Monthly Archives: July 2010

It’s A Kind Of Magic

Thanks to Lesley, and indirectly to The MadPriest, for a pointer to this Irish Times article.

In it Canon Ginnie Kennerley puts magical thinking in its place, as eloquently and effectively as any atheist could:

“…is a demonstration of “magical thinking” at its most primitive, akin to ritual rain-making ceremonies and tribal rituals designed to control the uncontrollable”

Yes, even Christians are atheistic when it comes to some beliefs.

“While many of us occasionally indulge in magical thinking in small ways, if applied to serious issues it can become a major cause of injustice and handicap to general well-being.”

“As I understand it, magical thinking relies on perceived (but un-confirmable) causal links between desired events and the phenomena that appear normally to accompany or precede them.”

“It assumes that, by ensuring that there is no change in the supposed link of cause and effect, we can ensure the desired result every time – in effect, we imagine we can control the action of God.”

“Those who fall prey to this style of magical thinking in the 21st century may deserve our sympathy and even a degree of respect, given that a high level of anxiety and desire for control, of which they may not be aware, is probably at the root of the matter.”

I’ve a sneaky feeling Canon Ginnie Kennerley nodded off while reading some New Atheist book, and awoke thinking she’d been taking notes for something else entirely. I hope she doesn’t mind if I keep these words in mind when I next argue with a theist.

Lesley’s Salford Experience

Lesley posted an interesting item today in which she described her experience of Salford. I know Salford quite well, though I grew up on Langley – another notorious area that suffered many of these same problems.

The post was mainly about homosexuality. But what I found more interesting was the type of society that exists in these places that, despite all the publicity, is still below the radar for most educated people. There are plenty of hard working decent honest people in these areas (that’s right off a politician’s crib sheet) who live side by side with troubled families.

We think the gulf of understanding between atheists and theists is great – it’s nothing compared to the gulf between the educated middle classes and this under-class. Let’s not mince words; there are very different segments of our society, and even though we no longer like to think in terms of classes, that’s as good a term as any.

The recent Raoul Moat Facebook page comes to mind. I urge you to listen to this: Siobhan O’Dowd. What you hear is a severely uneducated woman being taken down a peg or two by a reasonably articulate radio presenter. All his points are reasonable. It’s so endemic in these sub-cultures to be so anti-police that anyone who evades them is a ‘legend’. Siobhan O’Dowd isn’t condoning any of the harm Moat caused, but isn’t the least bit sympathetic for the police efforts or the expense of mounting the police efforts. Her mind is filled with this screwed (to us) view of affairs, “I wouldn’t say he’s a legend for shooting people, but I would say he’s a legend for keeping the police on their toes, like I’ve told you about five times.”

If you don’t get this ‘other world’ that they live in, then you don’t get quite a lot about life.

Here’s someone who misunderstands, who comments on the clip, “What a disgrace of a human being.. the chav whore.” Another, “this stupid bitch should be steralized and lobotomized.” Another, “Ian is awesome!? This interview is hilarious. Siobahn O’Dowd is fucking retarded.”

Well, she may or may not be clinically retarded or otherwise biologically impaired, but she seems to suffer a psychological depravation that comes from a life of poor education, poverty, and being forced to mix with others in the same deprived environment.

If school doesn’t catch you and inspire you, if you come from a poor home that offers you little, if you can’t figure out that a 200% or 2000% interest to a loan shark isn’t a good deal, if a good bargain is knocked-off tele or mobile from the pub, if you think the police are your enemy, if you think the ‘Social’ is out to screw you and you’re entitled to screw them, then you are basically screwed for the rest of your life, and you are bound to repeat the whole experience for your own children.

To think the Siobhan O’Dowd’s are in control of their lives to any great degree beyond instinctive short sighted responses to problems that come their way, is to be mistaken. To think the common notion of free-will is at work in many of these individuals is a mistake. I’d say it would be mistaken understanding of free-will, but that’s another story – yet our misunderstanding of free-will colours our judgement.

This is our under-class, that includes the Siobhan O’Dowd’s, the mothers who spend more on cigs than their kids’ meals, and the women who learn that some of the men in this environment can’t be trusted, because those men too grew up in the same environment, where their inherent worthlessness leads to the abuse of women and children. You have to get a feel for how lost they are to what we consider a normal life to appreciate how much beyond self-help many of them are.

This isn’t a liberal lefty plea to let everyone off the hook. As members of a society we have a right (we invent this right and claim it) to have a say in how our fellow members behave, to some extent: Golden Rule, least harm, whatever your view is. We are prepared to say that some behaviours are intolerable, and so we avoid where we can, and criminalise where we have to.

We often hear kids say, “I didn’t ask to be born.” when trying to avoid their responsibilities. Well, many of these people didn’t ask to be born into poor families in deprived areas that condemn them and their children to this perpetual cycle. They will not, cannot, break the cycle. They cannot live up to their responsibilities because they are not equipped to do so.

Only the rest of us can do that for them, if we want to. We can make gestures like Lesley’s and help on the ground – but this only alleviates a specific problem for some people. If there is no political will to make bigger changes then we have to accept that this is how it will be.

Angela’s Reasonable Religion

This is a response to Angela’s Reasonable Religion, which in turn was a response to my comments here.

Yes, there are some generalisations we can make. All theists are, well, theists – a belief in God. The fact that the generalisation covers a wide variety doesn’t detract from the generalisation. If you don’t believe in God then you are an atheist – though precisely how that is interpreted and used does vary.

The charge you make against Dawkins isn’t unique, but nor is it true.

“Many will happily throw away all scientific objectivity to take a pop at religion…” – Can you give instances, or are you too making sweeping statements.

“as though ‘religion’ is a genus” – Well, it is sort of like a genus, with lots of species below it. Or maybe religion is the family, Christianity a genus, and the various versions of Christianity a species. But then, just as in our species there is a variety of individuals. And just as there are evolutionarily determined common features across species, such as some of the morphological similarities between humans and apes, then so there might be some similarities across Christian species. So, yes, some sort of taxonomy might well be used to describe theists.

Can you show me one piece from a Dawkins book, or site where Dawkins makes any such generalisation? The problem is that in context Dawkins may be speaking about one particular type of believer, or one particular aspect of theology, and he’s usually clear about that; but it’s the reading thesis who says, “Hold on, that doesn’t apply to me. Dawkins is making sweeping generalisations.” As I said originally – selective reading.

“…but most people are too willing to sacrifice reason on the altar of prejudice.” – This is precisely what the religious do when they put their faith in their dogma above reason. Note I don’t say all religious all the time. Wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake again of assuming I meant that.

“What fascinates me is the way in which those more interested in blaming…” – Well, here’s a quote from a reasonable theist:

“What has science actually done for us to date in this regard? Probably – on balance – exacerbated the problem rather than done anything to ameliorate it. Your faith in science is touching!”

You can find this here, for context (Mike’s 23 June 2010 18:39 comment).

Science or atheism are often blamed for the ills of the world, sometimes in the context of, “You can’t be good without God.”, or, “Look what atheists like Hitler/Mao/Pol Pot have done.”

Sometimes we do blame religion for certain problems. With good reason. In the case of abusing Catholic priest it’s actually individual humans to do this, not the religion as such. And the cover ups that have occurred have been performed by individual or collectives of humans within the church, so again it’s not the religion as such. But it is the religion that sustains the authority that allows these things continue. It’s religious authority that allows religious fanatics to manipulate the gullible into acts of terrorism. It is the religion that helps to maintain a sectarian division in Northern Ireland.

Sometimes science, or at least scientists deserve blame too. It’s an impartial view. The difference is that science doesn’t hold itself up to be following the perfect word of anyone. All science claims is to be the best method we have of acquiring knowledge, and even then it has specific means of dealing with the fallibility of the humans that implement it.

Science is just one more system invented by humans. It’s the best we can do, given our limited access to knowledge and all our fallibilities. This isn’t to say science is perfect. But science is the best we can do.

“The Social Sciences may have proven…” – The social sciences haven’t proven anything of the sort. They have acquired some supporting evidence. We have to be careful how we use the term ‘proof’. It has a very specific meaning in logic, and is generally inadequate for describing scientific ‘truths’. And ‘truth’ is another word we have to use with care – it’s something we strive for, but not something we can be sure we have found.

“You [God] have repeatedly shown us that the violence that really destroys this world begins in ourselves.” – We’re nearly on the same page here. The scientific atheist view is that there is no evidence for God. Everything we worry about, all our problems of morality, come from us, as an evolved species that has developed innate and culturally evolved behaviours into a moral system. Given both the common ancestry and individual variety it is to be expected that there will be a some common features and plenty of variety in the belief in God – which is what we see. If there really was a God that revealed himself to us, either he made a very bad job of it, or he created us so that to us it looks as if belief is a human invention that comes out of our evolutionary and cultural history – how else would you explain the variety, inconsistency and contradictory nature of belief.

This isn’t to say categorically that there isn’t a God (and Dawkins is specific about this too: there might be, but there’s no evidence.) The problem with all theologies is that they start with this basic unknown – is there a creator agent or is it all non-anthropomorphic cosmic fluctuation?; pick one of them, that there is a creator; and then go on to create all fantastically unsubstantiated theologies, without the slightest bit of evidence.

Theists are keen to tell us what God wants. “You [God] have repeatedly shown us…” – How do you know that? All your claims about God are based on what one particular branch of a whole group of societies made up: ancient superstition. Even the most basic attempts to verify any of this (such as experiments on the power of prayer) have failed utterly.

“Thank you [God] for the gift of reason…” – If you’re using reason, and we know reason is fallible (that’s why we need science, to compensate), how do you come to reason that there is a God? The only difference between those people who believe they are Napoleon and the faithful is that the Napoleon’s are adamant they are in the face of irrefutable contradictory evidence, whereas the religious are relying on the fact that there is no data whatsoever, and also relying on the momentum that the organised religions provided.

“We may have mapped the human genome, but to the best of my knowledge, we have yet to find a way of accurately and predictably mapping the thoughts of a single human mind.. Even though we know this, even though we know that we cannot really know the mind or heart of another human being, we persist in pretending that we know enough to identify, label and blame..” – Even though we know we can’t know the mind of God, and can’t establish there is a God, some of us persist in pretending we know what he wants of us.

Violence with Violence

Talk about selective reading. This is a joke. It’s a bit of religious promotion based on some scientific studies that are confirming common sense. And for some it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

“You can’t fight violence with violence” doesn’t require detailed science, or God. It’s common sense that some members of most societies have figured out is a good general rule, and that goes back well before Jesus. So, it’s hardly as if it was a new idea – but fair enough, Jesus and some of his followers have made a significant contribution to the popularisation of that view and are to be congratulated on that.

And it’s not as if science was around to figure this stuff out. As a science psychology is still relatively new, has many methodological problems, and the detailed thorough science is difficult to do. So, no surprise that science is late in the game.

But hold on, who is it that creates wars, and on what basis do wars begin? It’s usually based on ignorance about differences and dogma, and religion has had a great input here (as have non-religious dogmas). It’s religious politicians, like Bush and Blair that have wanted war on terror; it’s religiously motivated political divisions that have caused conflict, from the Christian crusades to Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, to the continuing tribal, racial and religious divisions in Africa.

It certainly isn’t to religion’s credit that it has not sorted these problems out so far, and it is to religions discredit that it has contributed so much to the problems. Perhaps the question should be why has it taken science to step in and provide rational reasons to explain the complexities? It’s because ignorant politics and religion have failed, and reason and science have had to come to the rescue to provide a less biased view that can be taken on board whatever one’s politics or religion (dogma permitting). Science is for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Muslim or Jew or Christian, Roman Catholic or Anglican – there are no divisions in science, and no dogma (except when fallible humans screw it up and become dogmatic about the science).

Thorough science isn’t easy. The scientific method is used to overcome the foibles of the human mind, by trying to account for biases, such as those that religion and politics is likely to enforce. It’s thanks to sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the engineering sciences and technologies like print, radio, TV and satellite that have provided a greater understanding of the natural variety of human nature and culture and education, and the dissemination of that knowledge, that has led to slow but positive progress in lifting the veil of ignorance of a non-scientific view.

But “You can’t fight violence with violence” is a general rule. We are not that good at science yet; or more specifically we are not that good at listening to science yet. We still get ourselves into some serious fixes, through political gaffs, intolerance of the religious and non-religious alike, through ignorance. And sometimes we are left with no choice but to defend ourselves, even if it’s our own fault that got us into the mess.

We are dumb apes – which is what science tells us, and helps explain quite a lot, but which many religious deny. This denial, and the ignorant notion that we of some particular religion or other are chosen in some way fuels the ignorance.

Science fails often, in the hands of fallible humans, despite attempts to develop a scientific method to overcome our fallibilities in seeking truth. Religion fails far more. So, less of the back slapping, a little more humility, and get on with promoting the views of Jesus the peace loving mortal man, and less of the religious dogma.

The Kneeler’s post is typical of the selective reading that the religious have to develop as second nature if they are to make any sense of the Bible. And of course they always apply it to science. Science is great when it’s curing ills – though it hasn’t been beyond the religious to thank God for those cures. But where are most of the religious on evolution? Still in the dark ages. It’s also typical of the religious to claim prior credit for scientific discoveries – though Muslims seem particularly good at this as they often claim the Koran said it first, no matter how vague the reference, and no matter that they got it from the Greeks. No, it only requires the holy book to come up with some common sense notion, like ‘thou shalt not kill’, which anyone can now see is an evolutionarily driven survival strategy, for the religious to claim with self righteous indignation that it’s God’s law, and
they, by association, are the righteous ones.

The Bible is just a book, written by men. Genesis has as much scientific validity and truth as The Flintstones – sure there were dinosaurs, but not at the same time as man (tell that to the curator of the Creationist Museum); see the similarity (talking snake?). The whole Bible is an invention of minds that today would be considered uneducated – not in language, not unintelligent, just ignorant of very basic science and the methods of science and critical thinking that would have debunked many of their ideas in their own day had those methods been available. So there’s no shadow of disgrace on them – they were working with what they had.

The Bible bashers of today have no excuse. It doesn’t take much to pick holes in most of the theological crap. We don’t know how our particular universe started, so we remain ignorant of many things. We have no idea whether there is some ultimate intelligent agency behind it all, or if it is really all soulless fluctuations in nothingness – the metaphysics is beyond our data, just not beyond our imagination. But it’s foolish to build whole systems of belief on that one speculative imaginary idea about the metaphysical inaccessible, and to pile theological bunk on theological bunk on top of ancient books that have to be deciphered in ever more obscure ways to make the theology fit reality (or not).

Science is the best we can do, for now. Ridicule it viciously when it’s wrong, by all means – that’s what it needs, that’s part of the very method itself. We must be challenging our knowledge all the time, because we are not capable of being certain. We don’t have the equipment, whether it’s equipment we’ve invented or that which has evolved between our ears. But for God’s sake don’t rely on religion to tell us anything useful – and I mean ‘for God’s sake’, for if there really is a God, he’s going to be very disappointed in his own creation, if he’s endowed us with brains, and we refuse to use them, to paraphrase Galileo.