Monday, 24 September 2012

William Lane Craig advises Gay Man to stay on the Straight Path

A gay Catholic has written to William Lane Craig asking: What Should Homosexual Christians Do?

I'm not sure if this is an example of WLC's humour, but he includes in his reply that:
You [Haydn, from the UK] need to stay on the straight and narrow path to avoid disaster.
He distinguishes between the desire, which is not sinful, and the act, which is:
I agree with you that it’s no sin to have a homosexual orientation. That’s probably something you didn’t choose and aren’t responsible for. But you can choose and are responsible for how you act.
But he then appears to contradict this concession that Haydn didn't choose his orientation nor is he responsible for it:
Second, I’d encourage you to seek Christian counseling to help you deal with your homosexual orientation. You may never completely shed your homosexual desires, but the testimony of many persons like yourself who have sought help is that one can reshape one’s orientation to a considerable degree. There is hope of change.
Well, is he responsible for his orientation or not? Advocating change to something as fundamental as one's sexual orientation is a reprehensible thing to do, and perpetuates the view that there is something wrong with homosexuality. WLC's homophobia is confirmed after he advises Haydn to find a Christian girl to marry and have sexual relations with:
Forget the unbiblical idea of finding some other man with whom you can build a monogamous love relationship. Not only is that a fantasy that will lead you only to heartache and profound disappointment, but, more importantly, it is contrary to God’s will for your life, as we know from Scripture.
It's a terrible thing to say that a homosexual monogamous love relationship is a fantasy that will lead 'only to heartache and profound disappointment'. I personally know gay couples who are very happy in their monogamy. I certainly see no evidence that they are any more likely to lead to disappointment than heterosexual couples and, more importantly, I see no reason to even assess this difference, to deny them marriage, just as I wouldn't assess it for different races, religions or social classes.

I hope Haydn sees the error of his ways and re-considers his religious beliefs in the light of their effect on the harmless lives of so many.

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Saturday, 22 September 2012

Authentic Theist Calls Atheists 'Sub-human'

My attention was drawn by my friend Quine to a post by Father Dwight Longenecker, who has a blog called Standing on my Head at Patheos. Father Longenecker is an American who has travelled the long (?) road from evangelical Christianity in his childhood to Catholic priesthood in his adulthood, via the Isle of Wight.

I cannot link to the actual post, which was originally here, because it has been taken down. The piece was called The Authentic Atheist, and went like this:

Not surprisingly, the bigoted nature of this did not go down well with many people, including some right-thinking theists. I responded to the last section by posting this comment:
It’s interesting that we could assert “These are the authentic theists. They plod through life eating, working, shopping, breeding and sleeping, and God never leaves their consciousness. Members of this sub-species may be sparkling sophisticates or ill-bred boors. They may be the decent and moral folks next door, or they could be despicable murderers. In a frightful way, it doesn’t matter. If they exist, perhaps they have bred and spread like the alien bodysnatchers, and exist in our midst like spiritual zombies—indistinguishable in the teeming mass of humanity except to those few who see them and tremble.”, and it would have as much traction as the original. Which is to say, none. (‘Spiritual zombies’ is amusingly ambiguous.)
My point was to draw attention to the bigoted nature of the Father's comments. In this short piece, he inspires prejudice against a group of people that he calls 'authentic atheists', describing them as a 'sub-species'. To say the same about 'authentic theists' would clearly be bigoted, I hoped he would see, and unjustifiable.

The priest was dissatisfied with the response the post received, so deleted it and all the comments. This is bad netiquette, imo, but since it's his blog, he has that right. He explained that the snippet had been taken out of context; as we can see from the screencap, it's an extract from a forthcoming book. Well, fair enough, but who took it out of context?

Once again my friend Quine uncovered an earlier piece that throws some light on this passage. Apparently written in 2003 and called In Search of the Authentic Atheist, in this he says something similar about the 'authentic atheist', and then talks about 'truly secret Atheists' (if we forgive the typo). Next he says:
My imagination is too vivid. I am spinning stories and jesting to make a point. Because people laugh and cry I'm sure all humans have souls, even if they neglect them.
So if we are being charitable, these characterisations are not meant to be taken seriously. Ha ha, he's just jesting. He's drawing attention to the hilarious stereotypical views some have of atheists. Well, that's all right then; the context is all, and we were too quick to judge him a bigot.

Unfortunately, the article continues with:
But if my hunch is right that some people never give God a thought, then they are the best evidence that such a thing as an atheist might exist after all. If such people exist then we are witnessing a radical and tragic decline in the human race, for it is sub-human to exist without a god of any kind. Real religion is a universal part of the human condition. In every culture and language — from primitive tribesmen who grunts at the stars to sophisticated technicians who grunt at computer screens — the troublesome religious instinct persists in a most stubborn and triumphant way.
So the Father sticks his neck out and calls it sub-human to live without a god. Of any kind! Literally, he would judge a person more human if they worshipped a god of any kind. They could worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Satan, and they would be more human than an atheist. Remember, it's a god of any kind, so evil ones are preferable to none at all. But in the absence of an irrational worship of an invisible being,  a person becomes sub-human, a spiritual zombie, Father Longenecker thinks.

The Father commits Hume's classic 'is-ought' fallacy when he declares that how things have been in human society so they should be. 'Real' (not sure why he qualifies religion with this adjective) rape and murder are a universal part of the human condition, but we don't think it should be, I hope he agrees. He wonders where the 'universal, tender and mysterious instinct to fall on our faces and before our immense and intimate maker' comes from, but, of course, this is a far too simplistic view of humanity. Religious behaviour is extremely diverse, and appears to spring from a number of our evolved features. To reduce it to the features of the Father's favourite religion enfeebles humanity.

This is reminiscent of Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's comments that atheists are 'not fully human', so is perhaps to be expected from a Catholic priest. It's not enough that the Church promotes the repression of women around the world, denies rights to homosexuals, and protects child abusers within its ranks. Now, one of its representatives wants to draw atheists as 'sub-human'. Well, in light of their other crimes, this is small beer, and perhaps it's a good sign that they are aiming at atheists now, rather than persecuting heretics of any hue (remember, he's happier with folk who worship gods of any kind).

Nevertheless, I'd like Father Longenecker to wind his neck in and start treating everyone as a human being.

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Friday, 14 September 2012

"Science and Religion" Chairs Proliferate

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a rather silly program for the BBC where he attempted to cosy up to science. Churchmen and theologians have noticed that science keeps stripping away the evidence from their beliefs, and they're left rather embarrassed by their nakedness, as if they have only just eaten from the tree of knowledge. Sacks was repeatedly coquettish when Dawkins asked him if he really believed the story of Abraham and Isaac. He realised, I suppose, that he would look silly if he said yes, but would never live it down if he said no. He gave a non-answer that a politician would have been proud of.

Now he's accusing Dawkins of perpetuating an anti-semitic stereotype when he described the god of the Old Testament as a "vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser", and "misogynist", "homophobic", "racist", "pestilential" and "infanticidal", in The God Delusion:
I was concerned that he was using an anti-semitic stereotype, which has run through a certain strand of the Christian reading of what is called the 'Old Testament' as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, died in the Middle Ages because that's how people spoke about the God of the Old Testament.
(This is a sad accusation, but all too readily offered now by the religious and their apologists when they don't get their own way. Allan Dershowitz has launched a poorly spelt attack on the Germans for ruling against circumcision, even though the ruling also goes against Muslim teaching too. Can't they be Islamophobic?) It's an ad hominem, since it casts aspersions on the motives of those making these judgements rather than addressing the arguments. Sacks could just explain why he doesn't think his God is infanticidal, for example. Otherwise he needs to explain why pointing out the truth is anti-semitic. As Dawkins says, the quotes are anti-God rather than anti-semitic.

In the BBC website report, the 'science and religion' meme is given an airing. A quote is garnered from Dr Thomas Dixon, a Senior Lecturer of History at Queen Mary, who has written books on the subject, and another from Dr Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. The Faraday Institute has been funded by the Templeton Foundation, who have ploughed money into the 'science and religion' meme for years now. Maybe this investment is paying off? Alexander comments on the divisions between science and religion:
In academic discourse, it's never before been more positive. Now there are several science and religion chairs in universities and lectureships and so on, which were never there before.
The implication is that academia has come to its senses, and has realised that, hey! Science and Religion are best buddies really. Really? Well, no, not in my opinion. Let's check out all these science and religion chairs in universities.

I can't say I can find many, at least in the UK. The only one I'm aware of is the Andreas Idreos Chair in Science and Religion, attached to the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, which has been funded by the Templeton Foundation. This is currently held by Peter Harrison, and is being advertised anew. The incomer will be able to take advantage of a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation:

A major review of the undergraduate curriculum is currently under way, for which the Andreas Idreos professor will be able to develop new undergraduate courses in Science and Religion. Following a generous donation from the John Templeton Foundation, the incoming professor will have the opportunity to appoint to a three-year Departmental Lectureship in Science and Religion and to fill three fully-funded three-year doctoral studentships (up to two of which may be for overseas candidates), all to start in October 2013.

I don't think there is a chair in the subject at Cambridge, although I could be wrong. Dr Alexander's base, the Faraday Institute, is there, established by the Templeton Foundation.

Still, I looked further. I remembered that the University of Edinburgh runs a science and religion course. Oh yes, it's funded by the Templeton Foundation too.

After that, I don't see too much going on. I noticed that the University of Exeter has a Dr Christopher Southgate who has taught for the Department of Theology and Religion  "on the science-religion debate". No course funding there, apparently, but Dr Southgate did win a Templeton award in the past. Professor David Knight is at Durham University, and "In 1998 he received a Templeton Foundation award for teaching a module on ‘Science & Religion in the 19th century’". In July 2007, Alan J. Torrance, Professor of Systematic Theology, and Professor Eric Priest FRS were awarded £65,300 by the Templeton Foundation to promote a major series of lectures on science and religion in the University of St Andrews.

Internationally, we can see there are a number of academics interested in the subject by looking at the membership of the International Society for Science and Religion. Note, too, that they receive funding from the Templeton Foundation.

So I think Dr Alexander may be right: the small amount of interest in 'science and religion' in academia probably justifies him saying "it's never before been more positive". But as far as I can see this is almost entirely down to funding from the Templeton Foundation. There is nothing wrong in that, of course, but it's as well to understand how ideas can be sown and propagated. It's a shame the BBC has been roped in to assist.

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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Assisted dying: who's to decide when a life is not worth living? the title of a disgusting article Andrew Brown has written on CIF Belief. Jumping off from a recent BHA poll on assisted dying, he poisons the well by comparing choice in dying legislation to abortion legislation. The subtitle says:
Changing interpretations of the Abortion Act show how little legal safeguards are worth when the sentiment behind them is lost
Brown is not really interested in a sober reflection on the ethics of assisted dying. Talking about the poll's support for even those who aren't terminally ill being granted the ability to end their lives, he says:

You may think that this kind of autonomy is unrealistic and that it can lead to a distorting egoism. I certainly do. 

Both I and Andrew Brown have this kind of autonomy, so is this leading to a distorting egoism in us? Perhaps this is a mea culpa from Brown, or a misanthropic confession, but I presume he must mean that the combination of autonomy and Tony Nicklinson's sort of disability is causing the egoism, since we have the autonomy he sought. But why in the world should this freedom be denied to those who find themselves in Tony Nicklinson's position, when surely that freedom with that sort of disability is what is most needed? And talking of Nicklinson, he says:
Just as important was the attitude of his family and those around him. I don't want to suggest for a moment that they were actuated by anything but love and the desire to help him realise the end he wanted for his life. The point, however, is that their decision and their support were very important. Had they opposed his wishes he would hardly have got anywhere.
But I think he does want to suggest something else; he's hinting at ulterior motives behind the Nicklinson family's support for Tony. It's not that they supported Tony's right to decide his own fate, but they somehow, unwittingly, wanted him dead? Despite the fact that all the evidence suggests that they would much rather he live, if only he wasn't suffering so much:

Standing by his side Jane calmly offers her support, albeit somewhat reluctantly as she admits that, despite everything, she doesn’t want to lose him. ‘But I can see how he suffers every day,’ she says, ‘trapped in a body that is little more than a shell.
‘So, however much I would like to have him stay with me, I love him too much to try to change his mind. This is his choice – it’s what he wants.’
And Brown makes the insinuation crystal clear:
Those who stand to benefit from someone's death are very likely, sincerely, to see the life they want to end as hardly worth living. This is a nasty fact about human nature, but any kind of humanism that isn't grounded in human nature is no more than ludicrous and sinister self-deception.
No wonder that the most recent piece of anti-euthanasia propaganda that I was sent highlighted a figure of 300,000 incidents of elder abuse every year. Supporters of assisted dying see this point. But it just makes them believe more firmly that the right kind of legislation, with the clearest possible safeguards, will stop unwanted grannies being liquidated for their asset value.
...and referencing abortion legislation:
If a mother has the right to dispose of an unwanted foetus, why doesn't a daughter have the right to dispose of an unwanted, incoherent and incontinent old person whose miserable life will only ever get worse? What could be easier than to propose to such a creature that its life is not in fact worth living? 
So the Nicklinsons, and anyone who wants their loved ones to determine their own fate, are, underneath it all, swayed by the 'benefit' that will accrue from the death of their loved one. Leaving aside for a moment the breathtaking idea that Tony's family were going to benefit in some way from his death, and that's why they supported him, this 'nasty fact about human nature', if it were so factual, could apply to everyone! Why, then, aren't there queues of old folk throwing themselves off Beachy Head like lemmings because their offspring will benefit from an inheritance? Maybe because Brown's misanthropy has got the better of him, and this 'nasty fact' isn't so true, or is true only in a few misguided individuals.

And because he thinks the practice of abortion has exceeded its brief, does he think that letting people decide their own fate will lead to daughters disposing of unwanted grannies? The sloppy thinking is objectionable, to say the least.

Reading about the Nicklinsons, I've always been struck by their concern for Tony. It was clear that they desperately wanted to keep him, but recognised that he didn't want to stay, and understanding his pain, supported him in his quest. Their humanity shines through; and not a nasty humanity either, but the best kind. I'm sorry that Andrew Brown is blinded to the truth of that by his prejudice against assisted dying.

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Saturday, 1 September 2012

Source of Faith

I've previously discussed John Locke's irrationality argument against religious persecution: that it's irrational to persecute non-believers because it's simply not possible to make people believe something they think is untrue. Jeremy Waldron successfully counters this by pointing out that beliefs can be affected indirectly, by, for example, restricting a person's access to material:

A man may be compelled to learn a catechism on pain of death or to read the gospels every day to avoid discrimination.The effect of such threats and such discrimination may be to increase the number of people who eventually end up believing the orthodox faith. Since coercion may therefore be applied to religious ends by this indirect means, it can no longer be condemned as in all circumstances irrational.
By the same token, religious indoctrination can be achieved (without such threats!) through childhood education; this is plain when we consider how religious belief varies according to geography. Climate is not the causative factor, but indoctrination is; simply teaching that the prevailing faith is true. From birth, what we believe grows, bottom up, through interaction with our environment, and with those we mix, and with those who teach us. These foundational beliefs are difficult, sometimes impossible, maybe, to unpick.

Churches and the religious understand this, so expend much effort on early years education to ensure a supply of adult tithers in the future. One such initiative is Test of Faith. This is run by the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion, an institute that is based, sadly, at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. No-one will be surprised to hear, given its pre-occupation with the reconciliation of science and faith, that it is Templeton funded.

It's important to appreciate that this is not some secular approach to education, looking to make space for all faiths and none in our education systems; it specifically pushes Christianity. An illustration of this has just been released by them: a homeschoolers' course in Science and Christianity which 'aims to equip US-based homeschooled high school (and advanced junior high) students to think clearly and biblically about science and faith'. Here's the complete course.

Check out the graphic for chapter 1:

It starts with the old canard that because some scientists have faith, there is therefore no conflict between science and faith. In fact, it says, any conflict is a result of Victorian scientists with an anti-clerical bent! This is slack. Certainly the so-called 'conflict thesis' originated with Draper and co. in the nineteenth century, but to say that any modern day media interest is mainly stirred up by him and his fellows is bizarre.

Here's a graphic for chapter 2:

This is promising, in that it cautions against the God of the Gaps argument, but only applies this to primary explanations; and it does this not because God of the Gaps is just a bad argument, which it is, but because it's not a good apologetic tactic. It then brazenly uses a God of the Gaps argument for the ultimate explanation.

A discussion and questions section follows:

They ask 'How do I know what I know?' and amongst the answers they slip in 'Divine revelation (the Bible)'. There is no evidence that anyone has ever had a divine revelation, and there is no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to the Koran, or the book of Mormon, is divinely revealed; quite the opposite, in fact.

This is the sort of misinformation that Jeremy Waldron might point to if he wanted to justify his counter argument to Locke. Templeton want kids to accept that the Bible tells the truth. There's no mention of the myriad holy texts that claim similar, but contradictory, 'facts' to those that the Bible claims.

These three propositions are not equivalent. The first two are supported by the weight of facts and the last one isn't. But the course material wants to put them on a level footing. This really isn't a fair thing to do to kids, particularly home-schooled ones who are already more closeted than normally-schooled kids.

There's lots more of the same; on evolution, for example, they say:
Some evolutionary biologists say that the world is without design or purpose. They think that it came into being through a meaningless process, ruled by random chance.
Evolutionary biologists aren't the ones to ask about the origin of the world, so the implication here is that they think that evolution by natural selection is ruled by random chance, which is the opposite of the truth. This, in fact, is a standard creationist meme.

It's disappointing to me that this poorly thought out apologia is being marketed to US home-schoolers by an organisation based at a major British university. 

Francis Spufford, in the Guardian and elsewhere, has tried to defend an emotional, rather than a fact-based, faith: 
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don't have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.
"I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings". But where do the ideas come from in the first place, for the feelings to attach to? What has planted the seed? Divine revelation, or religiously-motivated schooling? Anyone, from anywhere, could say the same thing, in defence of a faith that contradicts Spufford's. What should someone 'from outside' conclude from that? Surely that the ideas are arbitrary and mostly not true, even if they appeal to those who, like Spufford, let their feelings ride roughshod over precautionary principles.

So Spufford ignores the overwhelming amount of disinformation to which we are all subjected as we grow up in these theistic societies, of which the Test of Faith course is just a drop in the well-funded ocean. Do we have an antidote to this? Yes, to a degree; we've discovered a method that provides some objectivity. A method that sees feelings as a potentially corrupting influence on its conclusions, not a reason to affirm them. 

The Test of Faith course and Spufford's article are more evidence of the incompatibility of science and religion.

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