It’s True!

Great Jesus & Mo cartoon again.

The best bit, and the most crucial bit that applies to all religious books is number 1:

1. This is true

This is the one and only necessary assumption in any religion to make it worthy of the name. It must declare its own truth. Of course (snigger 🙂 (more smugness to come) we all know this is pure bollocks don’t we.

I get regular visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are really nice people (at least to ones who visit me are). I think they like me and return often for the following reasons:

(a) I don’t slam the door in their faces;
(b) they haven’t converted me yet, so I suspect, like a lottery rollover, my cache goes up with each rejection;
(c) the religious are masochists (why else invent sin and then admit to bing up to the neck in it).

Anyway, I keep two things handy for when they call.

The first is a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. They always quote from it incorrectly and it’s an easy book to show them they’ve been misled. They do go through some other topics, such as DNA, irreducible complexity, but I usually wing it once we get past Darwin, because it would take too long to go through any book to convince them (“Let’s start with basic chemistry…”). I know, it’s wrong of me, but I argue from authority of knowing just a bit more about this stuff than they do. As much as I can make points against Behe’s arguments generally, if they brought him along as a guest doorstepper I might be screwed on the biology, because I’m not a biologist.

But I digress, again. The second, and most important thing I keep nearby is a piece of paper, oh and a pen – so that’s three things I keep near by, but you know what I mean.

And on that piece of paper I write words to this effect:

This paper contains the word of God as revealed to Ron Murphy. If you’re here while he’s writing this you too must bear witness to this miracle. Now, as your God I command you to ignore the Bible, Koran, gold tablets and any other bollocks you may have come across telling absolute crap about me. I can swear by the way. I am God after all. Though the atheists got it wrong, they got it wrong for the right reasons – they don’t believe any old crap in a document claiming to be the revealed truth. What sort of fucking argument is that?! Anyway, on this occasion it happens to be the truth. However, I’ll forgive you not believing it if you throw it in the bin. On one condition: you throw your crappy book in the bin too and start thinking for yourself.

No, I don’t really write all that, I just feel as though I want to. A sentence or two is usually enough to make the point.

But, miracle of miracles, their faith survives even this cutting blow. What the fuck can I do?

I thought perhaps I should show them the fabulous Morwenna Banks, from that brilliant series Absolutely.

This for me says everything about religious imaginative invention. It encapsulates millenia of theology as Little Girl rationalises uncertainties and contradictions in what pops into her head.

And her punch line:

It’s true! I know because I do!

And Little Girl here provides us with the best accommodationism I’ve ever come across: Genesis plus Evolution! It’s true!

 


And this is what you get when It’s true! is put into practice. Enjoy!

Stephen Law to debate William Lane Craig

Stephen Law is to debate William Lane Craig on “Does God Exist?”.

Some time ago Richard Carrier was lured into a debate with Muslim theists which was supposed to propose something like “We can prove God exists”, but at the last minute was changed to “We cannot prove God exists” (can’t remember the details). Carrier went from looking at an easy ride to being knocked out by a sucker punch because he played their game. His opener at the actual event should have been, “I concede we cannot prove God exists, so my opponents win the debate. Now, let’s get down to some interesting points about philosophy and science: this is why I don’t believe in God.”

The title of this debate pretty neutral, but I’d recommend a similar tactic with WLC: that SL doesn’t get into playing WLC’s game, or even necessarily trying to rebut his points. He should simply present his own case, pretty much ignore WLC, and just dismiss his argument totally with fundamental philosophy.

One of WLC’s moves is to concentrate on the ‘failure’ of science to disprove God’s existence, as though atheists think that possible or necessary.

The key points for me are as follows…

We humans have found ourselves to be thinking beings, and this awareness appears to have been sprung upon us some few thousand years ago, at least as far back as we can tell from philosophical and religious writings and artifacts. And with the hindsight of evolution this thinking capacity appears to be a recent acquisition, and we’re not as good at it as WLC likes to think he is, particularly with regard to the metaphysics of things outside our common experience.

The only tools we find provide knowledge consistent over wide areas of our understanding of reality are all tools of science. And science can demonstrate many instances where introspective thinking and the invention of fanciful theistic explanations of events are woefully incorrect and often incoherent. Whatever we think reality might be our only route to it is through science. That someone believes there is a God has no bearing whatsoever on the actual existence of a God, no matter how inventive their logic, because there logic will always come back to the dependence on the presupposition that there is a God – to do the revealing, to inspire or command the authoring of religious texts.

If there’s any proving to be done, or any evidence required, the responsibility is entirely on the theist to provide it. Everything we do come to know about this universe shouts out at us that there is some causal universe that conforms to various patterns, which we understand as the laws of physics. If theists like WLC want to take a pop the limitations of science, then he has to accept that these very limitations apply to him too – he cannot demonstrate a superior capacity to know stuff.

These laws are so pervasive, so in-your-face, every moment of every day conforms to them – except, supposedly, with respect to God, astrology, ESP and a few other unsubstantiated ideas. These latter beliefs are the exceptions – but where is the evidence to support them?

Because they are the exceptions the null hypothesis is that everything conforms to the laws of physics, just as we find, evidentially, empirically. Even our own existence, according to evolution, conforms to these laws; and what’s more, shows us that our predecessors were empirical sensory animals. Our cognitive abilities appear to lie on the same continuum that our physical attributes do, from our evolutionary past. Our particular self-aware introspective cognition is such a late addition we should be very wary of supposing it to be the pinnacle of creation, the precise and acute tool that WLC thinks his mind is, rather than a fallible tool, a temporary blip in an evolutionary history of one particular species. Our intellect appears to be just one more product of evolution, with a primary purpose of helping us survive. There’s no reason to believe that it has any greater capacity than that, no particular reason that it should give us access to some metaphysical supernatural – except to the extent that this very limited intellect mistakenly thinks we can.

These other ideas, these metaphysical speculations, constitute the alternative hypotheses. They have never been demonstrated, with either rationally sound argument or substantial evidence. They remain unsupportable, though irrationally believed to be true. The null hypothesis, that everything conforms to whatever our understanding of physics is, or comes to be, remains intact.

WLC can dress up his arguments all he likes. He can complain that atheists cannot disprove God as long as he likes to hear his own voice profess it – but that’s irrelevant. He misses the point of science entirely. He doesn’t get that science shows us the limitations of our brains to reason about the inaccessible without supporting evidence; and in doing so overestimates his own capacity to know things he claims are true. WLC is just pissing against the wind – and his followers haven’t noticed this because they are too busy admiring his rhetorical big dick.

I do hope (against the odds) that SL doesn’t get bogged down in his favourite ‘problem of evil’ argument. It’s unlikely to survive the irrationality of WLC. Though the problem of evil as dealt with by SL’s ‘God of Eth’ may be convincing to rational minds, it won’t make a dent on the minds of believers if they don’t want it to.

SL should stick to basic philosophy and our current understanding of science. He should call WLC out on the presuppositions that underpin WLC’s otherwise persuasive rhetoric (persuasive to the gullible at least). SL should be thorough in his philsophy and should not try to debate theology. He should just ignore any temptation to try to win the debate and be content with letting his rational arguments land on a few theistic yet open ears.

Fingers crossed.


Update: coincidentally appropriate Jesus and Mo cartoon. WLC thinks he knows more than he can, as do many theists. But to be fair, I’m not a professional philosopher either, so who am I to judge WLC, or my own philosophical capabilities. We have to remain sceptical about our own ability to know stuff – not something WLC seems to suffer from.

What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

Discovery Institute has Michael Egnor asking this question…
What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

And he has some specific questions…

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?

Well, here are my answers…


1) Why is there anything?

We don’t know.

It’s not that this question is nonsense, it’s simply that we don’t have access to the data that would answer it. From a philosophical perspective we have no firm response to the solipsist. The best we can do is say that what appears to be the case most forcefully to our minds and senses (given our senses might be an illusion of the mind) is that the material world is so convincing that we might as well use it as a model for reality until we figure out a better one that actually fits with those facts that the ‘apparent’ material world imposes on us.

For example, if we were entirely mental phenomena (or a single phenomenon) why can’t we get past the apparent material death of another mind (or my illusion of another mind)? The material non-supernatural explanation fits this and many other problems so easily that it’s a sufficient model for now.

The rest of the answers are given with respect to this point of view.

2) What caused the Universe?

We don’t know.

So far we, and our instruments, haven’t had physical presence far beyond our solar system, and in person not beyond the moon. So, all our observations of this universe are restricted to theories based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some theories have mathematical reasoning to lend them some weight. But really, we don’t know.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

We don’t know. We’d need to resolve problem (2) to get any further with this. We observe regularities, but we can’t explain them in any deep sense.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature…

We don’t know.

This is philosophy going beyond the bounds of available or accessible knowledge and is more akin to theology.

Specifically, do final causes exists? Well, if we could answer some more questions on causality that would be a start. But then we come up against the same problem of accessibility of the data. And, the question isn’t clear on the meaning of the term ‘final cause’.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Given (1) this can only be answered in atheist materialist terms, and within that context the understanding of matter and how life is just a formation of matter in action, and from there on to evolution. I’ll keep this short, but would be glad to expand on request.

All matter responds to interaction with other matter. Things bounce. At some basic levels we have explanations for this – such as the coming together of atoms of my skin with those of the table, where despite that fact that atoms are mostly space, the electric and nuclear forces stop atoms merging or flowing through each other. At yet deeper levels of understanding the particles may be disturbances in fields. I’ve no idea why there are fields.

Basic life is complex formations of matter. We still don’t know anything concrete about the beginnings of life, abiogenesis, but the basic hypothesis is that early replicators began the process – try thinking of something like growing crystals, though even this seems an inadequate analogy. The problem with all of this, life, is that we only have life on this planet to examine, that the origins are in the distant past, and anywhere the same process began spontaneously it would be consumed by local chemical reactions or organisms.

Form there, simple single cell life forms react in very complex ways compared to simple elements and molecules – but their responses to contact with other inanimate matter and other living organisms is basically physical and chemical. They go around bumping into stuff, and when they do, chemical reactions on their surfaces give rise to further activity.

Complex cells formed by the combination of different single celled entities – i.e. mitochondria. Complex multi-cellular organisms formed cohesive bodies and functionality was subsumed to different organs. In a soft celled multi-organ organism think of the combination like a turtle and its shell. The inner soft and delicate organs don’t need protection from the environment if outer organs are dedicated to that task – e.g. skin.

So, at this stage we have complex systems, of which one component is a nervous system that co-ordinates activity for the organism as a whole. Not all organisms use this approach – e.g. plants. But there seems to be a relationship between the motor capabilities of the organism and the complexity of its nervous system.

Given that one aspect of the nervous system is to respond to the environment in order to direct processes in the organism, and to direct it’s motion, required to find food, one natural outcome is that the organism should be able to detect itself. No point in eating your own arm is there. And this is the basis for self awareness, which most organisms have to some degree if they have a nervous system that samples the environment.

Mammals have multi-mode senses – sight, hearing, touch… And these need co-ordination if they are to be useful. The chicken egg answer is that complexity of nervous system and co-ordination of senses probably evolved together, each effecting the development of the other.

It seems a natural progression that when an organism gets to a certain degree of complexity this self-sensing can include sensing the very internal processes of the nervous system itself. In us this isn’t complete, since there’s a big part of our sub-conscious nervous system of which we’re not aware. But basically subjectivity is simply what it appears like when an organism senses it’s own nervous system in action.

6) Why is the human mind intentional…

(5) pretty much answers this.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artefact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

It’s a subjective (see 5) conceptual product that has evolved in a social sense, but is based on biologically evolved feelings of empathy and sympathy.

See here for more detail.

8) Why is there evil?

There isn’t, in any objective sense, any more than there is moral law (see 7).

Evil is simply a classification of behaviour that humans typically ascribe to the behaviour of other humans.

Sometimes it can be conflated with suffering generally, such as the consequences of natural disasters, but that notion is only the concoction of those religious people who think natural disasters are associated with demons or with divine retribution. Remember this?

The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God’s judgement on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.

Religiously induced stupidity.

We don’t ascribe the term ‘evil’ to things that animals do which if performed by humans would be classified as evil. This is again due to the confused thinking of the religious who think that humans have some special gift, or some special place in the universe, or some special relationship with some god or other, and that some or all of these misconceptions give special meaning to human actions we generally disapprove of.


Perhaps the main point I’d want to make in all this is that theists are in exactly the same position as atheists for a lot of the fundamental stuff. They don’t know. But what they do is make up an answer with no substantiating data and claim that to be the case. They think that the combination of ancient tradition and pseudo-profound language gives credibility to their view, but it really exposes their gullibility to ancient stories from a time when such ignorance was excusable for lack of any reasonable data.

There has been no evidence for religious claims that can be substantiated by third party examination. All subjective personal claims about religious experience have plausible explanations in a materialist world view, where various results of brain sciences can replicate or account for those experiences.

Heavenly Science

I’m sometimes asked if I’m spiritual. Of course I’m not spiritual in the theistic sense, being an atheist, but there are atheists who consider themselves spiritual beings: Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, for example. I don’t think I am, but I do have a sense of wonder and awe about the world, whether it’s about our cosmological origins, or the new ideas in earthly sciences.

I guess this is the closest I’d come to heaven – being surrounded by fascinating people figuring out what makes the world go round, and how to make it go round better. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

For all Christians go on about what their God gives them it just seems pretty lame compared to discovering new stuff about the universe, or creating fascinating new content that solves very human problems.

Science Foo Camp 2009: by Nature Video.

I guess this un-conference format doesn’t make for easy video, and it’s by invite only. But I’d love to be a fly on the wall. Maybe that’s something that could come out of this type of event. We need a really cool new method of experiencing these events as if we were there.

Revelation

Some scientists and mathematicians can have experiences that can be considered revelations:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docId=8269328330690408516

Harris, Religion, Rape

The Harris religion and rape issue is inflaming opinion, still. This particular storm is about the comment he made in an interview with Bethany Saltman in 2006, and this particular sentence:

“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

The Beginning

But let’s go back to where it started, with his book, Letter To A Christian Nation, 2006, which prompted the Saltman interview.

Naturally, for religious people that haven’t read the book but who like to pick up on the nasty things atheists say on their journey to eternal damnation in the next life, then the whole concept of comparing their precious religion with rape is pretty shocking. And it looks like Harris has handed them a stick with which they can give him a damned good thrashing.

Trouble is, in their rush to read only the bad, they miss the point. Here’s the section from the book where rape is first raised.

“As a biological phenomenon, religion is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past. Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere. If this is true, we can say religion has served an important purpose. This does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now. There is, after all nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”

Here Harris is clearly using it to point out that because something has natural origins we don’t have to think it acceptable behaviour now. It’s used as an analogy.

But it’s an analogy that many religious people don’t get. And because they don’t get it they’ve come over all of a froth, because of the dreaded word ‘rape’ – such a taboo word.

Analogies

My pop-psychology point of the day is that religious people are so used to selective reading when it comes to their holy books, so used to interpreting anything they read in order to give an affirmative bias towards their religion and a negative bias against anything that challenges it, that they are simply confused by analogies, not knowing when to read something literally and when to interpret it as an analogy, or even how to figure out what work the analogy is doing.

Here’s a case in point. Suem wonders why there is so much outrage over Xola Skosana’s sermon that included ‘Jesus with HIV analogy‘.

Suem asks,

“Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements”

No they don’t!

They don’t get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairy analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.

The FSM analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.

The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that gives you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth about the entity.

So, similarly, the point of Harris using ‘rape’ in this specific case in his book is to show that the analogous aspects of religion and rape is that because they had evolutionary advantage at some point doesn’t make them beneficial now. Here rape is not meant to be analogous to religion directly.

Symbolically it’s like this:

A has some aspect X
B has some aspect X

A is religion.
Where B is rape, X is the past evolutionary benefit of religion and rape.
Where B is the FSM, X is the poor reasoning about theology of religion and the FSM.

So, here’s the argument.
A has aspect X, and is therefore good.
But B has aspect X, and B is clearly not good.
So, having aspect X is no indication of B or A being good.

The religious could save a lot of unnecessary argument if they took the trouble to figure out what the analogy is about.

The Harris – Saltman Interview

As if the religious hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick already, Harris gives them another excuse to fume. And fume they do.

Here’s the 2006 article in which the next scene in the melodrama takes place. (Here’s a pdf).

Let’s have a look at what else he says before we get to the crutial point. Though many religious people might disagree with many of his points, there are some who do see his issues with religion when it comes to the more fundamental flavour. Here’s how it goes towards the end of page 1 of The Sun web site version:

Saltman:

Isn’t religion a natural outgrowth of human nature?

Harris:

It almost certainly is. But everything we do is a natural outgrowth of human nature. Genocide is. Rape is. No one would ever think of arguing that this makes genocide or rape a necessary feature of a civilized society. Even if you had a detailed story about the essential purpose religion has served for the past fifty thousand years, even if you could prove that humanity would not have survived without believing in a creator God, that would not mean that it’s a good idea to believe in a creator God now, in a twenty-first-century world that has been shattered into separate moral communities on the basis of religious ideas.

Traditionally, religion has been the receptacle of some good and ennobling features of our psychology. It’s the arena in which people talk about contemplative experience and ethics. And I do think contemplative experience and ethics are absolutely essential to human happiness. I just think we now have to speak about them without endorsing any divisive mythology.

Note that both genocide and rape are given as examples. Clearly Harris is referring to the analogy, as I described it above. Being a natural human behaviour does not mean that it has any benefit now.

But Harris isn’t saying benefit can’t be derived from religion. To go back to the book, Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris knows full well that some people do derive benefit from religion:

I have no doubt that your acceptance of Christ coincided with some very positive changes in your life. Perhaps you now love other people in a way you never imagined possible. You may even experience feelings of bliss while praying. I do not wish to denigrate any of these experiences. I would point out however, that billions of human beings, in every time and place, have had similar experiences – but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature

So clearly, despite what some critics claim, he doesn’t see all religious experience in the same light. But his main point is that overall it is detrimental to society.

I’ll skip ahead slightly in the interview, past the offending words, just to make it clear Harris isn’t a baby eater.

Harris:

Even Christian fundamentalists have learned, by and large, to ignore the most barbaric passages in the Bible. …[some details about specific problems]…Now, these people are not evil. They’re just concerned about the wrong things, because they have imbibed these unjustifiable religious taboos. There is no question, however, that these false concerns add to the world’s misery.

Saltman:

If we were to eliminate religious identity, wouldn’t something else take its place?

Harris:

Not necessarily. Look at what’s going on in Western Europe: some societies there are successfully undoing their commitment to religious identity, and I don’t think it is being replaced by anything. Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and Japan are all developed societies with a high level of atheism, and the religion they do have is not the populist, fundamentalist, shrill version we have in the U.S. So secularism is achievable

See, he recognises some religions aren’t so bad.

…I think the human urge to identify with a subset of the population is something that we should be skeptical of in all its forms. Nationalism and tribal affiliations are divisive, too, and therefore dangerous. Even being a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan has its liabilities, if pushed too far.

[page 3]

Saltman:

So you see Buddhist meditation not as a religious practice, but as something that can yield results.

Harris:

Clearly, there are results to any religious practice. A Christian might say, “If you pray to Jesus, you’ll notice a change in your life.” And I don’t dispute that. The crucial distinction between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Western religions is that with Buddhism, you don’t have to believe anything on faith to get the process started.

Harris Hates All Religions?

Again I need to emphasise the fact that Harris does distinguish between degrees of religious fundamentalism and the associated harms. Remember that when we get to the crunch statement.

Saltman:

Do you think that there is such a thing as a peaceful religion?

Harris:

Oh, sure. Jainism is the best example that I know of. It emerged in India at more or less the same time as Buddhism. Nonviolence is its core doctrine. Jain “extremists” wear masks in order to avoid breathing in any living thing. To be a practicing Jain, you have to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So the more “deranged” and dogmatic a Jain becomes, the less likely he or she is to harm living beings.
Jains probably believe certain things on insufficient evidence, and that’s not a good idea, in my opinion. I can even imagine a scenario in which Jain dogma could get people killed: I don’t actually know what Jains say on this subject, but let’s say they became unwilling to kill even bacteria and forbade the use of antibiotics.

Harris:

…They [evangelicals] have a great fear that unless we believe the Bible was written by the creator of the universe, we have no real reason to treat one another well, and I think there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s just fundamentally untrue that people who do not believe in God are more prone to violent crime, for instance. The evidence, if anything, runs the other way. If you look at where we have the most violent crime and the most theft in the United States, it’s not in the secular-leaning blue states. It’s in the red states, with all their religiosity. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the United States are in Texas.

Now, I’m not saying that we can look at this data and say, “Religion causes violence.” But you can look at this data and say that high levels of religious affiliation don’t guarantee that people are going to behave well. Likewise if you look at UN rankings of societies in terms of development — which includes levels of violent crime, infant mortality, and literacy — the most atheistic societies on the planet rank the highest: Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark. So there is no evidence that a strong commitment to the literal truth of one’s religious doctrine is a good indicator of societal health or morality.

So, just to emphasise the point again. Harris does not see all religions as being as bad as each other. Harris does see people gaining some benefits from religion, though he thinks there are better ways. Harris does not think religion is the cause of all evil. Harris does not think all religion is evil. Nowhere does Harris actually call for the forced curtailment of religious belief. In all of this he is making very straight forward arguments about what he finds wrong with religion.

The Evil Atheists

Of course no discussion about religion is complete without a comment on the evil that atheists do. And nearly every religious person gets this point wrong. Saltman is playing devil’s advocate here of course.

Saltman:

Atheism doesn’t always go hand in hand with reason and compassion. Look at the destruction and violence caused by atheist ideology in China and the old Soviet Union.

Harris:

What I’m really arguing against is dogma, and those communist systems of belief were every bit as dogmatic as religious systems. In fact, I’d call them ‘political religions’. But no culture in human history ever suffered because its people became too reasonable or too desirous of having evidence in defense of their core beliefs. Whenever people start committing genocide or hurling women and children into mass graves, I think it’s worth asking what they believe about the universe. My reading of history suggests that they always believe something that’s obviously indefensible and dogmatic.

And just to re-state the point made countless times, none of this was done in the name of atheism. Atheism isn’t a dogmatic belief system that anyone does anything in the name of. And atheists are not claiming religion is the cause of all ills, or that all atheists are whitere than white. So, can we drop this red herring.

The Magic Wand of Harris

OK. Let’s get to the main point. The offending place is top of page 2.

Saltman:

Your analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory. Is that intentional?

Harris:

I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.

Now, given the context in which the original analogy was used, this is just an extension of that. Here’s the analogy:

A causes an amount of suffering.
B causes an amount of suffering.

Here A is rape, and B is religion. And on his assessment religion causes more harm than rape.

So, if he could wish away one of them he thinks the best option would be religion, as removing it would reduce harm the most.

Note that this is a simple thought experiment, wishful thinking, and as such has no specific bad consequences.

For example, if it clearly was a magic wish that did the trick he’d no doubt want all the currently religious people to be simply non-religious – so it’s not as if he would be causing more suffering by removing religion, the newly non-religious wouldn’t feel they were deprived of religion.

And, since rape sometimes occurs during religiously inspired genocides, and since some religious leaders use their status as a cover for sexual abuse and rape, then removing religion would remove some rape.

And we could still carry on trying to stop rape, so it’s not as if Harris is condoning rape. It just happens to be an unwanted human behaviour that he uses in an analogy.

There really isn’t that much to this statement after all, given the context. It’s ridiculous how many religious people have tried to get mileage out of it since he made it.

A More Literal Comparison

But what if he was to have meant it to be taken seriously. Is religion worse than rape? You’ll have to ask Harris yourself, if you still think he’s the son of Satan for uttering the words ‘rape’ and ‘religion’ in the same breath. But here’s my understanding of what he said and how to interpret it, should you want to take it as a literal intention by Harris.

1) Individual rape can ‘harm’ one victim at a time. I’m not aware of any person being able to rape more than one person at once. This is basically a one-on-one act. Annually (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics) it might be 500,000 a year, accounting for unreported rape.

2) Nuclear weapons or biological weapons can ‘kill and harm’ hundreds of thousands or millions at a time. It might take more than one person to achieve this, but the ratios are still pretty high: one-to-hundreds-of-thousands, or one-to-millions.

3) Extreme religion probably has the highest potential for (2) currently.

4) All religions, by setting faith above reason, are self affirming systems that can, under some circumstances, provide the right framework for (3), and hence (2). That framework of extreme religions exists now, and this has been a self-evident fact since 9/11. Some small number of people with religious motivations killed thousands of people, directly and in the aftermath. And 9/11 was the catalyst for a war that kill even more. 9/11 is still invoking religious hatred now at ground zero. That’s before we get to the many conflicts around the world that are going on now that have a religious element, if not done in the name of religion. Harris covers plenty in his book.

Note to liberals: the extensive use of reason on top of faith is not a get out of jail card. Faith plus speculation is a poor move. It just happens to be a really bad move in the hands of terrorist fanatics.

5) The same applies to all dogmas that affirm their beliefs and aren’t subjected to sufficient scepticism. So, it’s not just religion Harris is objecting to. But currently religion is the most dangerous in his view.

Again, a note to easily offended moderates and liberals: just because you’re pretty harmless doesn’t change the fact that religion in the wrong hands is dangerous.

6) Bonus point: without religion there’s no RC church, which reduces the number of rapes and abuses a little. And since many of the genocidal wars around the world also include rape, then if removing religion could reduce the number of such wars then there’d be less rape anyway.

7) Harris isn’t calling for or expecting the abolition of religion – some people have mistaken his statements here for that. Harris believes in freedom of religious belief. His statement was hypothetical wishful thinking. His point being that if it were possible for religion to suddenly vanish, that would be a better outcome than if all men suddenly stopped raping.

Now I know some people don’t like it when we try to evaluate relative harms, when we try to be objective about them. They find something distasteful and taboo about even considering it.

Here’s a response to Harris,

I would like to ask Sam Harris what personal experience he has of rape.

Why is this relevant? What is my experience of rape or being the victim of a suicide bomber? None.

Another question to Harris,

And I wonder how it would feel to have been subjected to rape and then to hear a statement such as Harris’s?

– Or how it would feel to have your family taken by a suicide bomber or abducted and beheaded by terrorists, or killed leaving his place of work, or blown up in an Irish pub.

These are very one sided questions. Do we have to experience every suffering to have any regard for the sufferer? What do you think human empathy is all about? what do you think it is that has been driving your own morals all this time? God?

Conclusion

Having read Letter To A Christian Nation, and the interview with Saltman, I don’t think Harris has said anything particularly controversial. Dispite that being my opinion, of course Harris may well have made the statements specifically to be controversial. Maybe his remark about being inflammatory was calculated. You’ll have to ask Harris. But on first reading it I hadn’t noticed anything particularly bad about it – just a rhetorical flourish. I’m often surprised how the religious, who survive on emotive language, don’t particularly like it when their religion is the target.

We can take any version of his rape statements: analogy of natural evolved benefit no longer being beneficial; a thought experiment, a wish, that religion wasn’t present; or a more literal calculation of least harm. Each interpretation of Harris’s words are really not that controversial – except to the extent that the religious like to find fault with Harris.

Harris, throughout his book and interview is quite gracious about the people of religion. He sees their particular problem as being that they have been misguided by religion. He simply dislikes the principle of religion and faith that can provide a framework for fundamental atrocities.

So, here are the words again:

I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.

Out of context I guess they could be misconstrued. And the problem is they usually are taken out of context – when seen in a blog, referencing another blog, taken from an article, that short changes the original source. And comments are made on the basis of the sentences here, or the fuller paragraph given earlier. But I see them as quite harmless in context, particularly the wider context of the book and the interview.

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.

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.

Atheist Label

Atheists generally accept we can’t prove or disprove the existence of God – basically, given our contingency of knowledge we can’t really ‘prove’ anything without relying on premises that themselves aren’t proven.

The hypothesis that there is a God – some agent that we are not aware of, that might have created the universe, that might interact with us in some as yet unknown way – is a reasonable hypothesis. There’s just no evidence to support the hypothesis.

So, shouldn’t the term ‘agnostic’ be used instead?

Well, the total lack of evidence for the existence of God, and the more than adequate evidence for natural explanations for what is often attributed to God, leaves little room for supposing there is a God.

Similarly, we have no evidence for many other gods of old, or of the efficacy of astrology, homeopathy, etc.

So, to all intents and purposes the label ‘atheist’ fits better than that of ‘agnostic’, given that the latter label is usually reserved for those that suspect there might be a God, but who just remain less convinced than a theist.

This form of atheism is usually termed weak or implicit atheism.

There’s also strong or explicit atheism. This atheist explicitly denies the existence of gods. This is a strong claim, and should require supporting evidence. Sometimes an atheist may give the impression of being this type of atheist, when in fact they are not. If in doubt, ask.

Though Atheism ends in -ism, it isn’t referring to a specific doctrine, and so shouldn’t be confused with being a religion, a philosophy, or a belief system – though it could be part of any one of these. There might be a religion which doesn’t have any gods, and therefore might be an ‘atheist’ religion – though then one should ask why it’s being called a religion and not an ideology or some other appropriate name.

When I refer to myself as an atheist I usually mean that this is a point of view regarding gods – all gods, which is a conclusion reached as a consequence of my understanding of what we can and can’t know (see Contingency of Knowledge and Human Fallibility), and what evidence there is or isn’t to support the hypothesis that there is a God (or gods).


Update: Agnostic-Atheist. Interesting, but there still seems room for a plain old agnostic: someone who is interested, but is completely undecided.

Wager On An Atheist’s God

Getting bored with arguing with theists, I thought it might be easier if I just give up and join the club. I’ve been trying to find a God hypothesis that comes close to working for me. There are none out there that completely satisfy my needs.

Though I’m not prone to believing God stuff without evidence, from my point of view it is legitimate to concoct hypotheses and check them against what my reason and senses tell me. Here’s one.

There is a God. He created the universe as we have come to know it through our senses, reason and science. He wanted nothing more than to create a universe to see what would happen. He is not omniscient, so he was curious. Being alone, but otherwise a good scientist, he is very hands-off and observational.

Jesus Statue
“Look, I know you don’t exist, right, … but if you did …”

Continue reading “Wager On An Atheist’s God”

Some Notes on Theism

I’m prompted to write this post as a general account of my opinions about the existence of God in response to an exchange with Aaron on Sam’s blog: Comments. In particular I wanted to respond to this comment by Aaron: “At the very core, Christianity is nothing more than following Christ. The word itself means simply one who follows Christ’s teachings. All of the sacraments, all of the ritual, all of the dogma is man-made artifice that is at times either helpful or harmful to a given individual or even to the world at large.”

There’s nothing new in what follows; it’s just a summary of my views on the subject of theism in the above context.

I don’t find anything wrong with following the teaching of any particularly wise person, but is it really likely that all the professed teachings of Jesus were all his own work? Even if it could be shown that many of the teachings of Jesus were attributable to his followers and biographers that wouldn’t necessarily diminish the wisdom inherent in the teachings.

But anything in addition to this is where my problem with Christianity, and theism in general begins.

First, to make Jesus anything more than simply a mortal teacher requires the presupposition of God. This presupposition is at the heart of all the main monotheistic religions. Without an initial God everything else fails, theistically. Theists sometimes argue that atheists aren’t in a position to comment on some aspects of theology that they haven’t studied, but without the presupposition of God the theology is worthless.

I find no rational reason to presuppose God. I have not seen one single argument supporting theism that doesn’t presuppose this, for any of the God religions. And this brings me to the degree of my ‘agnosticism’ or ‘atheism’ as discussed with Aaron. The metaphysical idea that a God is one possible cause of everything is fine, but that’s all it is, an idea, a concept, with no more weight than any other metaphysical idea. I could equally presuppose two Gods, and infinite number of Gods, or no Gods, a single once-only universe from nothing, a cyclical single universe, multiple parallel universes, metaphysical ideas that have mathematical support and those that don’t, and even pure fantasy universes – metaphysically, anything goes. So, in response to Aaron, I am ‘agnostic’ to the extent that the God hypothesis is one of many, and I am ‘atheistic’ to the extent that I don’t find the God hypothesis a particularly convincing one. I’m so unconvinced I’m prepared to accept the label ‘atheist’.

Without presupposing God it becomes necessary to say why one would think there is a God.

All the so called proofs of the existence of God, the ontological, teleological, cosmological, and other ‘logical’ arguments are all based on some unsupportable premise, that is usually based on some human intuitive requirement that there should be some cause, that it should be intelligent, and that it should be loving. God is made in the image of the best of what we would like to be, not we in his image.

Terms such as ‘infinite’ and ‘perfect’ are often used in relation to God. These are mere concepts that are useful in describing something beyond what we can see, measure or reach. There is no reality to them, as far as we know. There’s no good reason that they are attributes of or have anything to do with God.

Discussions about the ‘probability’ of any of these possible ideas, and in this context that there might or might not be a God, are metaphysical speculations and have no mathematical basis to take them any further. In order to calculate probabilites about God’s existence we need information we just don’t have.

Some theists don’t require proof or evidence or probabilistic likelihood, since they find some ideas ‘obvious’, when considering these issues. For example, it’s ‘obvious’ there must be a ‘loving’, ‘intelligent’, ‘omnipotent’, …, creator. To such a theist I’d ask the following. How would you know that? How many universes have you witnessed being created to come to that ‘obvious’ conclusion, deductively or inductively? What experiences do you have, on the scale of universes, that make you think this or any universe requires a creator at all? And as for ‘His’ attributes, how would you know what they were? Revelation? Well, revelation presupposes there’s a God to do the revealing, as opposed to there having been a number of fallible humans through the ages that have misunderstood, willfully lied, or been deluded about revelatory events. There’s that presupposition again?

Another approach theists sometimes take is with respect to what might be called ‘ways of knowing’. When all the rational arguments have been put forward – basically saying there’s no evidence or proof that God exists and so we should act as if he doesn’t – theists have been known to question the appropriateness of these arguments, by questioning the ways in which we can know things. All I want to say for now on this is that the best and most useful ways of knowing consist of supporting our personal experiences with rational critical and sceptical thought and, when appropriate and possible, employing what is commonly know as the scientific method. I accept that when we follow this path the best we can hope for is the accumulation of common experiences that give us some grasp of how things work, and to a limited extent why they work; but I also accept that in no way does that lead us to any ultimate and absolute truth about anything; it only provides us with a degree of confidence. What about meditation and other ‘spiritual’ ways of knowing? As far as I can see, moving to what is essentially a different mind-state is no different than chewing on magic mushrooms – anything goes; and there’s no reason to suppose anything valuable or real is being revealed.

Yet another idea that theism embraces whole heartily, and which is also a necessity for some non-theists, is the requirement for purpose or meaning. I think this idea is often behind the ‘obvious’ discussed above. But there is no requirement that the universe, or any part of it (i.e. us), should have any purpose or meaning. This need that some people have for there to be purpose and meaning in the universe at all is a quirk of human nature, akin to the need to bite ones nails or pick ones nose or scratch an itch. Can I prove this? No, but the parallels are sufficient to explain it without conjuring up an agent such as God.

Now, I can accept a ‘concept’, call it God if you wish, as an aspiration, a goal to which we would like to aim; but it’s entirely a human construct – it certainly isn’t theistic in the usual sense, and not even deistic. In that respect it’s a form of Humanism. I think that this is what some versions of Christianity have come to be, though I can’t understand why there remains the insistence on the truth of, say, the resurrection, or even the continued association with Christ.

Much of this aspiration for the unreachable perfection is fine. But because we can’t actually reach it we have to settle for less. And that ‘less’ that each person settles for is subjective. I don’t have a problem with different individuals or groups of people deciding that they think they should live by certain rules, constructing their own morality – I’ve seen no evidence or good argument for objective morality. And I think it makes sense that as a society (and collections of societies) that we should agree that compromises have to be made – we can’t all have our own particular moral codes enforced just as we choose. The problem with religion in this respect is that it has aimed for the heady heights of the infinite and the perfect, and has decided there is a real God, and has then interpreted its own subjective moral codes as being determined by this fictitious character. All theistic religions, and sects within religions, and individuals within sects, all have their own take on what God is, to what extent he interacts with us, to what extent he commands us, or requires us to worship him, etc. Religion is probably the most variable and subjective of human enterprises, in terms of what is believed, and yet often its adherents claim to have access to absolute and invariant truth. This is pure nonsense.

Take any individual, whether it be Jesus, his apostles, Mohammed, the Pope, or anyone claiming to be divine or to have been in touch with some divine being, or to have received a message, a revelation; take any of them; any claim they have made can be accounted for by down to earth explanations. But, you might say, at least some of the claims could be true. Well, how would you know? How, in fact, do you distinguish between a truthful claim about the divine and any of the many consequences of simple human frailty: mistakes, dreams, delusions, lies, intuitions, group-think, etc. There is no known way of making such a distinction, and since ultimately all supposed sources of divine information result from such claims, one way or another, they must all be seriously suspect, at the very least. Add to the shear variety the fact that no matter which religion you follow, and no matter how dedicated you are and to what extent you submit yourself and obey the commands and pray, there’s not a damn bit of difference made in this world. From the most pious to the most ‘sinful’ – not a jot of difference that anyone has demonstrated.

All that pretty much takes care of my view about God. I think it’s a strong case. I’d be happy to expand on any individual points, or to consider any angles I haven’t already. I’d even believe in God if I thought there was sufficient reason.