefore it must be true that all dogs have fleas.

I am a consciencious atheist, and yet I feel no different about these tyrants than those of a religious persuasion. Moreover, I try to live my life by a code of ethics and moral behaviour that works for me. I frely admit that my earliest exposure to morality was through Bible stories as a child. For a while I was "sold" on the idea that morality came from God, because I had no other measure by which to judge this assertion. It took a long time and much soul searching to discover not only that I could not believe in this God, but also that it was possible to lead a moral life without the external regulation of this God.

The moral codes and ethical behaviour expounded in the holy books are surely more reflections on human nature and desires. Dressing them up in religious texts just lends a false authority to the religion thus described. I do not need to be religious to believe that i should not kill my fellow humans. I do not need religion to tell me that I should not steal or lie under "normal circumstances. These are basic human instincts, which most of us find no difficulty in obeying without recourse to artificial aids.

There is often talk of a "Golden Rule", which is at the heart of a number of religions. The rule is broadly this: "Treat others as you would like them to treat you". Now what is so hard about that. It makes huge sense for humans to behave this way. I don't want to live in constant fear of my neighbour breaking into my house and stealing my belongings, and he feels the same way aboout me. This mutual desire is constantly reinforced as we gain each others trust. Over time our mutual circles of trust expand to embrace the community. Ultimately we learn that on balnce we all prosper more if we obey these basic unwritten rules, and we pass this idea onto our children. Eventually these ideas become codified and formalised, all without the aid of an external "guiding hand".

I could go on, with countless other examples, but I hope this simple example makes the point - that we don't need religion to behave morally. Arguably atheists are capable more moral behaviour than those who believe in a God, as atheists are purely driven by an internal moral compass, without the need for belief in eternal paradise or damnation.