Saturday, 12 December 2009

Correspondence with John Denham

Dr Evil?

After this interview with the Sunday Telegraph, I sent an email on 16th November to John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Dear Mr Denham

I read the interview you gave to the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, on the role of faith based organisations in politics. You are quoted as saying:

"We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time.
Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society."
If two or more faith communities made opposing claims about an issue, how would government decide which group to listen to? For example, the Catholic Church is adamant that the sin of contraception is more important than protecting people from HIV; should government listen to this honest, solidly held and generous view?

You continued:

"I don't like the strand of secularism that says that faith is inherently a bad thing to have and should be kept out of public life"

Secularism seeks to separate state and religion to *protect* private beliefs. Enshrining blasphemy laws for one particular faith, for example, would threaten the private views of the faithful of other religions. In the west, secular government has increasingly been seen as the only way to avoid persecution of religious minorities. Are you looking to limit this protection of people's private beliefs? Do you think the UK government should be more, or less, secular? Many people understand 'faith' as meaning 'believing something with insufficient evidence'. This is fine for comparatively trivial matters, such as 'which football team is the best?', but surely this is 'a bad thing' when it comes to matters of state? You may have a different definition of faith to me, so, if so, I would appreciate hearing it to better understand your comment.

I'm aware that newspapers sometimes misquote, so if that is the case here I would be grateful for any clarification you can offer.

Kind regards

Mark Jones
I received the following reply from his office:

24 November 2009

Dear Mr Jones

Thank you for your email of 16 November 2009 about John Denham’s decision to appoint a panel of advisors on faith issues. I have been asked to reply.

As Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government responsibility for the Government's engagement with faith communities lies with him. He has therefore, recruited a panel of advisors on an expenses-only basis to provide him with informed advice on relations with these communities.

The Government recognises that religious belief is of immense importance to millions of citizens, and believes that this fact should be respected. Many issues which concern governments cannot be tackled solely by regulation or spending. Governments and faith communities share an interest in the values which lead people to act the way they do. Campaigns for international development, peace, decent housing, living wages and many others have often been sustained by those of faith - not alone, but as key participants. On these issues, and others including climate change and the values of our economy, people of faith have views and values that deserve a hearing.

I hope I have reassured you on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Marina O'Neill

Cohesion and Faiths Unit

Not being reassured I sent a reply:

Dear Ms O'Neill

Thank you very much for the response to my email of 16th November.

However, I really need a response to my specific questions; in particular you haven't responded to clarify why Mr. Denham thinks that faith is *not* an inherently bad thing to have.

I need to understand how this Government judges what is a good basis for policy, and what is not. As I said before, faith is usually defined as 'believing something with insufficient evidence'. I want to know why Mr. Denham thinks this might be a good thing, or, at least, why he thinks that Government should listen to groups *specifically* because they think this is a good thing. Because that is what this means, from your letter:

"Campaigns for international development, peace, decent housing, living wages and many others have often been sustained by those of faith - not alone, but as key participants. On these issues, and others including climate change and the values of our economy, people of faith have views and values that deserve a hearing."

To reiterate, I'm happy for you to seek advice from people who have expertise in the areas you mention, including of course people of faith, but I'm not happy for you to seek advice from people of faith simply because they are people of faith; but that appears to be what you are saying. Could you confirm this, or, preferably, deny it.

Your reply doesn't seem to extend beyond restating what Mr. Denham has said in his speech at The Methodist Church Offices, so could you confirm that it's OK for me to make this correspondence public? If I don't hear back within a couple of days I'll assume that is the case.

Kind regards

Mark Jones
I was anticipating radio silence, and sure enough there's been no reply. It would be nice to know if they have a policy on this sort of correspondence. Presumably they cannot answer every email that arrives, but a simple acknowledgement of this should be a matter of good manners.

What concerns me greatly is the possibility that Government policy could be decided after input by faith groups based on nothing but *dogma*. It is imperative that policy should be informed by *evidence*, and we see that is not the most important factor for people of faith. Their input to the public square is quite acceptable when arguing their corner with reason and evidence, but quoting revelation and unjustified authority should not be allowed.

The Chilcot report into Iraq is under way now, and there is a very real sense that the major players, Bush and Blair, invaded Iraq because of an article of *faith*, rather than reasoned argument. It's beginning to look more and more difficult to determine Tony Blair's thinking as he approached the conflict. The reason that *Parliament* voted for the conflict certainly wasn't persuasive to him. He said "...this was obviously the thing that was uppermost in my mind - the threat to the region" (not WMD). But many regimes pose a threat to their regions, and we don't invade them.

So it will be interesting to see if the inquiry can uncover how he arrived at his decision. It's difficult not to come to the conclusion he simply 'felt intuitively' that it was the right thing to do; a hallmark of *religious* thinking.

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Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Intelligent Design Shows God Was Intelligently Designed, Shock

Intelligent Design is the latest incarnation of Creationism, attempting to gain a patina of scientific integrity by doing sciencey type things, but not quite managing it. I found this document by one of its proponents, William Dembski: Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Design. Running through its attempts to shoehorn some God into science, it's clear that this is an excellent contribution to refuting the existence of God prior to the appearance of homo sapiens. Consider:
Proponents of intelligent design argue that they now have formulated a precise criterion that reliably infers intelligence while also avoiding Kepler’s mistake— the criterion of “specified complexity.” An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent in the sense of being one of several live possibilities; if it is complex in the sense of allowing many alternatives and therefore not being easily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern. For instance, a repetitive sequence is specified without being complex. A random sequence is complex without being specified. A functional sequence, like DNA that codes for proteins, is both complex and specified, and therefore designed.
"Specified complexity" certainly seems to apply to God; how could he not be complex? His behaviour is functional, therefore, yeah, specified complexity applies.
Life is special, and what makes life special is the arrangement of its matter into very specific forms. In other words, what makes life special is information. Where did the information necessary for life come from? This question cannot be avoided. Life has not always existed.
God must have information; if not, then he has no life? Perhaps he doesn't? Nevertheless, a *being* containing no information is surely non-existent, so we must conclude that God has information. Another tick for ID.
Do any structures in the cell resemble machines designed by humans? How do we account for such structures?
Here ID wants to infer design from the machine like quality of cells. Well, there's certainly a parallel there; God makes lots of things - he's the industrial revolution and then some. An uber-factory. Tick one more up to intelligent design.
What are irreducibly complex systems? Do such systems exist in biology? If so, are those systems evidence for design? If not, why not?
IDers love their irreducible complexity, despite its pretty obvious stupidity. But let's humour them and assume that a thing can really be irreducibly complex. Would it apply to God? It would be a bit of an insult if it didn't, I would think. I suppose they might say, no, God is an extremely simple miasma, and nothing more. Is it this that they want us to worship; something less complex than the bacterial flagellum (but still capable of designing it!)? Surely not. We must all agree that God is irreducibly complex, if irreducible complexity means anything at all.
Reusable parts... By adopting an engineering approach to biological structure, intelligent design explains similar structures in terms of common design.
Excellent! God wrote about this himself, through the Bible:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them - Genesis 1:27
Clearly He has reusable parts; another tick.
To refute intelligent design, it is enough to display specific, fully articulated Darwinian pathways for the complex systems that, according to intelligent design, lie beyond the reach of the Darwinian mechanism (systems like the bacterial flagellum in question 5).
Well, I have to admit I find this impossible for God. Yet another tick for His intelligent design!

But the identity and characteristics of a designer lie outside the scope of intelligent design.
Oh well, if you say so; let's just leave it hanging there. I think we can all guess who designed God, though, can't we?

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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Waterloo at Wellington for Theists

Another debate organised by Intelligence Squared, this time at Wellington College in Berkshire. The motion was 'Atheism is the new fundamentalism', proposed by Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and Charles Moore, opposed by A C Grayling and Richard Dawkins. Moderated by Anthony Seldon, headmaster at the school. He's a professor at the College of Teachers. Who teaches them, one wonders. This one was streamed online, so I won't go into too much detail; I think it should be available to watch very soon.

EDIT: watch the debate here.

Outside the venue

Celeb watch; two sightings. Seventies chanteuse, Lynsey De Paul (who'd have thought?) and Jeremy Paxman.

Richard Harries

The very *motion* is an ad hominem response to atheism, in my opinion; rather than address the arguments, cast 'new' atheism (they tend to qualify the atheism) as the new fundamentalism, and consequently dismiss it as worthless. This implicit notion fed through to both Harries' and Moore's opening statements, which addressed what fundamentalism is, and why it's a bad thing (no argument from me there), but also name-called Richard Dawkins, sitting bemused opposite them. Harries called him an 'attack dog' and Moore described a scene in which 'Commandant Dawkins' would have theists all gunned down, presumably for daring to object to rational argument.

A C Grayling

The tenor of both presentations was that atheism, as represented by Dawkins, adopted a *certainty* about the truth that was not justified. I think Harries called it "not allowing for the great 'perhaps'". This seems very odd to me, because faith in god is surely about banishing doubt from one's belief - I blogged on this some time back, prompted by an article by a Catholic priest.

Charles Moore

For me, this is a straw man; whilst new atheist scientists consider that the Christian God is almost certainly non-existent, they cannot discount any god's existent, nor the existence of Russell's teapot, and Dawkins corrected them on this point. Harries made the point that The God Delusion doesn't mention the 'balance of probabilities', but chapter 4 includes quite a discussion on this. Interestingly, Grayling as a philosopher seems less bound by this scientific principle, and happily confirmed his certainty about God's non-existence. This I could only agree with if he's talking about some concept that suffers from non-cognitivism. Which might apply to God.

Richard Dawkins

After many demonstrations of good sense from Grayling and Dawkins, Harries was left grasping at the value of the numinous, as if this was the heart of the matter. Moore complained that such debates never analysed the more complicated ideas that were at issue (this after a question on consciousness, I think). A pretty vacant comment, after he had spoken for a motion that 'atheism is the new fundamentalism', an approach that is *calculated* to dismiss the arguments of one's opponents.

The final score: 363 for, 1070 against, 85 don't knows. Predictable from the feeling I got inside the hall.

Oh, and I said to Jeremy Paxman in the moving throng on the way out, 'Can I ask you how you voted?'. 'Well, there you are then', he replied, cryptically. I should have pressed him, but I imagine he gets fed up with that in public.

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Garrow and the Gallows

An absolutely splendid series ended tonight on the BBC - Garrow's Law, created by Tony Marchant.

It told the tale of the early career of Sir William Garrow, a little known barrister of Georgian times, whose combative style practically invented the adversarial system. Justice for defendants was rarely served at that time - they often had no representation, and when they did matters of fact could not be disputed and the jury could not be addressed directly. Thief-takers were common and unscrupulous. Punishments were extremely harsh.

With clever and witty counsel, Garrow achieved justice for many lowly defendants. Without him we may not have many of the features that seek to ensure *fairness* in the application of the law. His case transcripts can be read online at the Old Bailey archive. Well worth a browse.

The final episode was a timely depiction of a trumped-up charge brought by the state against an innocent individual - a state seeking to hold on to undemocratic powers at the expense of its citizens. The parallels with the authoritarian actions of the present government were palpable. I suspect this case wasn't based on a real life case, but I could be wrong (I couldn't find it in the online archive). It seemed to me a call from the creators for us all to take more seriously the curbs on our civil liberties being introduced under the guise of protection from terrorism. We must stand up at some point and fight these, before we become as bad as those we are fighting.

The BBC should be making more shows like this. Bravo.

EDIT: An interview with creator Tony Marchant here reveals that Garrow was responsible for coining the term 'innocent until proven guilty'. A remarkable man indeed. A pity that principle has become muddied recently.

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Monday, 16 November 2009

Maher Snubs Shermer

What a weird article from Bill Maher. Throughout 'it's' is spelt 'its'. That's not the worst thing about it, but it's not a good sign. It's a response of sorts to this letter from Michael Shermer.

It's a textbook example of how to get an issue wrong. He says he's a reluctant (fundamentalist?) spokesperson on anti-vaccination, and others are more qualified - is he qualified *at all*? - but then ploughs on regardless. Here's the perfect recipe for scare-mongering a potentially controversial issue.

1) Find something that you know nothing about, but about which you have a vague sense of unease.
Vaccination - check
American diet - check
2) Make sure that lots of people share this sense of unease.
Anti-vax polls - check
No-one likes their 'smartie tube' punctured - check
3) Add some known provisos or grey areas.
Over-vaccination is a bad thing - check
Immune system problems make vax dangerous - check
4) Cite people with personal stories to tell as credible data.
Barbara Loe Fisher - check
5) Cherry pick 'experts' in the minority.
Dr Russell Blaylock - check
Dr Jay Gordon - check
6) Pretend you're just trying to publicise a little known problem.
"I'm just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view in this country" - check
7) Find something dangerous sounding that can be blown out of all proportion.
Formaldehyde - check
Mercury - check
8) Insist you and your cohorts are not anti-whatever it is.
"Anyway, Ms. Fisher is someone who says she is not "anti-vaccine," but just has a lot of questions about the long term effect of using a lot of vaccines." - check
9) Exaggerate for effect.
"Is it worth it to get vaccines for every bug that goes around? Injecting something into my bloodstream? I'd like to reserve that for emergencies." - check
"If one side can say anything and its not challenged, then of course dissent becomes heresy in the minds of many." - check
"There are consequences to vaccines and antibiotics. Some people want to study that, and some, it seems, want to call off the debate." - check
"Ms. Fisher said 'If we want to create a society that is dependent on shots for immunity -- the same way we are getting dependent on prescription drugs, antibiotics, and surgery -- this is the path we should keep going down.'" - check
10) Deny there is a conspiracy, whilst implying there is one.
"In fact, when Howard Dean asked me that, my response was "I wouldn't call it a conspiracy." Any more than there's a conspiracy for the Pentagon budget to be obscenely bloated and operated largely for the corporate welfare of defense contractors." - check
"Is it conspiracy theory to believe that American medicine too much treats symptoms and not root causes of disease? " - check
11) Disingenuously spread misinformation thanks to one's high profile job.
Chat show - check
Twitter - check
Huffington Post - check

And stir. And stir again. Whatever any experts say, do *not* go back and change the ingredients. That would be too scientific, and wouldn't serve the agenda.

Two more things shock me about this article. One is how *parochial* his attitude is; he needs to get out and about and away from the particular obsessions that Americans have; no doubt there are some reasons to be paranoid in the States, and no doubt there are issues with 'big pharma' the world over. But that isn't an excuse for pretending one knows better than the scientific community, when one doesn't. The second is the suggestion that scientists want to close down any argument surrounding vaccinations. I see no evidence of that; just authorities concerned about know-nothing slebs endangering people's lives.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Why the New Atheists are Bad

There seem to be a lot of articles like this recently. In summary they say something like this:

I want to draw your attention to the evil new atheists that swarm among us.

They refuse to entertain doubt about their beliefs. They are rampant ego-maniacs. They loudly proclaim that anyone who doesn't believe what they say will go to the dogs. Their philosophy leads to conflict and depravity. They are pre-occupied with sex. They are rude and dismissive of opposing views. They are dogmatic and closed-minded. They meet up and worship their community leaders. They follow their leaders religiously. They want to teach our children what to think. They want to direct government policy to their own ends. They want to tell other people they're wrong. They organise and form lobby groups. They want to sell their books. They want people to read their books. They demand money from their followers for merchandise.

You and I as pious theists understand that such behaviour should be the sole province of the religious.

For some strange reason, the things of which they accuse the new atheists are more accurate descriptions of *religious* behaviour. Even if any of it were true (and often it isn't), why do they complain about behaviour in which they indulge?

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Monday, 2 November 2009

Ruse's Seven Deadly Sins

A simply appalling piece from arch-faitheist Michael Ruse in today's Guardian. Not for the first time, I find it hard to understand how an intelligent, educated man (certainly more intelligent and educated than me) could commit such howlers to print. Consider:
First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.
Fail no. 1. I don't know a new atheist who thinks that; perhaps a reference to where all the new atheists say that or write that would be in order? The closest I can see is Hitchens saying that religion poisons everything; not the same thing, of course, as any 10 year old could surely see, let alone a philosopher.
Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.
Fail no. 2. Just because a first-year undergraduate can ask the question doesn't mean *it has been answered*. The argument is about the inconsistency of the uncaused cause claim. It rests on nothing existing without a cause (we don't know that) and then uses *that* as a foundation for a single uncaused cause, which (guess what?) is shaped like their god, that they've been rabbiting on about for years. Who'd have thunk it? A 10 year old child could see the problem with this logic, let alone a philosopher. dare we be so condescending?
Fail no. 3. Treating claims seriously is not being condescending. Hand waving away atheists who object to religious claims as spoil sports and then claiming some kind of Kuhnian epistemological equivalence *is* condescending. A 10 year old child could surely see this?
I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.)
Fail no. 4. Which is the more likely explanation? The psychological, or the Calvinist? Or the Scientologist? Or the Pastafarian? Come on, don't be so *patronising*. A 10 year old child could *make up* a possible explanation, but that wouldn't make it valid, as she would surely understand.
I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
Fail no. 5. *What* does this tell us? To *where* does this lead us? Knowledge is *tentative* and *doubtful*. What does faith require? Banishment of doubt. What do religions teach? Certainty, through divine knowledge. You've guessed it; a 10 year old child could see the contradiction, let alone a philosopher.
If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?
Fail no. 6. And sinister with it. Is he seriously suggesting that *if* science showed the falsity of religion then secularism would dictate it should not be taught? That it should be suppressed? Unfortunately this is the logical conclusion of allowing epistemological equivalence between knowledge derived scientifically and other 'knowledge', betrayed by his last line; 'Why are their beliefs exempt?' Until fools masquerading as martyrs abandon this nonsensical position then religious knowledge will be allowed to continue in its unjustified position of privilege. Many religions explicitly declare the falsity of religious knowledge; *just not their own*. How does Ruse choose the most valid body of knowledge from the cornucopia available to him? I suggest a 10 year old child could see the problem in Ruse's position, let alone a philosopher.

But, of course, the point of secularism is to protect the right of people to believe what they like, not to introduce thought-crime. If some facts imply the falsity of *anything*, then those facts should still be taught, but the pupils allowed to come to their own conclusions. *That* is surely the aim of the First Amendment?
But don't worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.
Fail no. 7. And finally, it's the rank dishonesty that shocks. As if TGD claims to 'solve all of your problems'. A 10 year old child could read the book and understand *that*, but not, apparently, Michael Ruse.

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Monday, 19 October 2009

May the Force be with You

The queue outside the venue

I attended this event tonight, at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The motion was 'The Catholic church is a force for good in the world', proposed by Ann Widdecombe and the Archbishop of Abuja. Against were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. Moderation by Zeinab Badawi. My journalistic skills are not good, so I apologise for any failures in recall, and any misrepresentations; this is as I remember it, but I am not impartial. The event was filmed, so it will hopefully be on Youtube before too long. Apologies also for the poor quality of the piccies from my mobile phone!

My wife spotted the large organ

We did a bit of sleb spotting, but the only one worth reporting, that we saw, was Derren Brown; look:

That is him, honest

A good atmosphere in a packed hall; the antagonists entered...

l to r: the Archbish, AW, CH and SF. Yeah, really

An initial poll showed roughly 600 for and 1000 against the motion before the start of the proceedings.

The Archbishop started off, with a rather waffly preamble, re-stating often that the Church was a force for good, and that he had spent his life in the institution and had become more convinced of it as time went on. Referred to the many good works done by Catholics around the world, in health and social care, and education. He kept it light; not very convincing, but came over as a pleasant and humorous guy. He did mention that one or two mistakes had been made by the Church, for which apologies were appropriate.

Christopher Hitchens followed, and attacked mercilessly. I've seen a few Hitch debates online, but this one didn't include any of his usual rhetorical gambits. Instead he took the ball passed by the Archbishop and ran with it brilliantly; he insisted that any representative of the Church should start any such discussion with a long list of apologies; he ran through many of them, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust; the torture of Galileo and anti-semitism. He continued relentlessly with modern day problems, such as child abuse and their obsession with condoms. He pointed out that the Holy See had lifted the excommunication on Richard Williamson, a holocaust denying bishop. He left the floor with a buzz going around the room at the ferocity of the attack.

Ann Widdecombe won a cheer from the Catholic supporters by accusing Hitchens of a gross misrepresentation of the Church. She scoffed at Hitchens' examples of Catholic bad behaviour - the sack of Constantinople, for goodness sake, she laughed. Time does heal, apparently. She despaired at the constant harping on about child abuse, and that the Church should be judged on such matters according to the morality of the time (!). She talked about the billions raised by the Church and used for good causes around the world, through the 1 billion Catholics. Talked about the many health care facilities run by Catholics - a very high percentage apparently. Talked about the many Catholics persecuted by the Nazis and how many churches harboured Jews during that war. All in all, a combative effort from the Tory firebrand.

Stephen Fry started by hoping that he marshalled his facts well, since this was a subject that really *mattered* to him. He was *passionately* against the motion. He ironically agreed with AW's notion that we can dismiss such historical events as the Crusades and the Inquisition as being too long ago, but then spoke beautifully about the echos of history in *all* of us, and in that very room. He pointed out that history was clearly of major importance in her Church, through the notion of Apostolic succession, so she could hardly scoff at events 800 years ago. In the square mile, where we sat, the Church had burnt people for distributing Bibles in English. This point was very well made. If AW wanted the church to be judged by the mores of the time, for slavery, torture and child abuse, for example, whence absolute morality? He attacked the idea that he was considered by her Church to be morally evil, just for being him. He objected to being called a pervert by sexually dysfunctional churchmen! It was a tour de force to which I can hardly do justice.

I'll mention two questions in the Q & A; a woman asked the panel about the 10 commandments -that these were surely a great work of the Catholic church (surely shome mishtake?). Hitchens pointed out the egotistic nature of the first three (or four?) commandments. The Archbishop scored a bit of an own goal by telling us that his father converted to Catholicism, but was already aware of the ethical commandments through his previous African religion; "Exactly!", shouted someone in the crowd. A chap asked Ann Widdecombe how a woman could be an MP but not a priest; not for the first time, AW said that the theology was too complex for such a discussion (and such fools, it was implied) but basically a woman could no more stand in for Jesus Christ than a man could stand in for the Virgin Mary. This doesn't so much explain her point but rather re-state the problem. Why, indeed, could a woman *not* stand in for Jesus Christ? A priest doesn't have to do anything gender specific. Or does he? I think we should be told.

The atmosphere was quite frenetic all night, with a lively audience; in the closing statements, AW scolded Fry for calling the Archbishop sexually dysfunctional. Perhaps that was a little harsh. The outgunned Archbishop said that he had resisted preaching all night, and that most of the preaching had come from the other side. I think I have to agree with this; the Archbishop didn't sermonise, and spoke calmly - the emotion was certainly emanating from Hitchens and particularly Fry. But this emotion was backed by great reason, evidence and good sense. I think it was Mackie who said that emotion backed by reason was virtue. A virtuoso performance, then. By contrast the theists were rather subdued.

A further poll at the end revealed a massacre of the not-so-innocents; some 200 for and 1700 against, I think.

This proves nothing, of course; debates are usually won by the best debater, or by the vagaries of the audience mix, not by the truth-tellers; although, IMO, the truth-tellers did win on this occasion. A ray of hope from the night; both Hitchens and Fry issued challenges to the Catholic Church that they *can* clean up their act, and at least partially atone for their past crimes. One or two Catholics in the audience seemed very keen to take this to heart. Let's hope that many do.

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Saturday, 17 October 2009

Respect Creep

An interesting and honest article by Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer in The Times, on interfaith dialogue. He says:
To declare similarity between Judaism and Islam on the basis that their practitioners fast or pray is to betray an astonishing superficiality that does not do justice to either faith.
I think this is right. Unfortunately he follows this up with:
More importantly, the instinctive desire to find commonalities between faiths fundamentally undermines the whole point of interfaith dialogue in the first place, which is to learn how to respect those whose faith is profoundly different from your own.
I have a difficulty with this; why should one respect those whom one profoundly disagrees with? Respect means to esteem or regard highly. It's certainly *possible* to respect someone with different views, but is this always a desirable state of affairs? Should Churchill have respected Hitler and his views? ("Hitler is a monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder. But I respect his megalomaniacal views." - OK, I added the last bit - would he have said that?) I would suggest not.

The rabbi concludes:
There are profound differences in how various faiths conceive of God and instruct their adherents to behave. Honest interfaith work takes as its point of departure that I will never truly understand the faith of the other, nor will I necessarily see any reflection of my own faith in that of the other.
This certainly seems a possibility, but quite a counsel of despair; will we never understand each other? There is a way out; consider all beliefs in the cold light of reason and evidence, and eliminate those that don't stand up to scrutiny.
Different faiths cannot all be conveniently collapsed into a basic common language. This is neither possible nor desirable.
Neither possible nor desirable? Is it really not desirable we should understand each other?
Most importantly it is unnecessary. We already have a common language: our humanity.
This is a tacit admittance that interfaith dialogue amounts to 'let's agree to disagree'. Fair enough; it also concedes, I think, that some form of humanism is our only hope for common agreement. I have to say I agree. Nice to see a churchman admitting this!

Simon Blackburn writes well on Respect and Religion; he recognises that respect is sometimes used as a synonym for *tolerate* (although this is probably incorrect usage):
We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds.
I quite like that formulation; one cannot respect someone on account of their holding a belief with which one disagrees. This still leaves us open to respecting them on account of their character and other beliefs. But if they are foolish on many matters, then one would lose one's respect for them. This is surely normal behaviour, and justifiable.

Tony Blair supports state funded faith schools, which often teach that their particular world view is the only true way to heaven. At the same time, his foundation supports a project to teach kids to respect the beliefs of others:
Respect - Our world is a diverse world. To communicate and grow we must respect one another's beliefs, values, attitudes and faiths.
No. Not unless one agrees with them. If one respected a belief, one would agree with it, surely? If one assumes that this means *tolerate* not *respect*, then one can agree to a *small* degree. But even then, one does not, in practice, tolerate everyone's beliefs. We don't tolerate racism, sexism and homophobia. Tony Blair doesn't. He doesn't respect the Pope's beliefs on homosexuality, quite rightly.

So why is he promoting something for kids that he doesn't practice himself?

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Saturday, 10 October 2009

Please Choose Your Presupposition

I've been following the debate between presuppositional apologists and others (including the odd Christian) over at Premier Forums, and I thought I would write a little on the subject, in the hope of clarifying my own thinking about it.

To start with, as a sceptic, I'm still in the position where I can evaluate different world views and tentatively indicate which is currently preferred. I'm not committed to any world view, and am open to persuasion. So far, given our human condition, it seems *necessary* to maintain a tentative position. That *could*, in principle, entail preferring a theist world view (it doesn't at the moment!).

(It's noted, though, that provisionality, on the face of it, would seem to rule out a lot of theist world views, which demand *commitment* - Kierkegaard's leap of faith. Doubt is frowned upon, even though acknowledged at times.)

Many theists insist that the sceptic *must* declare a world view. This strikes me as transparently rhetorical; anyone can imagine how a person could be sceptical, non-committal and honestly ignorant, and they *should* address *that* position, not any number of straw men positions they would prefer to attack. However, this is part of their tactic, since they are interested in showing the impossibility of the contrary view, and to deny any criticism of their assumptions. See this, from a presup:
No, God is not on trial, WE ALL ARE. It is obvious to me that evidence doesn’t win the day with atheists, so I choose to argue for the impossibility of the contrary and from a position of accountability.
This is not entirely unreasonable (well the evidence bit is!); as Sherlock Holmes said:
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Unfortunately for the presuppositionalist, I think we can see that they haven't eliminated the impossible.

Consider a typical demand from a presuppositionalist: do YOU account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of loigc [sic] according to YOUR worldview?
Little defence of his own world view, since he understands that his world view begs the question. So straight onto the attack. Your world view begs the question, you make assumptions too. Again, I think this is fair enough, to a degree; we do not have a sure foundation for any epistemology - philosophers have wrestled inconclusively with this knotty problem for centuries, and I'm not about to challenge their (lack of) conclusions! Although it's plain that many are satisfied that we can have *tentative* knowledge, through the comfort we have derived from the scientific method.

So let's consider the claims of two possible world views. The presuppositionalist might say:
  1. I presuppose that God provides the foundation for logic/induction/reason.
  2. I can now justify my use of logic/induction/reason and apply these to the evidence to determine reality.
  3. The atheist world view, because God provides this foundation for logic etc, is impossible.
Unfortunately for the presup, number three is criticising the atheist world view according to his own world view - an external criticism. A typical atheist could then say:
  1. I presuppose that logic/induction/reason is a brute fact.
  2. I can now justify my use of logic/induction/reason and apply these to the evidence to determine reality.
  3. The theist world view assumes a god; please provide the evidence for that, and I will evaluate it (little to no evidence for a god, therefore no god is proved).
There is no *internal* problem with the first two steps of the two world views, if we agree that presuppositions are necessary; which I think is hard to argue against. But it doesn't mean we *have* to accept any presupposition; we are at liberty to evaluate which is the best world view for the reality we see around us.

As a sceptic, I cannot see anything compelling about the theist presuppositional position. It plainly hasn't established a reason to believe its presupposition, and it cannot offer an explanation of how this works. Logic is founded in God? God is logic? This suggests that logic *could* be something else; that there is possibly a state of affairs where 2+2=5 and things could be p and ~p. A presup *must* believe that, otherwise, if this isn't the case, and 2+25 and things can never be p and ~p, then logic still just *is* a brute fact. So the God presupposition does not help.

Also, the presup must demonstrate that there is *no* world view that is possible other than theirs. This assumes that they know all other world views, and have proved them impossible; a brave and foolhardy claim. A sceptic doesn't claim to know all world views, but can analyse those of which he's aware, and tentatively prefer one.

Furthermore, it's difficult to see how one could not plug *anything* in place of God in the presuppositional world view:
I presuppose that my cat/the clouds/love provides the foundation for logic/induction/reason.
Any world view like this is internally consistent, once the presupposition is allowed, and not analysed as above. But it cannot be persuasive to the sceptic, because they *have* to choose between different presuppositions. The presup think it's a compelling argument because they demand everyone commits to a presupposition, and don't examine it. That is their fatal error. We *are* at liberty to adjust our presuppositions, which means we must be allowed to analyse them. They want to deny analysis of the God proposal to all. The sceptic, by contrast, wants *everything* to be open to analysis. Even the foundation of logic (if anyone's got any ideas).

I don't think most Christians think like this (at least, not to this extreme), and it doesn't seem like a position that's worth debating. The presup is obviously happy with their presupposition for internal reasons, and appears blind to the *sceptical* position. The debate will constantly ping pong between demands for a justification of logic, to evidence for God, and no-one will be any the wiser. Best to give the presups a wide berth! They're not for learning.

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Friday, 25 September 2009

Goodness Gracious Me

An interesting discussion (if a little long!) has developed over at Russell Blackford's blog. David Heddle, batting for the Christians, has claimed there is no problem of evil, based on the biblical god being benevolent, rather than omnibenevolent. God has, in fact, promised suffering. Thanks for that.

Omnibenevolent and benevolent does seem to have been used a little interchangeably by commentators down the years, so the distinction sometimes seems to be ignored. I'm not sure that David's position allows one to jettison the need for theodicy; one wants to provide a justification for a god's behaviour in a theodicy, doesn't one? For example, Mill said:

"These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible."

So Mill sees the need for theodicy with a good god, not an omnibenevolent god. Ehrman gave up theism because of the problem of evil, and one would be hard-pushed to describe him as anything other than a biblical expert. This might be seen as appealing to authorities, but it certainly shows that many do consider that there is a problem to be explained with the Christian god.

I would say that theodicy is needed for any god; it's just easier to explain the way things are in a polytheistic or duotheistic philosophy. In a monotheistic philosophy one has a problem if that god is posited as benevolent *or* malevolent. If benevolent, one (still) needs to establish why an omnipotent god created the universe with this much suffering. Just saying he's *only* benevolent, not omnibenevolent, doesn't justify his behaviour, because, firstly, the benevolence assumes an *ultimate* good. A theodicy has to show *how* this much suffering achieves an ultimate good. Greater good arguments follow, which seem (on the evidence) unpersuasive, if not downright impossible. Secondly, even acceptance of Plantinga's logical argument raises the question *why* a god would create such a universe, if so much suffering would ensue. Better to avoid the project altogether, one would think? Skip straight to heaven.

(Conversely, if the god is malevolent one would have to explain the good in the universe! From this, monotheism seems incoherent to me, given the nature of reality.)

As a side note the Catholics do seem to believe in a deity that cannot be bettered (inexpressibly loftier!), which one would imagine would be the 'most good' being. (Argue amongst yourselves whether that could mean omnibenevolent or just benevolent) From the First Vatican Council:
"...He must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in Himself and from Himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides Himself which either exists or can be imagined"

Sounds a bit smug to me.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Good Science

"I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that." - Ben Goldacre

I've just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, an excellent analysis of science scares, quacks and how things go wrong when the media report on science, with a particular emphasis on medical matters (he's a doctor). The book was nominated for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction. As the quote above indicates, he also explores the problems that can arise even in good science - a very healthy approach, I think.

The book has chapters on homeopathy, the placebo effect, 'experts' like Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford (Check out HolfordWatch), amongst others. Superb stuff, and scary too.

I particularly liked the chapter on Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things. You'll have to buy the book to read the full details, but I'll list the five reasons Goldacre cites for not trusting one's intuition, however tempting it may be.

1. We see patterns where there is only random noise.
2. We see causal relationships where there are none.
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs.

Add to that availability and social influences, and you have a recipe for the irrational. As Goldacre says:
It's not safe to let our intuitions and prejudices run unchecked and unexamined; it's in our interest to challenge these flaws in intuitive reasoning wherever we can, and the methods of science and statistics grew up specifically in opposition to these flaws.
One often hears the charge that rationalists harbour prejudices just as theists and other 'magical' thinkers do. Well, that's true, but that's why there is a scientific method. When another method comes along that recognises those prejudices as the scientific method does, then we may have something to challenge it. There *is* no other method currently; therefore, what is discovered by science can claim greater epistemic value than anything discovered by another. Where there is a contradiction, we must accept the scientific outcome, if we are acting reasonably.

To expand on the graphic at the top of the story, consider this version, courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley.

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Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Selfish Ape

The second part of Antony Thomas' film for Channel 4, How Do You Know God Exists? poses the question: is it really possible that the creator of this vast universe could have a direct, personal relationship with you, and with me?

Not terribly well worded, IMO, since anything that is logically possible can be agreed as possible. Is it really likely etc... would have been a more interesting question. Never mind; let's see what the protagonists said:
Yes! In a word.
...said Rowan Williams. A little triumphantly, I thought. He expanded:
Because the difference between us and god is not that, we're very small and he's very big... it that we exist and he doesn't?
Christians have always held, and Jews and Muslims too, that god is absolutely present in every bit of the creation, that his energy, if you like, is at work in every act within the universe. We may be very small, but we, and everything else, are in the palm of god's hand.
No, of course not, it's that he's omnipresent, like Big Brother. Note the final sentence, hoping to portray some humility in this most arrogant of doctrines. This arrogant-humility is a hallmark of theist belief. The universe; it's all about *us*, and we've done wrong. This is attention seeking behaviour, and should be ignored if it wasn't so prevalent, and respected.

This little speech doesn't address why the Archbishop thinks the god that he worships is a personal god. He's not one for answers, though, as we've seen.

Swami Pramtattvadas, for the Hindus, then offers:
God pervades his entire creation; that means he is everywhere... in the rivers... he's all around us.
He goes on a bit with a few examples of where he is, although saying he's everywhere should have communicated the message. Not sure what this has to do with the personal god, though.

He then talks with the Swami and the Archbishop and Vincent Nicholls about doubt, and the testing of their faith. Nicholls says:
I think doubt is an intrinsic part of faith.
I've noted that another Catholic priest has acknowledged the doubt in his faith. This is a little odd when one considers what the Vatican says about it:
Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."
I'd really like to know which it is; are these theists certain, or doubtful? Because this affects how people take the message they are pushing. When they are sermonising they seem to be pretty certain about what it is they believe. Do they add provisos at the end when talking about the bible?
The events depicted in this book may or may not be fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.
Not at any church I've been to. But Nicholls ends by saying:
My own experience of faith is real, and, at times, very encouraging, very fruitful.
Here we go again, with the solipsism. Will they never stop thinking about themselves? Everyone's experience is different, so to extrapolate from one's own experience to a general truth is *unsafe*. Please stop doing it, unless one is prepared to be scientific about it.

Nicholls again:
We come from god, and we return to god.
He believes that life is a *separation* from god. To what end? Does he recall being with god before he was born? Does he know he will be with god after death? No, of course not; it is selfish wishful thinking. Probably! Jonathan Sacks would prefer to dwell on the hear and now, but also says:
We are more than physical beings, and everything about us should tell us so.
I disagree; everything about us should tell us we *are* just physical beings. Letting our desires rule the evidence is simply dishonest. Rowan Williams says:
All I really know about the afterlife is that god has promised to be there. God has promised that death is not the point at which he wipes his hands and says 'I've done with you'.
Could you show me that promisory note? Is that really all you claim to know about the afterlife? Which god will be there?

Swami Pramtattvadas talks about the Hindu belief of the journey of the soul through different incarnations, gradually building to the point of release. He talks of the afterlife as a place of bliss and calmness. Serenity for ever.

Ultimately, this portrayal of a man shaped being who will guarantee us eternal bliss is a form of infantilism; we don't like the idea that when we die, we are gone - forever. But these constructs allow for the fact that people we know and love *will* be excluded from this eternal bliss. To believe that is true, and accept eternal bliss for oneself, is surely the very definition of selfishness. So the personal aspect of god is important only if one is worried about oneself. I certainly am worried about myself, but I also care about the people I know and love, and many I don't. I'm not prepared to respect a doctrine that suggests that some of them, through no fault of their own, deserve some kind of hell, whilst others enjoy an eternity of bliss.

Next up in the program; is religious faith important for community?

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Do You Sense a Presence?

I thought I would document and comment upon one or two quotes from Antony Thomas' film for Channel 4, How Do You Know God Exists?, since I was struck by how anodyne the answers were.

In response to the question in the title, Rowan Williams says:
I think I'd prefer to talk about being confident that god exists, or trusting that god exists. It's not knowing as you know a state of affairs in the world, it's much more a sense that you're in the presence of something greater than you can conceive, and I suppose since my teens I've been aware of that something greater than I can put words to, in whose presence I live and think and act.
A rather bland expression of belief, as one has come to expect from the Archbishop. He first admits he doesn't know that god exists, but then goes on to claim some kind of different way of knowing - 'a sense'. Well, we all have evolved senses, which we have grown to trust. But we now know that we cannot trust them completely. For everyday matters they will suffice, but for important matters, we need to establish corroborating evidence. Without it, we can treat the Archbishop's 'sense' as seriously as Elwood P. Dowd's sense of a presence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says:
You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea, or are embraced by it, and so I saw god in terms of the people in whom I sensed his presence.
More 'sensing'. One can see the solipsistic nature of this sort of belief come shining through in the heads of their churches. They need to let go of the idea that they are the centre of the universe, even though we all, naturally, think we are. 'You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea'? How would one judge an idea that drove a father to murder his son?

Vincent Nicholls then weighs in:
Beyond all the distress of this world, beyond all the break up of family life, beyond all the things that unbalance us, there is a father, there is a figure who has our fate in his hands, and we can approach god through the person of Jesus, through the crucified saviour.
He doesn't even bother with an answer to the question, but just asserts his 'knowledge'. Can I suggest that there isn't a figure who has our fate in his hands? How are we to judge who is right?

Professor Tariq Ramadam spoke for Islam:
I really deeply believe that god exists; the world, the creation, all these things are signs, so it's a relationship between what my heart is feeling and my eyes are seeing and my mind is understanding.
Well that last sentence is surely a description of how we all make sense of the world. But why does he take the world, the creation as signs? I think we have a tendency to interpret such things as signs, but it doesn't mean they are. Consider that they might not be signs, Professor. What then?

Swami Pramtattvadas for the Hindus tells us:
Quite simply god is the highest, the purest, most transcendental perfect being there is.
Cool, I think we've got that message; Anthony Thomas presses him to answer the question:
It's faith; it's faith. It really is as simple and as powerful as that. [You take god on trust?] Yes.
Simple, yes; powerful, as an idea, no. Although one has to admit that the effect on people who succumb clearly can be powerful, for good and ill.

So leading commentators for the major religions in the UK really do not know that god exists, but like to think he does. That is fair enough; they are entitled to their unsubstantiated belief. Being unsubstantiated, though, I would like to know what mandate they have for telling us how we should behave?

The above platitudes occupied the first section of the program, and the narrator went on to ask further questions, which I shall address in future blogs. Next up; is it possible that the creator of this vast universe can have a direct, personal relationship with you and with me?

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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Noughties

Completely off topic, but this is hilarious:

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Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Wright Stuff

Bryan Appleyard's review in The Sunday Times of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God landed on the doormat this morning, containing some interesting insights into the story of the book. This doesn't sound like a volume that I'm going to add to my reading list.

Appleyard betrays the theist's obsession with 'proof' that shows their shallow thinking on matters epistemological. Consider:
In order to make their case meaningful, the Dawkinsians must prove that religion is demonstrably a bad thing — otherwise, why bother to stamp it out? Even after 9/11, they can’t prove this because, especially in the 20th century, non-religious nastiness was infinitely worse than religious, and because the persistence of religion in all human societies strongly suggests that, even in the most basic Darwinian terms, it has been good for us as a species.
Nonsense. Dawkins does not need to *prove* anything, nor does he want to stamp out religion. The persistence of religion *may* mean that it has been good for us, but it is by no means the only *possible* reason it has survived. A human trait may have evolved for a specific reason that no longer exists, or the tendency to religiosity could be a by-product of another evolved trait - religion could be a completely *unnecessary* consequence of our evolved ability to find patterns and agency in the world around us. Modern-day obesity may well be a result of our evolved efficiency to store fat. That doesn't mean that we should now embrace obesity as natural and 'good for us'. Humans often have addictive habits; I'm not sure what benefit this has conferred on us in the past, but just because we are naturally addictive animals doesn't mean it's necessarily 'good for us' *now*.

The persistence of religion also reflects the efficiency of the various religious memes, which is also not decided by overall benevolence of the ideas, but how good the ideas are at surviving and propagating; these are not necessarily the same thing, by any means.

Appleyard addresses Wright's disagreement with Dawkins' attack on Paley.
Dawkins said Darwin destroyed this case by showing how design arose through purely material means — evolution through natural selection is the “blind watchmaker”. Wright says this misses the point. The point is not how the watch was designed but the fact that it is designed. Some process has led to its existence and it is that process that matters because the mechanism and purpose of the watch clearly make it different in kind from, say, rocks.
If that is Wright's point then *he* misses the point. What natural selection provides is an explanation for complexity that is entirely understandable and (pretty) simple that shows that we are *not* different in kind from rocks, at the most fundamental level. We are stardust.
Equally, humans also require a different type of explanation from rocks. It may be natural selection or it may be some innate force in the universe. Either way, it is reasonable to associate this force with morality and God.
The last line is a complete non-sequitur; there seems to be nothing 'reasonable' about that leap. So after Wright has sprinkled nonsense all around, Appleyard feels the need to add some:
This is an entirely decent and persuasive argument against the intolerance of the atheists, in that it shows religion makes perfect sense, and getting irritated because you think it’s “untrue” is just silly.
'Persuasive' only if you have difficulties with assessing what's reasonable. Getting irritated and making accusations of 'intolerance' when people point *this* out is just silly.
The religious share with scientists the intuition of underlying order and neither side is in a position to say the other is wrong.
But the religious *mission* is to tell everyone else that they are wrong, and should behave the way *they* think is the right way. Scientists don't do this. The religious are arrogant *despite* the doubt, science builds humility into its methodology *because* of the doubt.

It's important to keep re-iterating that because religion arises out of human behaviour and culture, non-believers and believers share many, many properties. Theists already believe the things that atheists believe; the logic and reason that underlies our existence. Atheists are just those amongst us who have jettisoned some unnecessary careless thinking. Religious thinking isn't the only unnecessary careless thinking we indulge in; it's just one of the most dangerous, because of the patina of respectability it has been granted by our history.

Appleyard then goes on to discuss Wright's views on moral progress, which do sound a bit dodgy.

But he starts the final paragraph with this line:
Nevertheless, this is an important book in that it is a scientifically based corrective to the absurd rhetoric of militant atheism.
Well, I've yet to read any counter-arguments to the rhetoric of the so-called 'militant' atheists to show it to be absurd; just pre-suppositional theists loudly proclaiming their pre-suppositions as if they were *knowledge*, or post-modernists happily declaring everything invalid, including their own philosophy.

Meanwhile in the real world, sceptics and pragmatists have to continue to fight the good fight for logic and reason.

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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Is Collins Bad for the Health of the U.S.?

Francis Collins is shortly to be confirmed as the new leader of the US National Institutes of Health. Sam Harris has written an excellent analysis of the appointment.

The concern for me is the candidate's *qualifications* for the job on offer. On the whole, Collins (despite reservations about his previous jobs) would seem to be reasonably well qualified. What casts doubt on his *qualifications* is his explicit *scientific* pronouncements; driven, no doubt, by his religious beliefs. But I don't think people would have been as worried by, for example, Kenneth Miller, as a candidate, so it's not the fact of the religious beliefs *per se* that are at issue.

If Collins was a scientologist, with correspondingly odd ideas about *science*, I would be equally concerned (I should add that being concerned and questioning someone's qualifications is *not* the equivalent of wanting to ban someone from public office). If he were a keen astrologer, I would be equally concerned. If he were a keen homeopath, I would be even more concerned. If he were a keen chiropractor, I would be even more concerned.

So I can imagine a range of concerns depending on the candidate. What many have said is effectively this: if it can be shown that the opinions of the candidate that cause concern, when considering their qualifications, are somehow related to the candidate's religious beliefs, then they are *disallowed* as a cause for concern. Now this may be a matter of fact in the US, because of the Constitution. Fair enough, that may have to be accepted, but I don't think that should stop right-thinking people expressing their doubts about the candidate. It also doesn't stop it from being illogical. If Collins had said:
The universe was created 13.7 billion years ago when it was hatched from the egg of an enormous platypus.
instead of:
Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.
He could be disqualified by the first sentiment but not the second, because it attaches to a religious belief. This is, indeed, the strange case of Francis Collins!

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Monday, 20 July 2009

Times New Atheist

I've been following the dust-ups on the blogosphere around the various issues to do with 'New Atheists' and accommodationism, and trying to make some sense of it.

Recent 'anti-neo-atheists' include Terry Eagleton, Chris Mooney, Karen Armstrong, Madeleine Bunting and H.E. Baber. These include theists and 'faitheists'.

The targets of/responders to the attacks include Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford.

The anti-neo-atheists seem a little taken aback by some of the responses to their criticism, and think the New Atheists are being a little thin-skinned, a little hypocritical; it's just the rough and tumble of debate - you dish it out, so don't complain when you get some criticism yourself.

This isn't quite the situation as I see it; the New Atheist complaint is not the criticism, per se, it's the *type* of criticism. The New Atheists are attacking accommodationism with various arguments that may or not be correct (I happen to be anti-accommodationist myself, so I agree with them). But the criticisms thrown at the New Atheists aren't about their arguments; they're about the actual act of criticism. Consider Chris Mooney's comments about Jerry Coyne; he's talking about what Barbara Forrest said about science v religion:
Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy.
And he goes on to give three reasons why atheists should not alienate religious moderates (a question-begging assertion itself): Etiquette, diversity and humility. An astonishing claim! In what other area of honest debate would these points be cited? The clarification for 'etiquette' simply places religious belief beyond criticism; 'diversity' argues that moderates shouldn't be argued out of existence as long as there are fundamentalists around, I think; 'humility' exhorts us to acknowledge our inability to disprove god. Well, one does, but does one have to *keep* acknowledging it?

So Mooney apparently agrees with Coyne's argument, but doesn't want him to press it home with moderate theists, in case they are alienated, and, er, what? Become fundamentalists, I guess. I cannot think of any other way to summarise Mooney's blog.

Now consider some quotes from H.E Baber's article in the Guardian:
Most people I know are atheists. But they're atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.
A straight forward snide ad hom, and, of course, New Atheists don't think that anyway. From what I can deduce, they admire Hume, Russell and Mackie.
New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them.
Note the patronising 'in the village'; why can't the arguments be addressed in a grown-up manner? New Atheists *cannot* think that religious belief is *uncontroversially false* otherwise they wouldn't be applying so much time to arguing their case. They think that religious belief has not shown it is reasonable to think it true - at least the religions they are familiar with. It's possible there are true religious beliefs floating around somewhere.
I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief.
So rather than address the anti-accommodationist argument, pretend the New Atheist 'believes in unbelief'. It's a real shame. One of my least favourite tactics - argument dodging.

For me the New Atheists attack on religion is more an attack on the religious way of thinking; their motives are to ensure that public policies are determined with full possession of the facts of each matter. Many religions have survived by privileging their dogma and punishing dissent. The motives of many religious leaders are, and have been, to maintain control over a constituency, and to direct public policies according to their dogma of choice. Now this may not, by chance, be a bad thing - they may have dogma that happens to be good. But if there is bad dogma it's difficult to change it through reason, because of the privileges and punishments which have developed to *protect* the dogma. So the very reason the religions have survived successfully is the reason we must deny them privilege in the public arena.

Anti-accommodationists point out that moderate theists subscribe to this *religious way of thinking* just as fundamentalists do. Thankfully the moderates don't make the errors that the fundamentalists do, and they should be applauded for that. I prefer a moderate to a fundamentalist. I'd encourage fundamentalists to be moderates and moderates to be agnostics, and so on. But too often the anti-neo-atheists cry wolf at atheists pointing out faulty thinking, as if we should not do it when the believer is 'moderate'. That is simply *not good enough*, and indefensible.

Finally, Jerry Coyne has 'coyned' (see what I did there) a new term for atheist-butters - 'faitheist'. More complaints of hypocrisy have flown from faitheists, suggesting that this is pejorative, in the same way as 'New Atheist' has been denounced as pejorative by the New Atheists. There may be an element of truth in this, but I *think* there is a clear difference. The purpose of 'New Atheist' seems to be to differentiate a certain type of modern, vocal atheist from those nice, 'umble atheists of the past, who knew their place - witness Habel's comment above "Unlike the New Atheists they don't think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting." There's an agenda, and it is to define the New Atheists as something they're not. 'Faitheist' actually defines the target group accurately; they are atheists who *do* demand respect for faith. Any pejorative in 'New Atheist' is based on a false attribution of what they think. If 'faitheist' becomes pejorative it will simply be because folk come to find atheists who demand respect for faith objectionable. At least, that is how it should be. If things turn out differently, I'll amend my view.

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