What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.


Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

The Giant’s Balls-up

I have seen reports that the National Trust is lending support to Young Earth Creationist (YEC) views on the formation of the Giants Causeway (GC). Here, for example.

(h/t JC)

I have to say that I’m very disappointed in the way the audio transcript is unclear about the NT’s position and does give the impression that it lends credibility to the YEC view. And the NT response to media enquires is no better:

“We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that some people hold views today which are different from mainstream science.”

That is not the case, based on the transcript. It would be a legitimate point to say that explicitly, that is, to say that YEC have used the GC and other geological formations to support their views, but that this conflicts directly with the science. But that is not what the transcript expresses:

Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant’s Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

There is no such debate, only unsupported claims by YEC. They may think there is a debate, but the science demonstrates there is nothing to debate. And it would be a misrepresentation of science to liken these YEC claims to the legitimate debate within science about the precise age and cause of the formation.

How does it compare, for example, with the NT’s treatment of other myths? In how many audio visual presentations are local myths presented as serious matters of debate, rather than just myth? Is there serious debate on the matter of the Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) building the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner? Both this and the YEC claims are on equal footing – i.e. myths.

The NT does indeed appear give the Fionn some weight, here: Giant’s Causeway; but in this case the it is presented tongue in cheek so clearly, as are many fabulous Irish myths, that there is no misunderstanding – and, no religious fundamentalism striving to make political points, something I’d have thought Ireland had seen enough of.

I’d be interested to know what will be done about this at the site. I think the NT has a duty to represent the history of its properties in the most accurate manner. Where ancient myth has played a significant role in a location’s history then it is right and proper to describe such a myth. Where a religious or political debate has used a location, then it is reasonable that this fact should be included in a presentation.

But there is a distinction between the fact of the religous or political debate, and the fact of the matter supposedly being debated. In this case, one fact is that YEC have used the causeway in the promotion of their claims. A quite different fact is the age and cause of the rock formation. The NT should not allow religous or political pressure groups to influence NT presentations as it is a very dangerous precedent. There’s already abundant bollocks believed in Ireland as it is. The NT doesn’t need to add to it.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.


Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

It’s True! – Harry Redknapp

I posted on the nonsense that is the It’s True! claim, which theists are apt to use directly themselves, or which is the basis of the supposed truth of their religious books – that the books contain words proclaiming the truth of the books. LOL!

Well, of course religion isn’t the only source of this stunning[ly useless] argument. It turns out that it’s a favourite defence of the guilty in a court of law, and no doubt some innocent people too, when they become desperate.

Harry Redknapp used this very move in court yesterday. The story so far, from the Guardian piece

Redknapp and the former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric, who both deny two counts of cheating the public revenue, have told the court that the $145,000 paid in May 2002 and a further payment of $150,000 in May 2004, were paid by Mandaric as “seed money” for investments to be made on Redknapp’s behalf.

Here, from the BBC

Under cross examination on Thursday, Mr Redknapp said he lied to reporter Rob Beasley about the source of payments to the account because he did not want negative stories ahead of a cup final.

The Tottenham boss said: “I have to tell police the truth, not Mr Beasley – he’s a News of the World reporter.”

So, he lied to the reporter, but he didn’t lie to the police and he didn’t lie in court, honest. It’s true!

Remember, Hitler put his signature to the Munich Agreement, of which Chamerlain said on arriving home to England, “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine…“. Churchill didn’t buy it, “We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat… you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime.

Of course, Hitler subsequently, metaphorically, wiped his own arse with his copy, and flushed.

All gullible people please take serious note! Liars will not only lie, they tell you they are telling the truth when they are not! It’s part of what they do. It’s what it is to be a liar! When someone says, “It’s true!“, without further justification, then you not only don’t have to believe them, I really recommend you ignore their proclamations and seek evidence of the truth.

Which of Harry’s truths is a lie? Because they are inconsistent. He claims he lied to the press. But if he admits to lying there, can he be trusted now?

Well, perhaps this is convincing, from the Metro newspaper…

Harry Redknapp - Not a liar
It’s true!

The Spurs football manager was even reduced to shouting from the witness box at prosecutor John Black QC.

“You think I put my hand on the Bible and told lies?” he exclaimed. “That’s an insult, Mr Black, that’s an insult.”

No Harry, it’s his job. The whole point of this hand on the Bible bollocks (funny how religion is in on the lies again) is that it doesn’t work, except when told to the gullible. If you are innocent of the charges Harry, the Bible won’t help, and if you’re guilty, the hand on the Bible isn’t working.

“Everything I have told you is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God…”

“I am not a liar.”

Well, that’s that then. Case dismissed? FFS!


Post Script…

Harry is currently manager of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who denied my beloved Manchester City a place in the Champions League three years ago, though we turned the tables last year. They are now one of the serious contenders to our title hopes this year.

But, Harry is a great football manager, and Spurs are a great club that I actually like. I have no idea whether he’s guilty or not – that isn’t the subject of this post. So this post is in no way biased. Honest! It’s True, I tell you, it’s true!

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!

Jesus and the Batman Gospels

What is it with Christians and the gospels? Don’t they get that they are fiction wrapped around a myth? One argument often used to support the case for the gospels being a representation of historically truthful events is their claimed consistency. How could these independent writers all tell what is basically the same story? It must be based on truth, right? Well, no.

I visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art yesterday, on Broadway, New York. That is, Suite 401, 549 Broadway, a nondescript entrance between two stores (as opposed to the more glamorous ‘appearing on Broadway’). This isn’t a big show; and to call it a museum is stretching it a bit. Still, comic life is an exaggeration of real life – as are the Christian gospels.

I found that one of the notes accompanying some of the Batman strips struck a chord with me, and prompted me to make this comparison. It’s a presentation of Batman in a way I’m familiar with hearing from Christians, regarding the Christian gospels. I thought it worth quoting here. When you read it, try replacing references to Batman with Jesus, and the various Batman artists with the Christian gospel authors.

Batman is the most protean of the great comic book characters: From Bob Kane’s original cartoon icon, to Dick Sprang’s broad-chested guardian of Gotham, comfortable as parade marshal; from Neal Adams’ cloaked figure in the shadows of the night, to Frank Miller’s aged and cranky crusader; each talented artist has brought a very personal vision to this hero.

And the impossible thing, they all feel right … definitive … even with all their inherent contradictions. Unlike lesser legends, which need to follow model sheets from generation to generation, Batman gives his chroniclers the power to transcend them, and in so many cases, do the most important work of their careers. No other hero would give us the ability to simultaneously showcase so many of the legendary talents of the comics field; and no other would be the character to greater acclaim than any other.

Walk along MoCCA’a walls, and stroll the streets of Gotham in daylight and darkness, enjoying the protection of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight … the one and only Batman.

– Paul Levitz is a comic book fan (The Comic Reader), writer (Legion of Super-Heroes), editor (Batman), Executive President & Publisher (DC Comics, 2002-2010), and historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth Making)

Of course there have been other contributors to the Batman story; but then there are other Christian gospels too.

Many ‘sophisticated’ and ‘liberal’ theologians like to emphasise the ‘story’ of Jesus, as an allegory, a story that represents life to them, but not necessarily literal. That is until you witness them talk among themselves, or to more literal believers, when it’s pretty damned hard to interpret their stories as anything but literal. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction seems to be a convenience that allows them to switch modes, being sophisticated in the company of rational atheists, and yet literal to literalist believers.

The evolution of the Batman myth, as represented by the various artists that have imposed their belief in Batman on the story, echoes that of Jesus as presented in the gospels. There’s no more reason to suppose there’s any more truth in the gospels than there is in the Batman stories. The Batman stories have varied over time, but maintain a consistency; but that doesn’t make them any more true.

Okay, I’ll allow some particular truths to the Christian gospels: they may contain mentions of real place names, and real people. Gotham City isn’t real, after all. But let’s not pretend that having a story contain real locations means it’s not fiction. While in NYC I also saw Mission Impossible, with real locations.

McGrath on Science and Religion

The Alister McGrath piece was brought to my attention by the Jerry Coyne blog post. As usual with pieces like McGrath’s there’s so much to go at that a simple comment on another blog that’s critical of it isn’t enough. Nearly every paragraph is hopelessly vague, when not outright wrong. The religious bullshit language isn’t as heavy from McGrath as from some other theologians, but it’s bad enough.

On with my rant then…

“Why talk of Christmas when any idea of God is misguided?” – Christmas and God are only related by the name given to a festival by one particular religion. As an atheist I’m quite comfortable with Christmas – even with the mythical stories about Jesus, just as I am with the ones about Santa. Christmas fairy tales.

“Science, we are confidently told, has buried God. But has it?” – If there was no God to bury, then this misses the point. What it specifically hasn’t buried is belief in God. Quite different issues. What it has buried is the intellectual case for belief in God (in terms of most religions, though it does not refute the many god hypotheses).

McGrath turns to what he thinks are questions for religion rather than science…

“Where did everything come from?” – Still a science question.

“What’s it all about?” – A very vague question that summarises our inquisitiveness and our desire to find our place in the universe. Still basically a science question, though put within some human emotional context.

“What’s the point of life?” – Whatever we make it, apparently. Other than that there’s no indication from anything we know that there need be any ‘cosmic’ point.

“Its [science’s] interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional.” – Yes. But then all our reports are provisional. Simply inventing religious stories and sticking to them (as much as that is the case, since even religions change) doesn’t give them any more lasting credability or make them any less provisional; and since religious stories are pure invention they don’t even warrant the adjective ‘provisional’.

“Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.” – Well, not really. They ridicule them because their God cannot be evidenced. There are no observations. The objection to ‘proofs’ of God are only raised in response to claims for proof, not because there was ever any credibility to the proofs of God’s existence.

“Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.” – Again, the mistaken presumption that (logical) ‘proof’ is significant.

“We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.” – So, with no proof on hand, and no evidence, what has religion got going for it? Why believe?

“Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).” – Oh yes it is (about refusing to think). The point here is that many different ‘theories’ or explanations can fit the same data. The problem with religion is that it is pure fantasy invented precisely to explain as much as possible, but without any requirement that it account for anomolies. Declare that prayer works, but ignore cases that don’t fit this hypothesis and proclaim the success of prayer when any instance happens to fit.

“For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.” – And how exactly does that discovery proceed? What methodologies does it use, other than the employment of ‘feel good’ imaginative assertions.

“You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.” – Well, taking the metaphor literally, you can do that by measuring the incident and reflective light, measuring the frequency distribution of the light source (sodium street light, for example, doesn’t illuminate too well). And, you’re illuminating what’s in shadow (that which was not illuminated), not the shadow itself. This metaphor is a prime example of the vague and incoherent nature of religious language. Most religious language puts into shadow that which would otherwise be illuminated. The shadow of mystery is highly prized ignorance, in religion.

“If Christ is indeed the ‘light of the world'” – But he isn’t. There’s no reason to think he fits this metaphor. As a humanist he perhaps contributed to some enlightenment. If indeed any of his words were in fact his – which isn’t at all clear. His actual words, instead, remain in the shadow of history and evolving religious doctrine. Religious invention is bright in its imaginitave power, but casts a shadow over historical truth.

“So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? … This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.” – Yes, as any fantasy story does. That’s the point of imaginative fiction, novels, the movies. They extend our imaginative experience beyond our real experience. But it’s still finction.

“…science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.” – Science is also used to put them back together again, which then allows all humans, not just the religious, to impart meaning in the human context. Religion is really superfluous here; or, at best, just one more fantasy interpretation of our experienced life.

“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning.” – Again, religion is not the only way of imparting human contextual meaning; and for many of us it’s not only far from the best, it’s one of the worst.

“…religion [helps us] to see, however dimly, the ‘big picture’ of which they are part.” – But only in the way that Star Wars helps us to see another possible big picture of human potential. Fantasy.

“God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations.” – My emphasis. It’s odd, that for one who is supposed to be ineffable, most religious people are quite content to tell us what God is. This statement is just plain old religious language abuse.

“Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all.” – Who do? Christians? It was, after all, part of the paragraph telling us what Christians think. But I guess he really intended this second statement to mean atheists? I’m not sure who it really applies to, if anyone. As an atheist I’m not assuming there is a purpose, so I’m not particularly looking for one, endlessly or otherwise. I might choose (in as much as I can) to give my life a purpose, or maybe many purposes that come and go as the feelin suits me. At one point I had the purpose of raising a family: job done. At another time I had the purpose of achieving specific educational goals: job done. I have other purposes now. Should some natural disaster strike my neighborhood, no doubt I’ll have a temporary change of purpose which might be, basically, staying alive. Of course the religious don’t like to be too specific, because that allows them to be pinned down. Far batter the vague wishy-washy ‘purpose’, as in ‘the meaning of life and everything’.

“The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.” – The Christian fantasy; until supportive evidence is available.

Happy Christmas Santa; Bah Humbug Jesus

The Skeptical Teacher has a post on Santa.

In it he refers to Barbara Drescher’s post on An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

I’d agree with Barbara Drescher’s positive view on Santa, as echoed in one of the comments, where the Lahurongirl’s son realised there was no Santa, but still wanted to maintain the story for his younger sister. I’ve seen the same insight and intention from children I know – which is just spoiler avoidance. There’s the implicit assumption that their younger siblings will get to the end of the Santa ‘novel’ too, one day, so why spoil it for them now.

But Barbara seems to take the point too far. Does Richard Dawkins really not like fiction for children? This seems more like Barbara is jumping on a journalistic bandwagon picking up on a simple quote, attributed to Dawkins:

Guardian:
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/oct/27/richard-dawkins-childrens-literature]
Quotes Dawkins: “…looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”
And the author, Jean Hannah Edelstein, goes on to say, “Dawkins sounds to me not unlike the fundamentalist Christian mums who tried to get Roald Dahl’s The Witches banned from my primary school for fear that it would undermine what their kids had learned at Sunday school rather than acknowledging that sometimes, stories are just stories.”

Telegraph:
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html]
“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News. (a reporting of a reporting then)

Double Think Online
[http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2008/10/27/richard-dawkins-scourge-of-fun/]
“Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

All sadly similar. Seems like some quote mining has been going on.

But I’m not sure what the controversy is here. Dawkins is expressing a good scientific response to the question of the effect of stories on children – i.e. he doesn’t know, and would be interested in any research to that effect. I don’t think he’s claiming there is an effect. Unlike someone like Susan Greenwood, who has been the butt of Ben Goldacre’s ire for some time for her claims, without evidence, about the effects of some modern media, such as computer games.

Much fiction for young children, such as the Santa myth, is expressed as truth, knowing full well that as older children and as adults they will grow out of it, hopefully learn something positive about the susceptibility of humans to gullibility, and, in the mean time, enjoy some magical fantasy for a while. There minds are malleable enough to learn and later unlearn, so what’s the harm? How many adults do we know that still believe in Santa to make that fiction worth worrying about?

The significant difference with religion – and this is where I see Barbara as being wrong – is that these fictions are carried on seriously into adulthood. In a religious family and social environment there is specifically, usually, no opportunity or encouragement to challenge the religious dogma, and indeed the prospect some traumatic ostracism for doing so. In fact the strength of belief instilled in children by adults, and seen by children to be genuine beliefs in adults, is what does the long term damage and causes serious disability when it comes to applying critical thinking to those beliefs.

And, it doesn’t matter that “Religion is not a barrier to science literacy”, as Barbara puts it – Francis Collins and Ben Miller show this; as long as you limit the science that we are being ‘literate’ about. If you do apply the usual requirement for evidence to everything then the only rational conclusion about the source of the universe beyond what current science shows is, we don’t know. Now, that certainly does allow, as metaphysical speculations, some passive ‘natural’ explanation, or even some active ‘agency’ explanation – though the latter then needs explaining too. But none of this speculation is sufficient to warrant the subsequent claims by any of the main religions. So, in that wider scientific sense, deeply instilled religious belief is a barrier to science.

So, if the Jesus story was to become an acknowledged myth, like Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, then that would be fine. But as yet it isn’t. The story of Jesus is a whole other industry, with a drive to capture the child’s mind (and the adult’s) as insidious as any capitalist behemoth advertising to children in order to sell the company’s wears; or, for religion, to buy the childrens souls.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Update…

Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.


This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Theologian Censors Debate?

Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught.

Both paties agreed to the debate being taped, but it seems Haught didn’t like the outcome and now doesn’t want it to be shown. Further more, some people have emailed Dr. Robert Rabel, head of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, because he had agreed to Haught’s turnaround, and Rabel didn’t like that. So he’s now threatening to take legal action against Coyne, accoding to Coyne.

Theologians can be really dumb sometimes.

Other coverage:

Butterflies and Wheels

Relaxing the Celibacy Rules?

Father Edward Daly is in favour of relaxing the celibacy rules.

As an atheist I’m not too bothered what the rules of the club of Roman Catholic priests might be, but as a humanist I’d support their freedom of choice to be celibate or not as their personal religious conscience takes them.

But there’s something hypocritical about a bishop who thinks the rules should change for the expedient reason of encouraging more priests by the relaxation of the celibacy rule. This is another instance of what in secular terms is common sense, but in theistic terms is a denial of what the church considers essential church dogma. I wonder what the bishop thinks about contraception. Is he equally flexible on that score? My suggestions on that come shortly, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Well, according to the article the rule was brought in for both spiritual and pragmatic reasons, “Historians have contended that the move was partly for spiritual reasons, but was mainly to ensure estates held by clerics would pass back to the church upon their deaths rather than to offspring.” so no change in convenient policy making then, as long as you can attach some holy reasoning to it. So, what spiritual reason does Father Daly have for his proposed change that might excuse his earthly one? “..under the guidance of the holy spirit…” Well as a catholic it appears he still has access to the hot line to god and is waiting for a call that contains the answer.

I find it odd that the holy spirit works this way and gives such varied messages to so many different religious listeners. It’s as if the messages are encrypted and each theist has his own decryption key which coincidentally provides a specifically different but to them coherent message for each listener.

The move by the Vatican to make allowances to Anglican marrieds to join the RC church reminds me of the skulduggery that has sometimes plagued the football transfer market. Anglican priests are offered a bung of non-celibacy to make the transfer.

A say again, from a secular view all these pragmatic changes make perfect sense. But to push so many church rules as spiritual dogmatic requirements, as essentials to the faith, for years, centuries even, and then to change them for non-spiritual reasons of convenience, just highlights the bollocks that is the RC church anyway.

So, if you’re a relaxed Roman Catholic and you find some rule particularly inconvenient, write to your bishop and suggest that you would like it changed because it is a bit of an inconvenience to you; but promise you will wait for a call from the holy spirit in the expectation that a spiritual reason will be provided in due course. For example, a condom could be considered a symbolic representation of your celibacy: you’re not shagging a women but cloaking your penis in a holy shroud. With luck, in time, the Vatican will come around to the idea that this symbolic representation should become a literal one, just as a wafer actually becomes the body of Christ, and wine his blood. Then you’ll be able to add real spiritual ecstasy to your very mortal human experience.

And, a bunus: that’ll solve the problem of AIDS in Africa! And, the RC church gets all the credit! Result!

I tell you, this theological stuff is easy. I sometimes wish I were religious. Making up holy shit is great fun.

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.

Why Islam?

One theme comes out in comments by some Muslims on recent programmes about Islam, “Why pick on Islam?”

I’m not a fan of any faith, given that they all have dodgy interpretations. But Islam seems to be at the centre of many faith conflicts. I just happened to catch a few recent episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief.

Try these episodes, while you can:
07 Feb 2011 – Sunni/Shia Tensions – Islam v Islam
24 Jan 2011 – Ayodhya – Hindu v Islam
17 Jan 2011 – Egypt – Christianity v Islam

In addition to the victim question, “Why pick on Islam?”, there’s also the other element, of minimising the extent to which Islam is often interpreted in a violent manner, such as the persecution of apostates, as described in the 17 Jan episode.

Maybe Muslims feel they are the centre of criticism. But maybe that’s because there is plenty to criticise.

Bring On The Lions

No, I’m not referring to the up-coming England match. It’s a much more serious issue than that. Or at least Christians think so.

Even my very fair minded liberal Christian friend Lesley is concerned, after reading this article in GQ

When saying ‘damning’, who or what does Lesley think is being damned? The nation, for it’s loss of faith? Or those that remain Christians, for this reason, “Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims nonexistent.” It does sound a little like role reversal; you know, the rapture of irreligion, and the left behind of the faithful, stuck at the bus stop on a cold wintery day not knowing the last bus has been cancelled.

This point is right, “…it’s only natural that we should dismantle the massive amounts of tax money and state power that are given to the religious. It’s a necessary process of building a secular state, where all citizens are free to make up their own minds.”, which will make it fair for all. But I can understand the fear in the CoE at losing privilege.

When I read this and what followed, “Really? Let’s list some of the ways in which Christians and other religious groups are given special privileges,…” I realised that it was religious privilege that the article was damning after all.

This was particularly damning of Mormons in ’78, “Until 1978, the Mormon Church said black people didn’t have souls. (They only changed their mind the day this was made illegal, and God niftily appeared to their leader to say they were ensouled after all.)”

This “In response, Carey and the Church of England demanded Christians be allowed to break the law” and the recent nonsense at the Gen Synod continues to be damning of the CoE now. And don’t get me started on RC and Islam.

Why do we have to resort to law to demand equality from religions? Christians are often quick to tell us of their valiant role in the abolition of slavery and their many other fights against injustice. OK all Christians, put up or shut up. Stop all prejudice and privilege – voluntarily! Let the ABC call for this now (I won’t hold my breath – he’d rather have Sharia). Let’s move to a secular nation, in education and government, that’s equal to all. You’ll be surprised how quickly atheists lose interest in your religion. Hold on. That’s precisely what Christians are afraid of isn’t it. Silly me.

The feelings of persecution even extend to the repeated mistake of thinking atheists want to abolish religion. This is from a comment by Chris, “The New Atheists seem to think a secular society is one that rejects religion” – No, quite wrong. That’s what Christians think New Atheists seem to think. You being a case in point 🙂 We (atheists new and old) know what it means, and you too would know that we know, if only you knew more about New Atheists, and old atheists.

Chris, “In fact, most countries with a secular constitution see secularism as protecting religion.” – Try telling that to Christians in America, with it’s very purposeful secular constitution. I can’t figure out why even having such a specific constitution isn’t clear enough. Oh, hold on. Got it. After centuries of selectively reading the Bible Christians are primed to read a constitution and see in it the very opposite of what is written.

And, what’s more Chris, when you’ve figured this out, could you let Tony Blair know: “Tony Blair warns that Christians must speak out in ‘aggressively secularist’ age” – The problem is, Tone, Christians and other faithful have been speaking out all too loudly for centuries now. “But he has since converted to Roman Catholicism and set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to “promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions”. “ – Well, Tone, religions might have earned a little respect if they hadn’t been partying on so loudly themselves, indulging to excess in privileges, and then hypocritically protesting as the hurt and offended when the neighbours open a window and shout at them to be quiet while everyone gets some peace.

Preacherwoman isn’t keen on Johann Hari from GQ (God Quits? God’s Quiet?, Garrulus Quadrigae?), pointing out his selective use of data. She makes a fair point. We do have to be careful not to impart our bias. But wasn’t that the main point that the article went on to make, i.e. the whining by Carey and others about persecution, when religion has so many privileges? Hasn’t religion always been biased?

It’s not just Carey. This is from Cristina Odone, “Afraid to be a Christian? Who can blame you? The authorities, the media and the chattering classes are forever trying to run you down. We don’t have to brave the Colosseum, with its rapacious lions; we don’t have to wear an identifying badge; or meet in secret – yet.” – What?! Let’s form two queues – one of atheists who want a secular nation with freedom to think and choose our world view without favour to any, and another one of atheists who want to ban religion. I’m sure Carey and Odone think we’re all in the near empty latter. They’re confused by this secular call for freedom. Being so familiar with the centuries of persecution by the religious they think that once they lose power they’ll be burned at the stake.

“Christians need to be as strident as Muslims” she says. Well, that makes a change from Christians bemoaning how strident a few atheists are. But again she makes the mistake of bias again. The strident atheists are calling for freedom for all, and would protect the rights of Christians and Muslims alike – we’re just saying we won’t protect the current privilege of Christians or Muslims, and won’t give in to the strident calls for privilege. The stridency isn’t the problem, it’s what one is calling for that counts.

“But there is no doubt that many are afraid to be Christian. They will watch anxiously today as Shirley Chaplin will fight the NHS in an employment tribunal.” – For heaven’s sake, is there no end to the whining. Thankfully the tribunal saw sense.

But Chaplin “…had the support of a number of bishops who claim that Christians are being persecuted in an increasingly secular society.” How very Christian. I really do think some won’t be satisfied until there’s a Colosseum in Trafalgar Square, “Ha! to a mosque at Ground Zero. We Brits will show you how to be persecuted. Bring on the lions.”

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.

Atheists Against Religion – Misconceptions

Some theists seem to get the wrong impression about atheism and atheists, with regard to the extent and type of opposition to theism and religion. I think this occurs because several issues become conflated in discussions between theists and atheists. Some theists seem to think that atheists want to abolish religion or censor it; but they are confusing the following: genuine desire to stop some religious practices and privileges; the desire for a secular state; and intellectual disagreement on the validity of religious belief.

They are all issues that should be considered separately.

Opposition To Faith Schools
The objection to faith schools is because of their indoctrination of young minds and the fact that one faith view is projected. Most humanist atheists want schools to be secular, which only means no religious or other world view bias (not even atheism), not the censorship of religion. We actually want education to include information about all religions and other world views and basic philosophy in a non-biased here-it-is make what you want of it sort of way. There’s no requirement to impose the atheist or humanist world view above others.

My children attended a Roman Catholic school, which preached RC Christianity. Both my children said that when they compared notes with friends at a state school the coverage of other faiths was quite different. The Roman Catholic school had given feint acknowledgement to other faiths whereas the state school was more open about discussing the variations of the details of the different faiths. I don’t know to what extent a difference in teachers played a part, and I’ve no detailed experience of other faith schools. But in principle I’m opposed to the promotion of a particular faith.

Faith schools breed division. This I know from my personal school experiences, where a predominantly CoE state school backed on to a Roman Catholic school – pupils were always at war, and though most pupils probably weren’t particularly religious, the religious difference was a focus of difference. This inevitable divisiveness has also been commented on with regard to Northern Ireland many times. In Oldham there is currently a plan to form a mixed academy to replace the current Christian dominated school and Muslim dominated school in areas that resulted in race/faith/culture riots ten years ago.

Abolishing Religion
The wish by atheists that religions did not exist is just that, a wish. Not necessarily that religions never existed – there is no requirement to change history. The wish is that religions would begin to fade away – starting with the most obnoxious elements of each religion, because we think in the long term society will be better when religion has gone. Note, that isn’t saying atheist humanism is the cure for all ills.

And this wish isn’t expressed in any political sense. There is no way in which humanist atheists want to censor or ban religion or religious thought. The very nature of atheist humanism, or in this context secular humanism, is that the state should not be involved at all in personal world views, and that everyone should be free to choose their own world view. There are many unknowns about the universe, regarding its origins and its makeup. The God hypothesis is a reasonable one, so given the free-thought imperative of secular humanists there is no requirement to stop people believing in God.

Secular State
The political desire for a secular state is not a request for censorship, it’s the request for the removal of a religious bias and privilege that is already present. What’s the alternative to removing bishops from the House of Lords as religious political posts? Add more bishops representing every faith in proportion to the faith adherents? Add atheists specifically because they are atheists? What about Wiccans and followers of other belief systems? A Lord of New Age? No, the most equitable route is to remove all posts relating to religion and have people there on merit or by election – depending on the desired make-up. This then does not prevent religious leaders being members; they would simply be members for some other reason: hopefully, merit.

The wider issue of a state church is slightly less significant to me, though many British Muslims might disagree. We have a lot invested in our culture associated with our churches, armed services, state events, etc., that currently have a close association with religion. I’m in no hurry to see these go since they are quite benign, colourful and culturally of historic interest, in terms of the state. I don’t, for example, have an issue with traditions that date back to more feudal times, such as the monarchy and knighthoods and so on. They just need disassociating from the executive branch of the state.

Intellectual Opposition
The intellectual objection to theism, as opposed to particular religious organisations that implement the varieties of theism, is purely that, an intellectual one of the understanding of the philosophy and science of it all. Again the free-thought nature of secular humanism supports the unrestricted examination of all philosophical views and wants to engage freely in debates about these issues. Historically it has been religion that has wanted to censor views and interfere in the free thinking, free expression and free action of others that don’t agree with the religion.

It’s a bit rich for anyone associated with these ancient religions to accuse atheists of censorship – it couldn’t be further from the truth for atheism, while at the same time most religions don’t have a good record on censorship.

Anti-Religion
Anti-religion is the opposition to some or all religions. Personally I am strongly anti-religious when it comes to the more dogmatic religions.

There are many aspects of Islam, such as it’s political desire to dominate that is such an important and freely expressed part of that religion, and the discrimination inherent in Islam against non-Muslims in Islamic state governance. These are inherent parts of Islam, given that they are stated in the Koran or Hadith. Islam would have to go through a radical change for me not to be anti-Islam. But there are probably many Muslims who would like to see such change, and I’d support them in that without wishing to have them give up non-political or otherwise humane aspects of their faith. If some Muslims think atheists have an unfair view of Islam then they need to start making their more moderate voices heard, not only by atheists, but by the more radical Muslims.

There are many aspects of fundamentalist Christianity that make me anti-those sects too, such as the intense indoctrination of children into psychologically damaging beliefs about being sinners and being damned to hell. I am less anti-liberal-Christianity, though I do disagree with its ideas on intellectual grounds. Other atheists may have a more blanket anti-religious stance.

Summary
Atheists generally do want to stop faith schools, political privilege, any particularly unfair practices, and to work towards a secular state.

Atheists generally are willing to debate theism and atheism on intellectual philosophical grounds.

Atheists may also be happy to see the back of religion. But one of the main principles of free-thought humanist atheism is the right to practice ones own belief system, and so we would want to defend anyone’s right to belief, as long as the practice of that belief is not contrary to the freedoms of other people.

My personal feeling is that I have no problem with self-funded religions and places of worship. I quite like some aspects of the CoE; I like to visit old churches; I enjoy some religious music, though I have no interest in the content of any songs or hymns; I like to visit grand cathedrals and mosques. I suppose my interest is atmospheric and historic. I have fond memories of some vicars from when I was young in the Boys Brigade – even our local tyrant vicar was fair. So, other than the issues above I’m not that anti-religious.

And I enjoy a good argument.

So, in general atheists don’t want to burn theists at the stake, stone them or decapitate them, or condemn them to hell or whatever the atheist equivalent might be (which according to some theists would be for them to become atheists). Live and let live – if only the religious would.

A Biblical Story

The religious like their stories. Postmodern relativist theists love them. It allows everyone to have their own cuddly warm snug safety blanket in which to wrap themselves, without fear of someone nasty coming along and snatching it away – a gift from their father, God. There’s nothing nicer than being wrapped up, nice and warm, being told lovely stories about their heroic father protecting them from evil.

But there’s another part of their story that’s not so nice, but just as necessary, because we all like scary stories. One day a bully arrives in the class, and his name is Atheist. His favourite wicked pass-time is to snatch their faith blankets away and make them cry. His second favourite is to tell a frightful story, of how his own father, Nietzsche, is killing their father God.

But I’ve got a better story, a predominantly western story (for their are similar stories elsewhere). And it goes like this.

Nietzsche is blamed for killing God. How can that be? There never was a God to be killed. Let’s start at the beginning, or as near to it as matters for this story.

Long ago humans evolved along with other animals from some common anscestor with similar characteristics. Humans have many featues in common with all vertabrates. Even more in common with mammals. Even more with primates. Most with the remaining other apes.

They have a mix of traits, that include complex combinations of being able to love and hate, help and kill. Their social evolution has caused them to be mostly loving to those close, and fairly neutral and even co-operative with other groups, suppressing their baser inclinations. However, conflicting interests, fear, misunderstanding, jelousy, etc., all the nasty bits, are just below the surface.

It’s difficult to know for sure what real evolutionary mechanism caused religion to come about, whether it confered some direct benefit, or whether it’s a by-product of the evolution of the degree of self-awareness. It remains a mystery, but many facts fit one particular idea.

All mammals have a sense of ‘other’, as in other external creatures: to be eaten by, to eat, to fight, to mate. Few animals are self-aware, so when self-awareness evolved to a certain degree there becomes both ‘other’ and ‘self’. The brain sciences have shown quite clearly that these are in different parts of the brain, but are linked; that the confusion of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can give a feeling of internal ‘other’. This is very striking in various forms of brain damage – the type and location of the damage can determine loss of this internal ‘other’ or its acquisition. It can also be induced or inhibited in healthy brains at will, in a laboratory. Many humans have a ‘self-self’ and an ‘other-self’.

There were no brain scientists around in ancient times, but there were a multitude of unexplained awful events. With a familiarity of the powerful capabilities of humans compared to other animals, it might have seemed obvious that there must be some more powerful external hiddden ‘others’ at work, directing nature, inlfuencing lives.

Put these internal and external ‘others’ together, and you have gods that are doing things for and to humans, and even invade their minds.

But, some humans aren’t quite as dumb as they first appear. Over the millenia, as the population increases, and populations merge and compare ideas, as they record their ideas and they spread them, it seems obvious that there are some inconsistencies, competing gods, silly notions of what it is to be a god.

From the recordings of the Greeks onward philosophy and rudementary science bring some critical thinking to the table, which begins the whole process of rationalising and economising on gods and their capabilities. There emerges the most concise God, the Jewish God, with many of his awkward inconvenient inconsistencies explained away into the sky, or heaven or wherever – depending on how critical the analysis has to be to avoid arguments from those that tend not to believe or who have competing gods. God goes into hiding, and leaves the material world behind, and his interactions with us and our world have to be explained by miracles.

The religions provide great social cohesion in times that are still barbaric and brutal. They provide an authority that can’t be matched by individual rulers. They help keep the peace mostly, but can still just as easily be invoked for war. Religions are used control the uneducated supersticious masses, for reasons of good for the theologians, for reasons of convenience for the godless powerful.

Despite the reconciling role of great religions there are still independent theological thinkers who challenge the various orthodoxies, causing many schisms in what had been the start of a grand religious project. Other religions emerged on the boundaries of western thinking, the most prominat being Islam which separated much of western thinking from its Greek routes.

Come the enlightnement even more events and wonders of the world, like the rainbow, become explainable as natural phenomena. The Greeks are rediscovered, and Islamic ideas on science filter through. Western Europe becomes the focul point for many revolutions in thinking, and discovering, of ideas, places, animals and peoples. God and his works recede into the distance.

From Darwin and others a unifying explanation develops that shows not only that humans are not special, but that evolution can remove the need for a God, or at least push him back to the moment of creation. Sophisticated theology is required all the more to hide God somewhere safe. The struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other mirrors the internal dichotomy of the rational internal ‘self-self’ and the feeling internal ‘other-self’.

This vanishing act needn’t be the intentional and aware response it sounds to be. It can be a genuine shift in the detail of belief in thologians that have as much access to the enlightenment ideas as any atheist. They have to reconcile what they know with what they feel, but what they feel has a strong hold and won’t let go.

So, God remains the primary presupposition that in their cognitive dissonance must override all other ideas. They may even have a sneaky suspision that their beliefs are nonsense, but what can you do if the internal ‘other-self’ is so convincing? They even see the folly in other beliefs that are similar, or in those of their own religion that have a less sophisticated view of what God is. They know they can’t explain their God really, but they can have faith.

Some become so close to atheism in their intellectual disposal of God’s inconveniences, that they even confuse what atheism means – Peter Rollins, with his really odd twisting of words is so confused, hence and confusing. No doubt Rollins is sincere. I’m not accusing these theists of being charlatons, though some of the money making TV evangelists may be, I don’t know. But many theists clearly have an eye for this world as much as the next.

And so here we are. Nieztshce didn’t kill God. There never was a God, just an idea of a God accompanied by a feeling. Nieztshce and many others have been dripping slow acting poisons into the challace, causing a lingering and painful death for the idea that is yet incomplete. Though the feeling remains you can see the agony of self-realisation of the inevitable dawning on the likes of the Arch Bishop of Cantebury, as they struggle to reconcile their faith with the ultimate demise of the God that never was.

Rather than let the atheist kill their God they would rather do it themselves. They suffocate him in an act of kindness, they bury him in the safest place they can find, in the depths of their souls where he’ll be accessible to them. He becomes a fully personal God. No longer the need to explain him away, he’ll still be close by, feeding ideas through the inner ‘other-self’.

They see the problems, yet they still feel God, see God, or see the need for God, or fear the lack of God. What must it be like to have this inner self, the ‘other-self’, ripped from their hearts?

Those that don’t have it can only sympathise. Atheists who see a grand picture of the universe and beyond as a natural unfolding process have no need for God. There’s a freedom to think the unthinkable without fear, to find what we find without judgement, to see what the science tells us without thinking it has a moral dimension, that the creation of moral codes are anyway just one more human trait. We can take what evolution has given us and build our moral codes on top of that, and make those moral codes do the best they can for everyone, because the predominant evolved characteristics are to love, to help, not to hate and to kill.

This is just a story. Many different stories can be told, and are told. This one is as close to the observed facts that I know of. Think of it as a docu-drama – a story made to fit the facts; or as a working hypothesis that has evidence to support it. This is a story told by humans, about humans using evidence accumulated by humans.

The predominant alternative story is one written by humans too, but where the main unobserved fictional character is supposed to have written the story himself. And as such, the authors can have the character explain away any inconsistencies by the magic of miracles, or by claiming not to know the mind of the unfathomable character the human authors have created. Now that’s some serious imaginative just-so fiction. An incredible story. Really, it just isn’t credible.

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.