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Entries for May 2010

May 31, 2010

God is everywhere

(Since today is the Memorial Day holiday, I am taking a break and doing a repost.)

There is a famous and funny old sketch called the Five Minute University in which comedian Don Novello acts in his character of Father Guido Sarducci.

As he says, when students study theology at his university, all they will learn are the answers to the two questions: "Where is god?" (Answer: God is everywhere) and "Why?" (Answer: Because he likes you). I am beginning to think that the answer to the first question is absolutely correct.

Take a look at this picture of a cut tree stump that is in a churchyard in Ireland. What do you see?

mary tree stump.jpg

Nothing? Just a tree stump that someone has cut in an odd way? Oh ye of little faith! To the devout this looks like the Virgin Mary and they think its appearance is (what else?) a miracle. People are making pilgrimages to pray around it. Over 2,000 have signed a petition objecting to plans to uproot the stump, and want to convert it into a permanent shrine of some sort.

The thing that strikes me is that recently Jesus and Mary seem to be showing up all over the place, in slices of toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, womb ultrasounds, Marmite jar lid, Kit Kat bar, shower curtain, cheese curl (the last one has been dubbed 'Cheesus'), dental x-rays, mugs of hot chocolate, even on the backside of a dog and in bird droppings.

Commenter Chris sent me this compilation of a huge number of Jesus sightings that local TV news shows love to report on. There seems to be an epidemic.

The one newsperson had it right when she said, "You know, it seems like if Jesus was going to show up somewhere it wouldn't be in ice cream."

Such stories, apart from revealing religious people to be hopelessly credulous, also demonstrate how weak some people's faith is, not how strong. It is only people who are really desperate for a sign to bolster their beliefs that will seize on such pathetic things as validating their faith. The woman who saw the Marmite Jesus 'took comfort from the image' saying, "I'm not particularly religious but I like to think it's Jesus looking out for us." She seems oblivious to how ridiculous it is to think that god would reveal his presence in a bread spread.

This kind of thing puts religious authorities in a quandary. On the one hand, they realize that if you have too many such sightings, religion begins to look more and more ridiculous. Even the TV reporters in that compilation clip seemed to find the whole phenomenon humorous. After all, if people start worshipping tree stumps, how can you distinguish so-called mainstream religion from more allegedly primitive religions, such as paganism. Some religions actually do involve tree-worship and the Christmas tree symbol itself likely began as one.

On the other hand, religious authorities cannot categorically debunk all of them as nonsense because their livelihood depends on people believing that god can reveal himself to people on occasion even if it is such weird and useless ways. The problem for the church is that it wants to discourage freelancers and maintain a monopoly on what qualifies as a revelation of god and what doesn't, as this is the source of their power and money. They tried to walk that fine line on this occasion too.

Local parish priest Fr Willie Russell said on radio station Limerick Live 95FM yesterday that people should not worship the tree. "There's nothing there . . . it's just a tree . . . you can't worship a tree."

A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the "church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism".

"While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition," he said.

Fortunately for the spokesman, he was not asked what distinguishes this particular "superstition" from all the superstitions that the church expects people to believe, such as that the wafer and wine become transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus when the priest mumbles some words over it. Mary-in-a-tree-stump is nothing compared to that. He could depend on the 'respect for religion' nonsense to deter 'polite' reporters from asking such obvious questions.

That Mitchell and Webb Look reports on another miraculous sighting.

All these Jesus and Mary sightings and the comment in the above clip that the melon message blew his tomato message out of the water gave me an idea for a new reality TV series, because what the nation really needs is another reality show. This one would consist of people bringing their candidates for an authentic god appearance and making the case for it on live TV. Then a panel of theologians would give their comments, the audience votes for which artifact is the best miracle of god, and then everyone worships the ultimate winning object.

I think the perfect title for the show would be "American Idol". I hope no one has used it already.

POST SCRIPT: You mean the Earth isn't 6,000 years old?

Watch this statement by Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen (R).

What is amazing is that her statement that the Earth is 6,000 years old is said so casually during a discussion of environmental concerns over uranium mining, as if it was the most commonplace fact in the world and not at all something idiotic and controversial. These people live in their own bubble world.

May 28, 2010

The internet and religious taboos

One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows broad-based actions and thus can undermine hierarchical control of messages. It has become very easy for like-minded people all over the world to quickly connect up and act in concert in support of any particular cause. Furthermore the considerable anonymity afforded by the internet means that people can defy taboos with impunity.

Take for example, the absurdly hysterical response of Muslims whenever someone draws an image of their prophet Mohammed. They go on riots and rampages and even threaten to kill the perpetrators. Just recently Lars Vilks, a Dutch cartoonist who drew an image of Mohammed as a dog, was attacked while lecturing on free speech. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt because police rushed to his rescue but during the assault other students chanted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"). If they thought they were bringing honor to their god and religion by this disgusting display, they were greatly mistaken. It is a truly pathetic god who needs thugs to beat up people who are merely exercising their right to speak.

In the past, there was little that anyone could do about this kind of thuggery in the service of religion because access to the media was limited and because the major media do not want to alienate their advertisers, they were likely to self-censor, the way Comedy Central did with its show South Park and the Mohammed controversy.

But things are different with the internet and it looks like Muslims have gone too far with their demand that everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) adhere to the ban on drawing images of Mohammed. There has been a backlash and this taboo has been violated on a grand scale. For example, May 20 was declared to be "Everyone draw Mohammed day", where people around the world were encouraged to submit their entries. There were many Facebook pages such as this one.

As one can expect when amateurs enter the scene on a mass scale, some of the resulting images are far more insulting to Muslim sensibilities than the ones that triggered the initial protests.

As a result of this response, Pakistan, which is rapidly going down a theocratic road, has banned YouTube and FaceBook because of its 'growing sacrilegious content'. But this will also fail because the internet is hard to corral and people will find ways to get around any fences that governments try to set up.

The AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) student group at the University of Illinois decided to counter this by chalking stick pictures of Mohammed. They have been joined by other student groups at other college campuses. (This act had its own amusing unintended effect with some students, unaware of the controversy or even of who Mohammed was, saw the stick figure chalking campaign as some kind of show of support for a seemingly very popular student with that name.)

Were all these actions gratuitously provocative? Yes of course. Were they rude? Certainly. Were they even juvenile? No doubt. But this is the kind of response that people should expect in the internet age when they try to enforce their peculiar taboos on everyone. The internet allows widespread yet concerted and anonymous action and religious people should realize that they can no longer control the message and decide what everyone should consider sacred. Trying to do so only makes things worse for them, a la the Streisand Effect. They should just learn to act like adults.

No one has the right to force devout Muslims to look at such drawings. If Muslims stumble across one, they should do what we all do when we encounter a visual image we do not like, and look away. But none of us have the right to prevent other people from drawing things and viewing them and the sooner religious people realize and accept this and leave it to their god to defend his honor, the better.

POST SCRIPT: How religions began (language advisory)

May 27, 2010

Religion and evidence-7: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

(For the complete series of posts on religion and evidence, see here.)

In the previous post, I argued that under the rules of logic, existence claims placed the burden of proof on the person making the claim to provide evidence in support of it, while universal claims required the person disputing it to provide evidence. In the case of 'god exists', which is clearly an existence claim, the burden of proof is on the believer. Similarly the claim 'there is no god' is a universal claim and again the burden of proof (or disproof in this case) is on the believer.

It could be argued that the logic argument can be turned around, and that the statement that 'a natural explanation exists for this phenomenon' is an existence claim and that 'no natural explanation exists' is a universal claim, and so positive evidence has to be provided in support of the claim that an explanation exists. But as I said in the previous post, the symmetry is not exact. An existence claim for an entity (like an electron or god) is qualitatively different from the claim of existence for an explanation or theory.

But suppose for the sake of furthering the discussion that we ignore this difference and ask what evidence we can produce that a natural explanation exists for the alleged miracle. In the absence of producing an actual direct alternative explanation, the only evidence that can be supplied is historical, that it has been the case that event after event that were once thought to be inexplicable and thus miraculous have subsequently been found to have natural explanations. Furthermore, one never sees medical miracles in which (say) an amputated limb has grown back, which would really confound all expectations. All the medical miracle claims are of extremely subtle forms where the cures do not obviously violate any scientific laws and are not obviously incompatible with natural explanations.

Of course, all this historical evidence cannot prove that the current claim of a miracle is false because of the well-known problem of induction. The problem of induction says that there is no logical reason to think that just because some pattern of events has been invariably followed in the past, that the pattern will continue into the future. As an example, whenever I have let go of something in the past, it has always fallen down. Does that mean that the next time I let go of something it will certainly fall down? I may be fully convinced that it will, but there is no logical reason why it should, just as there is no logical reason as to why the Earth will continue to spin on its axis tomorrow.

The Vatican's chief medical expert was implicitly appealing to this when he said that, "the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship." (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles (2009), p. 187). One of the features of scientific investigations is its repeatability and predictability. Miracles, by definition, are one-off events defying our expectations of regularity.

But of course none of us go around in a state of panic wondering if things will suddenly fall upwards or the Earth will stop spinning. The reason for our calm is that we use common-sense logical rules that enable us to arrive at conclusions that we are confident of even in the absence of proof. What we routinely do in such situations is to place the burden of proof on those claiming an exemption to the expected pattern to provide evidence as to why we should believe their claim. The reason we are amused by the iconic cartoon of a man carrying a sign "The world will end tomorrow" is because there is no reason to think that it will. Since the world has not ended so far, we feel safe in going to sleep tonight thinking that the sun will rise again in the morning.

In the case of medical miracles, what the weight of this historical evidence does is establish a prima facie case that since so many previous miracles have turned out to have had natural explanations, the latest miracle likely has a natural explanation too. To maintain that the latest case is an exception to this trend is to shift the burden of proof back to the people making the miraculous claim.

Science operates on the principle of methodological naturalism as described by George Gaylord Simpson (Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), p. 76):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.

Religious people may dislike methodological naturalism because it seems to shut out miracles but there is no denying that it has delivered the goods when it comes to advancing our knowledge. Abandoning it in order to allow us to say that inexplicable events are caused by god's intervention (which is really what miracles are claimed to be) is to risk losing a lot without gaining anything in return. By all means religious believers can choose to call inexplicable events acts of god. But it is perfectly reasonable and even desirable for scientists to reject such explanations if they are proffered without evidence in support of the existence of an agency that caused the event.

Philosopher David Hume in his essay On Miracles laid out a rule-of-thumb for determining how to judge whether an event is a miracle, saying "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

So applying Hume's rule, if one has a cure from an illness that is inexplicable on the basis of current knowledge, which would one consider to be more miraculous: the belief that god intervened, or its falsehood, that god did not intervene and there was a natural cause?

It seems to me that in the absence of evidence for the existence of some supernatural causation, it is perfectly rational and not at all unscientific to take the position that medical 'miracles' of the type described by Duffin are either the product of current deficiencies in knowledge or are improbable (but not impossible) events, and are not miracles in the religious sense in which the word is normally used.

POST SCRIPT: My article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

I was surprised to learn that my article The New War Between Science and Religion was the most viewed, emailed, and commented article. There were 170 (!) comments the last time I checked.

I received a nice little note of approval from Sir Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on Fullerenes, which are molecules that consist of 60 atoms, all of them carbon, that are connected in a manner that in one form (commonly known as 'Buckyballs') looks like the geodesic domes constructed by the architect R. Buckminster Fuller. In following up, I found this excellent interview where Kroto talks about what motives we should have for doing something, competitiveness, science and the enlightenment, and the danger we face from irrational religious thinking by people who occupy important decision making positions.

May 26, 2010

Religion and evidence-6: Is it unscientific to reject miraculous claims?

It is undoubtedly true that what may be considered a miracle at one time may not be thought so later as science advances. In fact the steady replacement of the miraculous and the inexplicable with the natural and scientific has been the recurring pattern of history. This pattern has been so influential in shaping the mindset of the scientific and medical community that the word 'miracle' is now seen as simply another label for a current state of ignorance. As Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009) and who has been involved in the process by which the Catholic Church certifies a medical miracle as part of the process of canonizing a saint, says:

In Western medical tradition, all diseases are natural; therefore, all cures must be natural too, even if we cannot explain them yet, or ever. (p. 186)

[S]ome treating physicians expressed doubts about the entire [canonization] process; similarly, a few experts hesitated to pronounce on the cures, as if cooperation would constitute a betrayal their own belief systems. Their skepticism originates in the built-in commitment of Western medicine to the idea that diseases and their cures are not, and can never be, of divine origin. (p. 185)

They are confident that modern techniques of examination would have exposed the majority of the diagnoses as honest mistakes or frauds. (p. 186)

Duffin sees this attitude as dogmatic and even unscientific, and appeals to the methods and philosophy of science to support her argument.

They may be right, but their objections are metahistorical, even presentist. Medical scientists are uncomfortable with relative truth; for them, somebody must be lying or misled. This posture flows from the commitment to natural if unknown explanations cited above, and it has been a characteristic of medicine since antiquity. (p. 186)

But the so-called evidence-based method cannot really address the questions that are most pressing. On the one hand, as the Vatican's chief medical expert explained, the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship. Furthermore, neither God, nor the elusive and as-yet-unknown natural explanations, which my medical colleagues are convinced must exist, can be falsified. The possibility of falsification is used to design experiments and is considered a hallmark of the scientific method. Both are beliefs, and they fall outside the realm of scientific method as we know it. Because the one belief utterly pervades the scientific community, it seems not to be a belief, but a "fact." (p. 187)

Ironically, as explained above, this confidence in the existence of an unseen and unfathomable natural explanation is a belief masquerading as fact, which cannot be falsified any more than the proposition that God exists. In this context, Woodward wrote, "to assert that miracles cannot occur is no more rational - and no less an act of faith - than to assert that they can and do happen." (p. 187)

For doctors, the medical canon is immersed in an antideistic tradition, as described above: only nature - not God - can ever be the cause or cure of diseases. For religion, all plausible scientific explanations, be they human or natural, must first be eliminated before the case becomes a contender as a reliable sign of holiness and transcendence or holiness. In both cases, what is left is that which is unknown; religious observers are prepared to call it God. (p. 189)

The problem with Duffin's argument is that falsifiability has long been shown to be untenable as a demarcation criterion to distinguish science from non-science, for reasons that I will not go into at this time. (See for example The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, The Demise of the Demarcation Problem by Larry Laudan, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes by Imre Lakatos, and my own book Quest for Truth for criticisms of falsifiability.) Even Karl Popper, the original creator of the falsifiability demarcation criterion in his highly influential 1953 essay Science: Conjectures and Refutations, later backed away from the strong formulation of it that is still used by most scientists and by Duffin in her book.

Duffin's dependence on the familiar claim that belief in god and non-belief in god are on an equal footing since "neither God, nor the elusive and as-yet-unknown natural explanations, which my medical colleagues are convinced must exist, can be falsified", runs into problems because the symmetry is not exact for two reasons. The first is that treating existence claims ('god exists') and universal claims ('god does not exist') on an equal footing is unjustifiable in terms of logic. Existence claims cannot be disproven but only proven and require evidence in support of them, while universal claims cannot be proven, only disproven, and thus require evidence against. When applied to this particular case, both require the production of evidence that god exists. In the absence of such evidence, treating the claims of miracles with skepticism, far from being unscientific, is perfectly rational.

The second is that claims for the existence of an actual entity (in this case god) are qualitatively different from the claims that an explanation exists. The former is tangible while the latter is not. It is the difference between the claim that an electron exists and the claim that a theory of electron behavior exists.

But there is one interesting point yet to be addressed and that is how one evaluates claims of uniqueness, as suggested by the Vatican's chief medical expert when he said that, "the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship."

Next and final post in this series: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

POST SCRIPT: Michael Specter on what science has achieved and the danger of science denial

May 25, 2010

Religion and evidence-5: Miracles without god?

Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009), has an interesting professional history. A hematologist by training, she was asked in 1986 to analyze blood samples taken eight years previously from someone whose name and medical history were kept from her. Under her microscope she found all the signs of a kind of leukemia that usually results in death in at most a couple of years and so she was surprised to be later told that the patient was still alive and well. She was further surprised to discover that her analysis had been part of the process for the canonization of a would-be saint, Mere Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, founder of the order of Grey Nuns in Canada. The recovery of the leukemia patient was being credited to that potential saint as a miracle. Eventually, Duffin's expert testimony that the recovery was scientifically inexplicable formed a crucial part of the successful canonization effort, and she was invited to Rome for the actual ceremony conducted by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

This event started her on a new career path as a medical historian. Her book has some interesting background on the canonization process, which came into its modern form with Prospero Lambertini who in 1740 became Pope Benedict XIV. He recognized the important role that science and medicine should play in adjudicating miracles and before becoming pope served in the office of promotor fidei (promoter of the faith), more popularly known as the 'devil's advocate', whose role was to find holes in the case being made for sainthood. In 1983, Pope John Paul II reduced the size of this office and its importance has been greatly reduced in recent times.

Benedict XIV was the one who codified the canonization process currently in use. The process starts with a meticulous examination to make sure the person possessed 'heroic virtues' and led an exemplary life. If that is accepted, the person is recognized as being 'venerable'. The next step is 'beatification' which requires at least one miracle. For the final elevation to sainthood at least one more miracle is required. (p. 16)

Perhaps because of her role in the successful process to canonize a saint, Duffin gained access to the files of more recent Catholic saints and her book examines the role of miraculous healing in the canonization process. In the concluding chapter of her book, she says that when she speaks of her work she is frequently asked whether she believes in miracles. After years of hesitation, she says that she now answers comfortably "Yes, I do." (p. 183)

What makes this notable is that Duffin is not only not a Catholic, she describes herself as an atheist (p. 5). So what does it mean to say that one is an atheist who believes in miracles? She recognizes that this is a conundrum, that to acknowledge the existence of miracles is to challenge her own medical identity and her scientific outlook.

She explains that her belief in miracles is a 'historian's belief' and explains what that means. In the course of her research, she has been impressed with the careful scrutiny that the Catholic Church carries out to ensure that what it certifies as miracles have genuinely passed rigorous tests that include the best testimony of scientific and medical experts, as well as of witnesses and contemporary records of the would-be saint. She has not found evidence of trickery and deception. As she says:

I believe in the good will and honesty of these witnesses, be they educated or illiterate, religious or atheist. I believe in the accuracy of the scribes and translators. I believe in the plausible wonder that these tales meant to the players and the people involved in their collection, transmission, preservation, and use as evidence. I believe in the remarkably careful scrutiny conducted by the Church officials with the help of the best science and medicine available at the time. These stories are true. As a result, they are indeed miracles. Rather than appealing to an abstract philosophical definition of "what is a miracle?," this ensemble defines the concept pragmatically: these events were miracles for the people involved. (p. 183)

"[T]he "miracle" - the thing of wonder - had nothing to do with breaking natural law by replacing death with immortality; rather, it lay in the contemporary inability to explain the recovery." (p. 185) (my italics)

There is nothing wrong in believing, as Duffin does, that the entire process was done in good faith and due diligence by the Catholic Church. Outright lies and frauds are usually easily discovered and the cautious Catholic Church would undoubtedly take steps to weed out fraudulent claims to spare themselves any future embarrassment that someone they made a saint became so under false pretenses. But assigning the label of 'miracle' to events that are inexplicable at the time of their investigation, as Duffin does, is problematic. The reason is that the word miracle is not usually used only in the temporary and historical way that Duffin uses, but also carries with it connotations of the existence of a causal agency that can transcend and overturn the laws of nature. When the Catholic Church certifies that an event is a miracle, they are not merely acknowledging current inexplicability. They are clearly attributing it to god's intervention via the saint. Otherwise why would it constitute evidence for sainthood? They may hedge their bets and allow for the possibility that later scientific developments may nullify the miracle but until such time, they believe that god is responsible. A 'godless miracle' would be an oxymoron in the eyes of the church.

In the next post, I will explore further the reasons why I disagree with Duffin's use of the word 'miracle' to describe the events she describes.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on miracles and sainthood

Richard Dawkins from Young Australian Skeptics on Vimeo

May 24, 2010

Religion and evidence-4: Incorruptibility of the bodies of saints

The existence of bodies which allegedly do not undergo decay after death (i.e. 'incorruptible bodies') was something I was made aware of only a few months ago but is apparently fairly well known in the religious community, especially among Catholics, and is taken as a miraculous sign from god. The Catholic Church used to make incorruptibility one of the possible criteria in support of claims for sainthood, and so exhumation of the bodies was once a regular part of the canonization process. But never having been a Catholic, I had been totally unaware of this until my friend drew my attention to it.

Even taking incorruptibility at face value as a deliberate act of god, I must admit that I found it a little odd as to why god would choose to perform such a bizarre and useless miracle. After all, what is the point in preventing the decay of a buried corpse? What is god (or the dead person for that matter) going to gain by doing it other than just to show his power, as a kind of magic trick?

In fact, this kind of interest in dead bodies adds further weight to the idea of Christianity as a kind of death cult. After all the most recognizable symbol of that religion is the crucifix, with Jesus looking agonized while dying on the cross. The cross itself, a symbol of torture and death, is worn around the necks of believers. (Comedian Lenny Bruce said, "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.") The whole communion rite, with its eating of the flesh and blood of Jesus (whether symbolically or otherwise), signifies a preoccupation with death and dead bodies that is more than a little strange and positively creepy.

Devout Catholics tend to believe in the miraculous powers of the 'relics' of holy people and these relics often consist of bits of their dead bodies, although items of clothing are also used. As Jacalyn Duffin writes in her book Medical Miracles (2009), "Regular visitors to Catholic churches expect to find the bodies of saints and would-be saints displayed and venerated as holy relics… Beyond the miraculous preservation of the corpse itself might be many healings attributed to touching or seeing it." (p. 102)

But getting back to the incorruptibility of the corpses of saintly Catholics, at least it was offered as evidence for god and so needs to be examined. So what is going on here? Is it a genuine miracle? But as is usually the case with miraculous claims, it becomes less credible as one examines it more closely.

One fact is that the corpses are not as naturally free from corruption as advertised. Some of them have been embalmed, others have had masks put on them, and yet others have had certain features touched up. But even the cases of merely reduced corruption can be due to reasons that have nothing to do with miracles. Although the examples given are for prominent Catholics, bodies other than Catholic saints have been found in similar states of reduced decomposition.

This is not to say that it is fully understood why some bodies seem to decay at a slower rate than others. It is known that the rate of decay can vary widely depending on conditions. Mary Roach's humorously macabre book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers describes, among other things, how forensic crime investigators research this important question that gives them valuable information to help them establish the time of death of murder victims. They do this by strewing bodies all over the place under all kinds of conditions and seeing how they decompose. The rate of decay can vary widely depending on a whole host of reasons.

As one observer writes, "For reasons still poorly understood, corpses don't invariably decompose into potting soil as many assume. Instead, the fat tissue, usually in the presence of moisture, sometimes turns into a solid, soaplike substance that makes the cadaver look like something you'd find in a wax museum." The soaplike substance referred to is called adipocere and this article explains the conditions under which it forms and why it makes bodies highly resistant, but not totally immune, to decomposition.

Another fact to be considered is that reduced decomposition may not be as rare as people think. Most of the time we have no reason to exhume bodies unless for something like a criminal investigation. But the Catholic Church did have a reason. Since it was the Catholic Church that used incorruptibility as one of the criteria for sainthood, that meant that they were responsible for many of the exhumations. Since the reputation for great holiness tends to grow with time and after the death of the person, getting at the bodies of potential saints and removing parts for relics required exhumation. Thus the fact that the bodies of pious Catholic are over-represented in the records of "incorruptible" bodies may be due to simple sampling errors. If we randomly exhumed bodies and examined them, we may find that somewhat preserved bodies are fairly common and uncorrelated with religion and thus not really 'miracles' in the conventional use of the word.

All these facts have led even the Catholic Church to no longer consider the incorruptibility of a body as credible evidence of saintliness. As Duffin writes in her study of the church's policies on sainthood, "Eventually, the finding of miraculous preservation was deemed to be indistinguishable from mummification induced by environmental circumstances of humidity and temperature. Because the finding [of incorruptibility] could apply to the remains of people who had not lived exemplary lives, it constituted insufficient evidence for saintliness." (p. 102)

But Duffin has some interesting things to say about miracles that I will examine in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Door-to-door evangelists

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

May 21, 2010

Religion and evidence-3: Evidence-based belief

One of the interesting things about letting people know that you are an atheist is that you learn quite a lot of new stuff from religious people who try to persuade you that there is more to this life than a material world that runs according to scientific laws that are either known or yet to be discovered. The arguments that you hear run from one extreme of highly sophisticated theology (consisting of mostly esoteric words seemingly designed to avoid saying anything concrete) to the middle ground of believing in a supernatural power because of miracles (events that seemingly defy scientific laws and explanations) to the other extreme of people claiming to hear voices in their heads, that god actually speaks to them.

Of these three broad groups, to me the most interesting and reasonable is the middle group that believes because of miracles. It is much harder to have a reasonable discussion with the people at the two extremes.

The highly sophisticated theologians start by pretty much defining god in such a way that he does not do anything at all (which is why I call them 'religious atheists') and thus is immune from examination. For them, this slacker god seems to be just an evidence-free idea and one wonders why they bother to invoke it at all, unless they are emotionally and psychologically unable to accept the non-existence of a divine entity, however ineffectual that entity might be. Sometimes, like John Lennox, they use this slacker god as merely a rhetorical device, to build a bunker in intellectual territory within which they can hunker down and defend their god from refutation by atheists. But once they have done so and their atheist opponents have moved on, they emerge to make extraordinary, evidence-free claims for their god that differ little from the miraculous claims of more naïve believers.

At the other extreme, what can one say to people who say they believe because they hear voices in their heads that they think is god speaking to them? One can suggest that they seek treatment because hearing voices that others cannot discern is a symptom of psychosis and needs to be investigated and treated before it takes a turn for the worse and leads to danger for themselves and others. But such advice, however well-intentioned, is not likely to be well-received by religious people and I do not recommend offering it unless you know the person really well.

One can, however, talk with the middle group of believers because such believers are at least appealing to evidence, to the existence of phenomena that seem to defy scientific principles, and one can have a reasonable discussion about whether the phenomena are actually miracles or not by looking at the evidence proffered and seeing if there are alternative and non-supernatural explanations.

(I include in this group only those who offer specific events, such as the claim that in one case transubstantiation of the wafer the wafer during the communion service actually occurred and the wafer actually became the body of Jesus with all the characteristics of physical flesh and the wine became his globules of blood. I exclude those who simply assert that the whole of creation is so miraculous that it must have been done by god. These latter kinds of claims are so broad that one cannot even begin to address them. The people who make them have essentially rejected science altogether and there is no point talking with them because there is no common ground.)

On my trip to Sri Lanka recently I had a long and thoughtful conversation about atheism with an old friend. He has known me from the days when I was a religious believer and we had both attended the same ecumenical church youth group. He was still a Catholic but had been reading my blog and was curious as to what had caused me to abandon my religious faith. During our conversation, he offered as evidence for religion the fact that their religious faith had been the basis for courageous action for people such as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.

I was not aware that Mandela was especially religious or had claimed that his religion had driven his actions. I read later that his mother converted to Christianity when he was seven, his father died when he was nine, and he was sent to missionary schools. Mandela is grateful for the values he learned from his religious education and is definitely not anti-religion, but it is not clear that he was driven by religion the way that King clearly was and Tutu is.

But that is incidental because, irrespective of the specific case of Mandela, no one will deny that there have been a huge number of people (both well-known and anonymous) who have been inspired to do great and noble things, to fight for justice and the poor and oppressed, because they felt that god called them to do so. My friend pointed to such people as evidence for god.

But this been discussed many times and is an old argument. There is no evidence that religious people are any more moral than non-religious people (see also the book Moral Minds (2006) by Marc Hauser) and for every person to whom we can point who has been inspired by their religion to do great and good things, we can point to others who have been inspired to do truly awful things.

What was new to me and more interesting was when my friend later sent me an email that had photos of the bodies of 16 Catholic saints that when exhumed had revealed that they had not undergone the usual degeneration that we think rapidly follows death. (See here for some images.) He said that this was evidence for god.

Now this is a concrete claim of evidence that one can address and I will examine this phenomenon in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and transubstantiation

What might happen if transubstantiation really changed the wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus?

May 20, 2010

Religion and evidence-2: Belief in belief

In their study of people's religious beliefs, Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified the seven strongest predictors in favor of belief in god:

  1. being raised in a religious manner
  2. parents’ religiosity
  3. lower levels of education
  4. being female
  5. a large family
  6. lack of conflict with parents
  7. being younger

Four of the factors that favor being religious applied in my own case. I was raised in a conventionally religious manner. My parents were religious but not overly so. We went regularly to church but not every Sunday. We never said grace before meals or had family prayers or were otherwise openly devout. Religion was seen as a private thing and we did say individual prayers. Also in favor was that I was a younger (middle) child and had no conflicts with my easy-going parents.

The three factors that should have pushed me away from religion were that I was male, we were a small family (three children), and I had a higher than average education. So in my case, it seems to have been basically a toss-up as to whether I would end up religious or not.

I think that for a lot of people, whether they believe or not is based on whether they feel the need to believe in a god-like entity and whether they want to believe for whatever reason, perhaps even just to blend in with family and society. If the answer to either question is yes, then they will look for reasons to believe and will make up something that serves their needs.

Harold Kushner, for example, is a rabbi and writer who is perhaps best known for his book Why bad things happen to good people. In this recent NPR interview he discusses the problem of suffering, the major difficulty that religious believers have to confront.

If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either god is all-powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise god's power and affirm his love. So the conclusion, the theological conclusion, I came to is that god could have been all-powerful at the beginning but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, god would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.

Note that after laying out what he see as the two possible options for god that explain the existence of suffering, Kushner declares that he gets to decide which kind of god he wants to believe in and thus can bring that god into existence. God seems to have no say in what kind of qualities he can have. Kushner emphasizes that he has arrived at what he calls a theological conclusion, as if that added weight to it, though what he has done seems to be purely self-indulgent wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that theology is such a useless discipline, capable of accommodating any and all wishes of those who want to believe? Kushner, for whatever reason, only wants to believe in a certain type of god and, presto, that is the god that exists. The interviewer does not ask the obvious question of the basis for that particular choice because when one is confronted with a 'person of faith', especially someone who seems as nice and humane as Kushner seems to be, it is impolite to ask exactly what that faith is based on.

Actually, the alternative that Kushner rejected, that god is all-powerful but not kind, makes a lot more sense logically. If you postulate a 'thoroughly kind and loving' god as Kushner wants, you then have to tie yourself up in all kinds of knots to explain the existence of suffering and evil and injustice. But if you postulate the existence of an omnipotent but evil god who enjoys toying with people's lives and making them suffer, everything makes a lot more sense and the otherwise intractable problem of why there is suffering goes away. An evil god is much more plausible than a loving god.

Kushner seems to be a fideist, a useful label that I came across while reading Michael Shermer's book How We Believe (2000). On page 9 Shermer describes what a fideist is by recounting an interview with someone who labels himself that way:

Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended his position to me in an interview: "As a fideist, I don't think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds." Credo consolans, says Gardner – I believe because it is consoling.

The phenomenon of fideism seems similar to what Daniel Dennett describes as 'belief in belief' (Breaking the Spell, 2006), that while people deep down don't really believe in the existence of god, they somehow see belief in god as a good thing that they want to be a part of. So they find some reasons for believing. It seems to me that Kushner, like many religious believers, is a fideist, someone who believes because he needs to, and thus searches for something that he feels comfortable believing in. Such people seize upon a "quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds."

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Enemies of Reason

Part 1:

(Part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

May 19, 2010

Religion and evidence-1: Why people believe

The main reason that atheists deny that god exists is because there is no credible evidence for him/her/it. In trying to meet this challenge, religious people tend to split two ways, those who accept the need for evidence and those who think evidence is unnecessary for belief.

Ordinary religious believers tend to say that yes, they do so have evidence. When asked to specify what this evidence consists of, they tend to talk of personal experience of the presence of god, miracles, and things they consider to be deep and insoluble mysteries (like the origin of life or the universe). The problem is that what they mean by evidence is not anything that meets the normal standard of evidence in science or a court of law. It is not hard to show that these types of evidence are really weak. After all, personal 'experiences' of god's presence are indistinguishable from hallucinations, delusions, or plain wishful thinking. Close scrutiny of miraculous events usually result in them turning out to have plausible material explanations. And the origins of life and the universe are no longer deep mysteries but merely scientific puzzles that are being systematically investigated.

Deep down, religious people must know that these kinds of evidence are not convincing and this is why there are desperate attempts to find evidence that is more concrete, such as conducting studies on the efficacy of prayer or the claim that the Shroud of Turin is genuine, or the search for the remnants of Noah's Ark (the latest claim of success occurring on April 27, 2010), and other attempts to find things that corroborate claims in their religious texts.

Hovering over all these attempts is an unspoken paradox. If god did want to reveal his existence to us, why does he choose such oblique and unconvincing ways to do so? Why not simply show himself openly? And if he does not want to reveal himself, why leave any clues around at all, like an inept criminal?

The more sophisticated theologians and philosophers realize that the kinds of evidence that are produced in favor of god can be easily shot down by skeptics and so now they don't even try. They tend to make the best of a bad situation by finding ways to pooh-pooh the whole notion of evidence, saying that we atheists are wrong to be tied to such mundane matters as material evidence or even raise the question of the actual existence of a god, and must open our eyes to appreciate the deep and sublime truths about the nature of god that evidence cannot touch.

This strikes me as total hogwash, the kind of pseudo-reasoning that only an intellectual can come up with. At least ordinary religious people realize the need for evidence, even if they cannot produce any credible evidence.

In Michael Shermer's book How We Believe (2000, p. 249) he quotes the results of a 1998 survey that he collaborated on with Frank Sulloway which explored the reasons that religious people give for belief. When people were asked why they themselves personally believed in god, the responses broke down as follows:

  1. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
  2. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us (20.6%)
  3. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
  4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
  5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something (8.2%)
  6. Raised to believe in God (7.2%)
  7. God answers prayers (6.4%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (4.0%)
  9. God has a plan for the world, history, destiny, and us (3.8%)
  10. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.0%)

Responses 1, 2, and 7 can be grouped together as evidence-based reasons (at least they are considered to be evidence in the eyes of believers) and make up 55.8% of the responses. Responses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 can be grouped as emotional and wishful thinking reasons and make up 27.3%, while the remaining two reasons 4 and 6 (about 17%) are based on habit or deference to authority figures.

But when the same people are asked why they think other people believe in god, the results are as follows:

  1. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
  2. Raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
  3. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
  4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
  5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
  6. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
  7. The Bible says so (5.0%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (3.5%)
  9. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.5%)
  10. God answers prayers (1.0%)

Emotions and wishful thinking (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) now rise to the top (53.4%), habit and authority (2, 7) comes second at 27.4%, while evidence (3, 6, 10) comes in last at 23.2%.

What is interesting about these results is that believers tend to think that while they themselves have rational reasons to believe in god, they think other people do so for emotional or irrational reasons. What that indicates to me is that even though religious believers value evidence, they either don't think that their evidence for god is convincing and/or they do not have much respect for the rationality of fellow-believers.

I recently received an email from someone who wanted to know the numbers in 'Einstein's constant'. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as 'Einstein's constant' other than his cosmological constant term in general relativity which is not a numerical constant in the way that (say) pi is, the wording was a little strange. She was not asking for the constant but the numbers in it. When I queried her what she wanted it became clear that she wanted to explore the work of Ivan Panin, who converted to Christianity and spent his life looking for hidden messages in the Bible using numerical patterns. While one might wonder what kind of god would put secret coded messages in the Bible, the point is that my correspondent (and Panin) were looking for evidence in support of their beliefs. The very fact that they try so hard and have to look in such obscure places is a measure of how weak they themselves think the evidence for god is.

This also explains why there is so much pushback to the arguments of the new atheists that there is no reason or evidence to believe in god. Although religious believers say that faith in spite of contradictory evidence is central to belief, they really like to think that that only applies to other people, and that they themselves are rational people who do use evidence. It also explains why so many religious people and accommodationists keep telling us that we should not cast doubt on beliefs that other people find consoling.

I must say that I found the result that people tend to value reason and evidence as important bases for beliefs to be a good sign, a measure of success for the widespread adoption of Enlightenment values, even if the evidence they produce is so unconvincing.

POST SCRIPT: God's plan

May 18, 2010

What does the Bible say about suicide?

Given that many religious people think that the life they will have after death will be so much better than the life they have now, this raises the problem of why they don't simply commit suicide or why they seek medical treatment for illnesses instead of seeing life-threatening diseases as signs that god want them to join him in heaven. To explain this paradox, religious people have sought to find moral prohibitions against death wishes and suicide.

Interestingly enough, the Bible does not directly condemn suicide. This poses a bit of a theological problem because it does seem a little odd that a god who seems to care about the minutest and trivial details, going so far as to warn people not to wear garments made up of both wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11) or to plant two different kinds of seeds in the same field (Deuteronomy 22:9) and even demand that a person be stoned to death for collecting wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), couldn't be bothered to come right out and say that offing oneself was not kosher. So assuming that what is not prohibited is permitted, it would seem that suicide is compatible with at least Judaism and Christianity.

But this idea that suicide may be permissible or even desirable goes against the grain of sophisticated religious believers so, as is usually the case, theologians concoct reasons as to why although god is silent on what would seem to be an important question, we really should not commit suicide.

Some Christians claim to find indirect biblical support for not taking one's own life. Augustine argued that the sixth commandment against murder covers killing oneself. But that won't wash as it is clear that all the other prohibitions in the ten commandments (lying, adultery, stealing, coveting) only apply to acts done to other people and there is no reason to think that the sixth commandment is any different. Other apologists find other reasons:

Some people believe that all who commit suicide go immediately to Hell. However, the Bible never says if this is the case. The Bible is silent on this issue. God probably did not address it in black in white for a good reason. If we knew that we would still go to Heaven if we killed ourselves, there would probably be a lot more suicides taking place than there already are. However, if we knew that all who killed themselves were automatically banished to Hell, no matter what their situation, it may be too much for the grief-stricken family and friends to bear. (bold emphasis in original, italics are mine)

I am always amused by how religious people think they can psychoanalyze god and determine his desires so precisely. And the results of their analysis always turn out to be exactly in agreement with what they want it to be. To his credit, the author of the above passage is refreshingly frank about the obvious fact that religious people should have a greater desire to commit suicide than the non-religious.

Islam does not seem to be so wishy-washy. Going by recent events, killing oneself in the service of god seems to be considered noble in that religion. The suicide bombers who murder innocent people and generally commit mayhem in the service of their god are convinced that they will reap rich rewards in heaven after they die and they look forward to it, as do those fanatics in all religions who kill others because they think they are doing god's will. They commit their abominable acts knowing that they will either die in the process or likely be executed for their crimes, and they don't care because they are deluded that their god will reward them.

Oddly enough Islam, the religion that has become identified with suicide bombers, has clearer prohibitions against suicide than the other two Abrahamic religions. But of course theology is so malleable that some Islamic scholars have found a martyrdom loophole to the prohibition against suicide and this is used to mislead people into thinking they are doing something noble when they are being murderous.

It is likely that depression and despair, the usual causes of suicide, strike people indiscriminately and takes no account of whether people are religious or not. But religion can persuade people to take their own lives in the service of what they perceive as a greater good or a better life. It is after all religious cults that can persuade their followers to indulge in mass suicides, such as led to the Heaven's Gate and Jonestown tragedies. I cannot imagine what one could say to persuade a group of atheists to take their own lives. Actually a strong case can be made that atheists place a greater value on life than religious people because they know that this is the only life they have.

There is always something to look forward to, from the trivial to the major. In fact, the reasons to live are so numerous as to beyond the ability to list them.

POST SCRIPT: Exercising free speech rights

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May 17, 2010

On suicide

One of the oddest arguments made to atheists is that if they do not believe that the universe has a meaning, then they need to explain why they don't immediately commit suicide. Usually I can understand the arguments of religious people even if I don't agree with them but this one truly baffles me. It strikes me as a weird idea that simply because we and the universe are not part of a grand cosmic plan, our lives are not worth living. This argument is often presented along with Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus because Camus poses this issue: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

Really? They fundamental question of philosophy is whether one should commit suicide? Come on, Albert, surely you jest. Frankly, I think very few people, except perhaps a few philosophers and the clinically depressed, get up each morning wondering whether life is worth living and entertain thoughts about ending it all. Most people, even under the bleakest of conditions, seem to want to live, even if they cannot articulate why, and whether or not they are religious. The desire to live is just taken for granted. In fact, there are good evolutionary reasons why we seem to have an innate will to live that has nothing to do with philosophy or the existence of meaning. Organisms that have a will to live and an aversion to death or suicide have a selection advantage over those that easily give up, and the latter trait would have been selected against and disappeared a long time ago in our evolutionary history.

I think this suicide argument represents a good example of projection, imputing to others what you yourself think or fear. An externally imposed meaning given by god seems to be so important to some religious people (and philosophers) that they think life would be not worth living without one. Since atheists do not believe that god exists to give the universe meaning, religious people think that we must be suffering from existential despair. It is perhaps from this premise that atheists are sometimes asked why they don't commit suicide. That is the best reason I can come up with for this baffling argument.

But that argument is false. Atheists accept that this is the one and only life we have. We know that we are here because of both chance and the many, many contingent events that occurred in history. If any one of the vast numbers of my ancestors had not chanced to meet and mate with another particular ancestor, I would not be here. There is nothing inevitable about any of our existences. However difficult our personal situation may be (and for far too many people today life is a grim struggle for survival), we are simply fortunate to be alive at all. Why would atheists, who of all people understand particularly well how contingent our lives are, want to prematurely end it?

In fact, it is religious people who should be more tempted by suicide since they are the ones who disparage this Earthly life in comparison to the wonderful heavenly life they imagine having after they die. Since life after death is highly valued and praised in many religions, premature death should be considered a good thing by believers. They are the ones who should welcome death instead of avoiding it. This is why martyrdom is used as a motivating force to induce people to commit deadly attacks against others without regard to their own well-being. The belief that one will be richly rewarded in heaven for your acts can overcome one's natural instinct for self-preservation.

Of course, martyrdom is not quite the same as suicide. The former implies that one dies in pursuit of some goal that is deemed to be noble, though in the eyes of the world it may just be a murderous act. Suicide does not require such a purpose. But for the purposes of this discussion as to whether nonbelievers should be more suicidal, the distinction does not matter.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it looks like very few religious people seem to genuinely believe that stuff about life in heaven being so much better than life here and now, and seem to value this life as much as atheists do, thus greatly limiting the pool of would-be suicide assassins.

Next: What does the Bible say about suicide?

POST SCRIPT: Technology to the rescue

So you and your band mates are ready to belt out Sweet Georgia Brown but don't have a percussionist. What to do? Not a problem that an old tractor and Swedish ingenuity cannot solve.

If you'd like to hear more tractor music, here's your chance.

May 14, 2010

The question of meaning

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is trickier to deal with than the question of the existence of god since meaning is not anything tangible. Since it is usually associated with a god's plan, the existence of god is a more basic question and eliminating god usually eliminates an externally imposed meaning. But some try to establish the existence of god backwards by arguing that we can infer meaning from the way that the universe is structured and therefore there must be an entity that created this meaning. The fine-tuning and anthropic principle arguments are attempts at this backwards attempt to argue for god's existence.

What is becoming increasingly clear from all the research in cosmology and biology is that the universe has all the indications that it has no underlying purpose or design or meaning but is evolving according to natural laws in which chance and contingency also plays a role, just as it does for the evolution of life. The universe just is and we just are. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it becomes pointless", later clarifying his words by saying, "I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point" (quoted in Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger, p. 333). Richard Dawkins's conclusion is that "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." (Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85) Some religious people have seized upon Dawkins's words (which were purely an inference based on empirical observations on the nature of the universe) to suggest that he is some kind of depressed nihilist, when all the evidence suggests that Dawkins really enjoys life. What they are doing is projecting on to him their own fears about what the lack of an externally imposed meaning would mean to them.

All the evidence points to the conclusion that the universe and life do not exhibit any sign that everything is part of any grand plan. Rather than bemoan this fact, we have to come to terms with it and not indulge in pointless wishful thinking, trying to will into existence that which is not. Otherwise we will be like Peter Pan, the title character in J. M. Barrie's classic children's story, urging children to clap to show they believe in fairies in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Life is not a fairy tale. Wishing and hoping and praying cannot bring into existence what is not there.

The appeal of a cosmic plan as a way to give one's life meaning eludes me. What would such a plan imply, exactly? Does it mean that my life has been mapped out already, that one is merely a puppet manipulated by hidden strings, just going through the motions of life? Religious people counter this by arguing that god has given us free will but it is hard to reconcile that with a pre-existing plan. If I have genuine free will, why can't I mess up god's plan by doing something that was not part of the plan?

The question of whether each one of us thinks that our lives have meaning is a distinct one from whether the universe provides us with that meaning. Atheists think that the universe by itself does not provide us with meaning but it does not follow that they think that life is not worth living or that their own lives are pointless. As James Watson, co-discover with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, said in response to the question of what he thought we are put in this world for, "Well I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm anticipating having a good lunch." (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 100.)

Watson's response that the anticipation of lunch gives his life purpose might be flip but it is true. There are plenty of things that we look forward to and are worth living for. Whatever our lot in life, we get pleasure from many things: the company of our family and friends, food, books, nature, and all the other things that we look forward to experiencing. The list of things which one can look forward to is endless. I for one eagerly anticipate learning new things and science is always opening up new frontiers of knowledge. There are new telescopes being built and satellites being put into orbit and new experiments being done. I am hoping that I will live long enough to learn at least some of what they discover. I also look forward to positive political changes such as the reduction of was and global poverty and disease and greater access to health care and education.

Atheists know that we have to create our own plan, for ourselves and, in conjunction with others, for the world. People, working together, can create a better world for all or choose to destroy it. Our fate is in our hands. If the goal of trying to create a better world does not inspire you and give your life meaning, then I doubt that religion will do any better. In fact, as I will argue in the next post, the absence of some external cosmically imposed meaning, rather than being depressing, is extraordinarily life affirming and exhilarating.

POST SCRIPT: How to attract more young people to church

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I predict that it is only a matter of time before churches introduce scantily-clad cheerleaders to further liven things up.

May 13, 2010

The vanishing Deep Mysteries

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the face of science advancing its frontiers of knowledge, religious believers have had difficulty clinging on to the idea that there are still Deep Mysteries for which the only solution is god. The two most recent favorites are the origin of our universe and the very beginning of life. In the series of posts on the Big Bang, we have seen that when it comes to the origins of our universe, while we have by no means answered all the questions fully, it is clear that there is nothing about it that causes scientists to throw up their hands in bafflement and proclaim that some mysterious supernatural processes are at work. There already exist perfectly natural alternatives to divine creation.

The theory of evolution by natural selection does for life what the Big Bang theory does for the universe. It explains how, once the first simple self-replicating molecule came into being, it could grow in complexity until it produced the diversity of life we see all around us. It provides a natural law-like explanation for how everything came about.

Some people cling to the hope that the emergence of the very first life form is a Deep Mystery. But at this very moment, scientists are also working on how that first self-replicating molecule was created. This question is also no longer a mystery. It has become a puzzle in chemistry for which some of the solution pieces have already been found. In his 2005 book Genesis: The scientific quest for life's origins, Robert M. Hazen discusses the progress that has been made in this area.

So in both cases, starting with simplicity, we are well on the way to explaining how complexity in life and the universe has come about.

What becomes patently clear when we look at how the universe evolved according to the Big Bang and how life on Earth evolved according to evolution is that it all happened due to a mixture of chance and law-like behavior. In other words, there is no evidence that there was some grand underlying plan. We humans are now here but there is no reason to think that we were destined to appear in our present form.

Other alleged Deep Mysteries, such as the mind, consciousness, and morality have also long since ceased to be mysteries and instead have become puzzles for the various scientific fields on which they impinge, such as cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Scientists are working on and making progress in all these areas. (For further reading on these topics, see Moral Minds by Marc Hauser and Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.) Although there is still a long way to go to answer the more difficult questions in those areas, just as in the case of the origins of the universe and life there seems to be no need to invoke any explanation that involves non-physical matter or supernatural agencies to understand these phenomena.

I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that science has answered all the important questions. Far from it. What I am saying is that scientific progress has shifted all these questions from their former status of Deep Mysteries to their new status of scientific puzzles for which we have some leads on how to investigate them. If scientific history is any guide, once a mystery has become a puzzle, it is only a matter of time before it is solved.

The increasing comprehensibility of the universe and the steady elimination of Deep Mysteries make some people acutely uncomfortable. This sense of unease, though not limited only to religious people, seems to fill religious people with such concern that they simply dismiss the possibility of total comprehensibility out of hand because it implies that this world is all there is, that there is no externally provided meaning to their lives. They have the feeling that the universe must have a purpose and plan developed by god.

In support of this position, they adopt a circular logic: They think that without a plan to give their lives meaning, there is no point to living. Since they want to live, there must be a plan and hence god must exist. And since god exists, there must be a plan because if god created the universe, why would he go to all the trouble of doing that without a plan?

Before I address the reasons why life is still worth living even in the absence of a god, I must address this curious argument and where it breaks down.

The universe does not owe us anything at all, let alone meaning. It may or may not have a meaning but the fact that some people need some external meaning for their lives does not imply that one exists, any more than the fact that some people really, really want to believe in god because of some deep emotional need means that god must exist. Whether god exists is an empirical question that one has to infer from evidence based on observation and experiment. The answer is not a given and cannot be assumed a priori, just as we cannot assume that the universe is flat simply because we may want it to be. We need data to answer empirical questions. And there is no data to support the idea that god exists.

Next: The question of meaning.

POST SCRIPT: The New War Between Science and Religion

My article with the above title has just appeared in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education and should appear in the May 16, 2010 print edition.

May 12, 2010

Religion as drama

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I criticized an essay by theologian David B. Hart who took the new/unapologetic atheists to task for not being as sophisticated as the grand old philosophers like Nietzsche, saying that we were attacking low-level straw gods and not engaging at the highest level of philosophical sophistication. But when the dust settles, what does Hart actually believe? As is usually the case with sophisticated theologians, this turns out to be extraordinarily hard to pin down, but what we can say is that what they believe in is nothing that the average religious believer would recognize as god.

Hart starts by saying what he does not believe.

We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

Apart from the caveat 'subject to the rules of evolution', almost all religious believers would suggest the contrary. Basically he is saying that the god that most people believe in is not subject to the rules of evolution. Given that in the absence of any evidence you can assign any properties you like to god, we can concede him that point. But does a "complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos" that is not subject to the laws of evolution exist? He does not say because these sophisticated theologians rarely flatly state what kind of god they think exists because they know that existence claims require evidence and they cannot provide any. As is usually the case when theologians debate atheists, he is good at specifying what god is not but vague about what god actually is. This is a common ploy by sophisticated apologists since it enables them to avoid being pinned down to anything concrete and gives them an escape route so that when they get cornered, they can say that the god that has been refuted is not the god they personally believe in. (Jesus and Mo comment on the slippery use of the 'metaphor' argument, something I've also written about before.)

Hart goes on to criticize philosopher A. C. Grayling's essay published in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. (My italics)

His casual statement that 'of course' we do not have to believe any of the Christian story and its moral claims and metaphysical systems requires clarification. Is he saying that he himself does not believe it? Or that people can choose to reject it? If the former, then he has made what seems to me to be an extraordinary concession for someone who claims to be a Christian theologian. If the latter, then it is so obvious as to be not worth stating.

So what does he think is the point of believing in Jesus if the whole thing can be dismissed as fiction? He immediately goes on:

But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.

It is an odd statement. He seems to be saying that only by recognizing the immense and tragic significance of Jesus's death do we earn the right to be taken seriously as atheists. This is utter nonsense. Just because Christians invest Jesus's death, if he ever lived at all, with enormous import does not mean the rest of us have to. It is because we don't that we are atheists.

In Hart's apologetics we see once again the attempt to avoid making an existence claim for any kind of god. Instead we have an appeal to aesthetics, that Christianity provides a great sense of tragic drama that we atheists are too crass to see and because we cannot see it, our arguments against god are worthless. John Haught also made the claim that what Christianity provides is a great drama. What theologians like Hart and Haught seem to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides a grand narrative that we can glory in. I have called such people 'religious atheists', people who seem to deny the existence of any popularly recognizable god but still want to be considered believers.

Sorry, but that won't work. Most people want more from their god than that the story provide great drama. The people who make the trek to Oberammergau each decade to see a reenactment of the death of Jesus are not going there because of the great acting or a terrific script. They go there to be reminded of the way they think their actual, physical god died to save them from their sins. The whole salvation-by-vicarious-sacrifice may not make much sense but there is no doubt that the believers take this story seriously and as literally true. People are not looking to Christianity (or any other religion) to provide them with great drama in their lives. One can do much better by going to the movie theater or playhouse or reading books, without all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Believers want a god who answers their prayers in tangible ways.

The average Christian who occupies the pew of a church every Sunday is likely to be even more dismissive of the Hart-Haught idea of god-as-drama than any atheist. They will see it for what it is: a rejection of the basic tenets of their faith in the existence of a real god who acts in the world.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus doesn't think much of Mr. Deity's drama

May 11, 2010

When theology infiltrates philosophy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It is clear that the sustained attacks on religion by the new/unapologetic atheists are having an effect, with apologists scrambling to find ways to respond. One tack they take is to not engage directly with the arguments but simply to disparage them by saying that the arguments of the new/unapologetic atheists are not new, that they were made a long time ago. This is correct. One can find strong criticisms of religious beliefs going back thousands of years and what we atheists say nowadays is not fundamentally different, because there have been no new arguments in favor of god either. What is new about the new atheists is the emphasis.

The earlier atheists tended to focus on combating the philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of god enunciated by people Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, and the like. The modern atheist movement draws upon the success of science and relentlessly stresses the necessity of evidence for any belief. When religious apologists try to drag the discussion back to vague philosophical issues by talking about ontology, prime movers, ground of all being and the like, our response tends to be "Yeah, yeah, that's great, have fun with that. But where's the evidence in support of your position? What evidence do you have that your god exists at all?"

It is this turn of events that has thrown the apologists for a loop and they are trying to shift the focus away from evidence (because they don't have any) and back to the turf of philosophy and theology by suggesting that this relentless focus on evidence is a sign of low intellect and crass materialism, that we are simply not engaging with the case for god at the appropriate level of high philosophy.

Theologian David B. Hart is a member of this tribe. He thinks that the new atheism movement is just a passing fad and in an oh-so-weary tone dripping with disdain, argues that we new atheists are ignorant and shallow and simply not up to snuff when compared to the grand old atheists who were willing to engage with philosophy. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize this argumentation as an example of what I have called the Kierkegaard gambit. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

In a long and dense essay critiquing the works of the current crop of new/unapologetic atheists, Hart lays out his case.

To be fair, the shallowness is not evenly distributed. Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply,

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

He then explains what kinds of things that we new/unapologetic should be talking about. As often happens when we enter the world of deep theology, any idea that might exist is buried it in a thicket of dense obscurantist prose. Here's an example:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

My reaction to this was: Huh? "[A]bstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such"? What does that mean? This kind of language is what results when theology invades philosophy.

I think philosophy is a very valuable discipline, enabling people to develop the tools to think clearly, probe deeply to the core of ideas, and sharpen our use of language. Theology, however, is another story. It is largely the futile attempt to justify belief in the existence of god in the absence of any evidence. Theologians use the language of philosophy, not to sharpen and clarify and enlighten, but to create a fog of words to hide the fact that they have no evidence for god. Theology is, to co-opt George Orwell's phrase, an attempt to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. When you have no evidence, words become your shield.

Next: But what does Hart actually believe?

POST SCRIPT: Science versus religion

When you see the tremendous advances that science has brought us compared to religion, you can understand why theologians keep trying to drag us back to rehash the metaphysical arguments of the past. It is because theology has nothing new to offer.

May 10, 2010

In praise of blasphemy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I have been highlighting the absurd overreactions of religious people to what they perceive as lack of proper deference to their sensibilities. To them I say that they should learn to deal with it the way all the rest of us have to deal with others who exercise their rights of free speech to say things that we strongly disagree with. If religious people are offended by any TV show or song or book or film, they should simply not watch or listen or read. They, and other religious groups, have absolutely no right to try and prevent others from saying what they want to about religion. There should be no restrictions on speech in the public sphere, other than statements that create a clear and present danger.

Author Philip Pullman had the perfect response to people who get offended. He has just published a novel that gives an alternative account of how the Jesus legend arose. In his version of the story, Mary actually gave birth to twins: Jesus, who was a good man who initially thought he was the son of god but towards the end of his life realized that he was not and that there was probably no god either; and Christ, a weak and shallow person who, along with a mysterious stranger, orchestrated the events that led to the legend of Jesus that Christians now believe. The title of the book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (You can read a review of the book here.)

At a reading and book signing, someone complained about how the title was offensive to Christians, saying "Now Mr. Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary Christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say."

Pullman's reply is excellent. Watch:

For those who cannot watch or would like to know the exact words used by Pullman, I have transcribed it:

"Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don't have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that's all I have to say on that subject."

The private sphere can have expectations of certain norms of speech and behavior because in such situations it is often difficult for people to leave or avoid hearing or seeing things without creating awkwardness and drawing attention to oneself. It would be rude, for example, to invite someone into our homes and make fun of their beliefs. And most of the time people conform to such unspoken norms and things move along smoothly. But at the same time, those same norms should not be used to shut down discussions of legitimate questions just because people dislike them. The problem arises when people either want to restrict speech in the public sphere or do not make the distinction between the public and private sphere and apply the norms of behavior in one sphere to the other.

The absurd sensitivities of religious people need to be combated because undue respect for their beliefs leads to them doing the most appalling things in the name of protecting the honor of their religion and god. The problem is that once you concede that religious beliefs have any kind of preferred status, you immediately open the door to people thinking that they can decide what other people can say or do concerning their beliefs. For example, in Poland simply offending someone's religious sensibilities can get you fined and even imprisoned. A pop star who merely said that she found it far easier to believe in dinosaurs than the Bible, adding "it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes" has so offended the Catholic Church that she is now facing two years in prison.

This is why widespread blasphemy is good and even necessary. It serves to remind religious people that religion has take its lumps just like any other beliefs. The more we tiptoe around religious beliefs, the more we encourage a sense of entitlement among religious people.

POST SCRIPT: Pope Song

Tim Minchin, whose terrific beat poem Storm (scroll down) making fun of new-age anti-science blather went viral, has a new song aimed at the pope and the Catholic Church.

Be warned that he uses strong language to make a point about the absurdity of people who seem to get more offended by mere words than by the terrible acts committed by priests and the cover-up of those acts by the church hierarchy. The tune is so catchy that you may find yourself singing it.

If people are offended by the song and video and want to do something about it, I suggest that they go back and read Phillip Pullman's words above as to their options.

May 07, 2010

Suffer little children

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have no problem with religious people wearing funny clothes and taking part in funny rituals and practicing all kinds of funny customs in the private sphere. It's a free world (at least parts of it) and people have a right to practice their religion in any way that they see fit, and what consenting adults do is none of my business, though I fully reserve the right to be amused by such things and to point out the absurdities. Just as they have the right to practice their religion, others have the right to be make fun of them for doing so. But what is absolutely unconscionable is when these people impose their beliefs (religious or otherwise) on children.

Take for example, the practice of circumcision in Judaism and Islam. This strikes me as weird and indefensible. There has been an understandable outcry against the practice of female circumcision (dropping the euphemism and calling it by the more accurate term 'female genital mutilation') but it surprises me that there has been nothing similar against male circumcision. Why isn't it called male genital mutilation? If adults want to circumcise themselves they should be allowed do so, just as we allow body piercing and tattoos and the like. But subjecting an infant to such things is simply wrong and it is only because it is a practice that is protected by long standing religious tradition that we do not say anything. Imagine if there had been no circumcision at all and some group came along today and said that they wanted to cut off the foreskin of their newborn male infants. Child protection agencies would be on them in a flash and their children would likely be taken away to protect them from potential abuse. But because it is done under the name of religions that have been around for a long time, it is given a pass.

It is like tattoos. We do not prohibit the practice of adults getting tattoos. But what if a new religion was started that required tattoos as a mark of faith and new born babies were given tattoos as a symbolic gesture of their parents' commitment to having the child grow up in that religion? Would we, or should we, allow the practice? Shouldn't the government step in and protect the rights of the most defenseless members of its community?

To me the issue is one of protecting the bodily integrity of a child that cannot give informed consent to mutilation. In Sri Lankan and other societies, female infants have their ears pierced and earrings inserted soon after birth and this practice is considered quite harmless and acceptable. But I refused to let this be done to my own daughters when they were infants (to the surprise of relatives who wondered why I was opposing a long-standing and unquestioned tradition) because I felt that since this was their body, this was a decision that they should make for themselves when they reached an age when they could make an informed choice. (When they were older, one of my daughters chose to have her ears pierced and the other declined.)

It is bad enough that religious people indoctrinate children's minds with foolish ideas when they are at an impressionable age so that they find it hard to let go when they become adults. But some people go to such an extreme that they are willing to put the lives and health of children in danger. The number of such tragic cases is overwhelming and reading about them breaks your heart.

For example, we have the case of a child who died after receiving only homeopathic treatment. Another Wisconsin girl died because her father prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor for a form of diabetes that could have been easily treated. Another boy died of a ruptured appendix while his parents prayed. In another case, children starved because their mother, who did not try to get a job or money in any way, said that they had to wait for god to provide. (This idea that god will take care of things resulted in the death of a man who injured his knee but could not afford to get it treated because he had no health insurance. So he simply sat in his recliner and prayed for healing for eight months.)

A member of a Christian religious cult starved her child to death on the instructions of her cult leader who claimed the child was a demon because he did not say 'amen' after meals. Prosecutors struck a deal with the mother in which she pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence but it will be reviewed if the child is resurrected from the dead. One hopes the prosecutors were only humoring the obviously deranged mother in order to get a guilty plea and do not really believe that there is any chance that the child will come back from the dead. The cult leader and two other members were found guilty of second-degree murder and child abuse and can face up to 60 years in jail at their sentencing in May.

A Haredi woman in Israel was arrested because she was starving her child and the members of her religious community rose up in protest and got her released.

There were apparently moves to cover Christian Science prayer treatments in the health care bill but fortunately it seems to have been stripped from the final bill that was signed into law.

The trouble with religion is that it encourages people to think that (1) their god is all-powerful and (2) that he will take care of those who faithfully worship him. Should we be surprised that some people (especially the more devout believers) take this message seriously and think that god will solve all their problems? One should not judge such people too harshly, though their acts are undoubtedly criminally stupid and they should be prosecuted in order to deter others from following their example. They are simply ignorant and gullible.

The people who are really culpable are the religious leaders and educated and sophisticated religious people who know better. They should be denouncing the idea that god will heal people. They know that god is not going to heal their own children and know enough to take advantage of modern science and medicine for themselves and their families when the need arises. But while not believing it themselves, they cynically endorse and propagate this message of a loving god who will look after the physical needs of his followers.

It is at the feet of these 'moderate' religionists that the ultimate blame for the suffering and deaths of these children should be placed.

POST SCRIPT: Children's guide to religion

May 06, 2010

The dangerous mix of politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I am not one who reveres the 'founding fathers' of America, the architects of its independence. They were all-too-human and had their faults, such as their tolerance of slavery, their denial of equal rights to women, and their desire to preserve the privileges and property rights of the well-to-do landowning classes. But even with those caveats, one has to gratefully acknowledge that the constitution they created, despite its serious flaws, was way ahead of its time in its incorporation of ideas that address the question of how to create a functioning republican democracy and balance the needs of free people with an orderly government. And the Bill of Rights surely must rank as the jewel in that crown.

What is remarkable is their recognition of the importance of keeping government and religion separate. This has nothing to do with what they themselves believed about god and the many discussions and debates about whether they were personally Christians or deists or atheists seem to me to be missing the point because that fact does not prove anything. There was undoubtedly a wide diversity of religious views among them, but despite that they seemed to have little difficulty in deciding that they wanted to create an explicitly godless constitution. (See The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (1996) for a history of the debates on what to do about religion in the constitution.) The only mention of religion in the original document is a negative one (Article VI: [N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.) and the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights cemented this idea of keeping god out of government actions by including the Establishment Clause that says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The wisdom of this sentiment can be seen in the mess that inevitably ensues when governments are either explicitly based on religion or pander to them. The worst examples of these are the Islamic countries where the application of Islamic laws result in the denial of many of the personal freedoms that we take for granted. The treatment of women in Islam is particularly appalling and Islamists have also interpreted the Koran to say that any apostate must be put to death. Those two items alone should be enough to demonstrate why Islam should never be given any legal or political authority in any country, and countries that enforce such practices should be vigorously condemned.

Other countries which are ostensibly secular but where the majority religious groups have become militant in demanding that their sensibilities take precedence over secular policies have resulted in religious tensions and bad policies. The strong influence of Christianity in the US, Hinduism in India, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka are examples of where pandering to religion has been bad for the countries concerned.

Israel is another country in which the influence of religion has been pernicious and seems to be getting even worse. Just as the tea-partiers are taking over the Republican party and driving American politics into a form of quasi-theocracy, the Israeli Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) are pushing Israel to becoming even more of a theocracy than it currently is. In an article titled A hostile takeover of Zionism: Israel is teetering toward theocracy, Patrick Martin in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Saturday, September 26, 2009, describes the rise of the Haredim.

They seek strict adherence to Biblical rules governing the Sabbath, to Halachic rules concerning food, to age-old traditions of separating men from women, and to the strict observance of Orthodoxy in all aspects of people's lives, from birth, through education, marriage and death to burial.

They also want their rules to be followed in deciding just who is a Jew and who therefore can enjoy the privileges of a Jewish state.

They also do not shrink from violence.

Prof. Ben Yehuda's research found that violence is the number-one criminal infraction among Haredim. He also found that most of that violence is for political purposes.

This past summer witnessed many vivid examples. Thousands of Haredim rioted on several successive Saturdays to protest the opening on the Sabbath of a privately owned parking garage near the Old City of Jerusalem; thousands more rioted when social-services personnel arrested a Haredi woman in Jerusalem who was starving her child.

This week, a young woman was beaten for not being dressed modestly enough in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemish. The town, where many Sephardi refugees settled in the 1950s, recently has had an influx of Haredim. Earlier this month, a man and woman were beaten by Haredi youth when the two sat next to each other on a bus bound for the town.

Naturally this is causing tension with the more modernistic segments of Israeli society. For example, some women, even among the Haredi, are refusing the Haredim's demand that they sit at the back of the bus.

People have the right to tie themselves up into all the knots they want to in order to please their god. Most of the time such extreme forms of religious devotion serve merely to make religious people look silly to outsiders. The problem is that these people think that everyone else should also follow their religious rules, and use laws and threats and violence to get others to comply. For example, in yesterday's post about orthodox Jews spitting on a reporter for using a tape recorder on the Sabbath, the reporter herself was not Jewish, but these religious people felt that everyone should follow the absurd rules that they think their god has encoded in their religious texts.

This is why if we cannot persuade people to abandon religion, we should at least make sure that religion does not have any influence in the policies that governments adopt. The Establishment Clause in the US is a good model for all countries to follow.

POST SCRIPT: Islam on women and children and apostasy

Richard Dawkins nails an Islamic cleric on the apostasy question. Note the cleric's attitude that parents can do what they like with their children.

However Muslim apologists might try to evade the issue, the indisputable fact is that Islam's attitude towards women and children and apostasy is simply awful.

May 05, 2010

Tying yourself in knots to please god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was at a conference recently and during one session a sign-up sheet was passed around. When it came to my row, the woman seated next to me gave me her business card and asked me to fill in her name and information on the sheet. I noted her long skirt and the fact that it was a Saturday and realized that she must be an observant Jew and that it was prohibited for her to 'work' on such a day and writing was presumably deemed to be work, something she confirmed to me later when we chatted at the end of the proceedings. I did as she requested, all the while silently marveling that a highly educated person would voluntarily conform to such absurd rules by an obviously petty god who has way too much time on his hands if he worries about things like this.

All religions expect their devoted followers to do all manner of silly things in order to show their devotion to a god who seems to care about the most petty things. But amongst the more populous religions, Judaism surely takes the lead in the knots that it can persuade its most loyal believers to tie themselves into. Judaism has more than its fair share of religious rituals that can make an outsider wonder how any rational person can think that their god wants them to submit themselves to such contortions just to please him. The anachronistic restrictions on clothes, the long hair and beards, the robes and head coverings, the incredibly complicated food rules, the prayer rituals with all that bobbing and weaving, seem to me to be bizarre. The strangeness of the rituals can cause problems, as in the case of a scare that resulted in a plane having to make an emergency landing because of fears generated when someone started practicing a complicated Jewish prayer ritual with boxes tied to his head and arm that seemed to the other passengers and crew as being inexplicable and, in these days of fear of terror, alarming.

It makes me wonder who thought up all these strange things and why. Perhaps making people look very different and do ridiculous things enhances group cohesion and enables the group members to distinguish and separate themselves from others, an important feature when you are a new and small religion trying to create a separate identity. After some time has passed and the religion is established, the need to be so overtly distinct disappears but the rules persist, leading to all manner of absurdities as the passage of time makes old rules seem increasingly nonsensical.

Attempts to reconcile behaviors prescribed in ancient religious texts with life in modern societies eventually lead to absurdities like kosher telephones (scroll down) and 'certified Sabbath mode' ovens.

There was also a recent controversy over 'Shabbat elevators' that operate in high-rise buildings occupied by observant Jews. Apparently, pushing an elevator button, like writing, is proscribed on the Sabbath. God forbid that on a hot Saturday afternoon people should decide to not take the stairs to their tenth floor apartment. God would be so mad at such an act of disrespect.

But even many religious people do not find the idea of climbing the steps of their high-rise appealing. So one set of rabbis approved of a solution where an elevator would keep running on a permanent loop, going express all the way to the top and then stopping at each floor on the way down. Thus observant people would not have to actually do anything other than walk in and out of the elevator when the doors opened at the appropriate floor. This might require a long round trip if, for example, if you wanted to go from the first floor to the third floor, but that was the price one paid for not offending your god, who seems to really care about such trivialities and keeps a close watch on people to make sure they don't break the rules.

But, alas, another set of killjoy rabbis said that the first set of rabbis was wrong and that to use these elevators is a "severely prohibited" desecration of the Sabbath. No doubt a resolution will eventually be reached on the proper use of elevators after careful poring over the wording in documents that were written long before the discovery of electricity.

One man who has devoted his life to studying questions of halacha, or Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. His organization provides consulting services and guidance on the installation of elevators and other systems in hotels, hospitals and other buildings.

Contrary to what his critics say, Halperin insists he is not in the business of finding ways for Jews to duck their Sabbath obligations. But he firmly believes that the Torah's rules, as well as its lessons, can be applied in any age provided that Talmudic scholars take the trouble to delve deeply into the technological workings of each and every machine or gadget in question. (my italics)

For those interested in what those solutions are — and they are numbingly complex — the institute has published an entire book on the subject, replete with engineering explanations and diagrams.

I am certain that a solution to the elevator problem will be found and will be one that allows people to take advantage of this modern convenience, since religions seem to always find ways to accommodate the material needs of their more affluent members. (The cynic in me notes the curious coincidence that Halperin just happens to run a consulting business to advise clients on such highly esoteric doctrinal issues.)

But can you believe that people actually spend vast amounts of time and intellectual effort on things like this? And that their verdicts and the resulting rules are taken seriously and followed by others? Religion has to be one of the biggest time wasters that one can imagine.

But it is not always merely time-wasting that is involved. Sometimes things can turn downright ugly and hateful as when a group of orthodox Jews surrounded a reporter and repeatedly spat on her simply because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath. As she reports, "I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting - on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions - hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me - I didn't see him - a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me."

The men who committed such a disgusting act probably did so on the basis of careful study of their religious texts. No doubt they think of themselves as virtuous and godly men, and went home smugly satisfied that they had defended the honor of their god, and that their even more godly rabbis patted them approvingly on their godly little heads.

This is what religion can make people do.

POST SCRIPT: The Internet: Where religions come to die

Until this video pointed it out, I had not fully appreciated the fact that even though atheists are a local minority, their commonality across the world makes them numerically larger than the members of all except one religion.

May 04, 2010

Religion and women

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I attended a university function where several faculty members were being honored. One of them was a friend of mine and after I congratulated her by shaking her hand, we were just chatting of this and that when another one of the honorees (someone I had not met before) joined us. I congratulated him too and shook his hand. At this point my friend also congratulated him and held out her hand. He declined to shake hands with her saying that it was against his religion. He was wearing a yarmulke so presumably he belongs to a sect of Judaism that does not allow men to shake hands with (at least some) women. The rejection of the proffered hand resulted in a moment of brief embarrassment but my friend is very gracious and lowered her hand and continued the conversation with him. The man did not seem unduly disturbed, presumably because he does this to women often.

I have to say that I was annoyed by the whole incident even though I was not the one whose hand was rejected. What kind of religion requires someone to reject an offer of friendship simply because it comes from a woman? What kind of god would not forgive a gracious gesture by one of his followers to a fellow human being? Why would you even want to worship a god or follow a religion that forbids acts of politeness that harm no one? Even if you like your religious group and want to belong to it, why would you not use your own mind and reject those rules that are so obviously absurd and even offensive?

I know that orthodox Jews (and fundamentalist members of all religions) will say that I just don't understand, that obeying god takes priority above all human social conventions and that their god has laid out pretty clearly what they are allowed to do, required to do, and forbidden to do, and that it is not the province of mere mortals to question god's commandments or to pick and choose which rules to obey. To those people, I say simply that I do understand their reasons. I just reject them. I do not respect those people for their commitment to their faith. I think less of them because their blind allegiance to ancient books and their religious leaders takes precedence over how they treat the people around them.

I think that it is the singling out of women that bothers me. I would not have been as bothered if he refused to shake hands with everyone, including me. I know someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleanliness, is always washing his hands, and refuses to shake hands with anyone because of the fear of germs. Most people know about this quirk and accommodate it. Those who encounter him for the first time are surprised when he declines to shake hands but when the situation is explained to them they tend to not be offended, recognizing that this behavior is the result of a kind of mental illness over which he has little control.

Similarly it is tolerable if there are cultural practices that apply uniformly to everyone, the way some societies bow in greeting rather than shake hands. But singling out individuals or groups of people whom one will not touch purely because they belong to some group that is deemed untouchable seems to me to be indefensible, but is tolerated as long as it is done in the name of religion.

The strange thing is that it is usually only misogyny that is tolerated these days, as long as it is done in the name of religion. Imagine if Judaism had a rule that said that believers should not shake hands with people of color, and that in mixed groups of people orthodox Jews shook hands with only white people. Such a blatantly racist rule would be met with such strong social disapproval nowadays that teams of high powered rabbinical scholars would have soon come up with a loophole in their religious texts to explain why that rule was a 'misreading' of their ancient texts and that deep scholarly study revealed that shaking hands with people of color was perfectly kosher. (For example, see the concerted efforts to undermine the Hindu caste system that treated the 'lowest' caste people as untouchable.) But sexist rules don't seem to bother people that much.

I spoke with a couple of women after this incident and they recounted similar experiences of rejection. What was interesting (and disturbing) was that it was the women who felt momentarily ashamed by the incident, mortified that they had done something wrong by almost defiling the 'purity' of these religious men. This is rubbish. It is the men who reject the offered hand, not the women who offer it, who should feel ashamed that their religion makes them forego common courtesies. But such is the power of religion to sanctify that it makes the victims of such rudeness feel that they are the ones at fault. In this case, the man's rejection of the woman's hand, rather than being accompanied by a groveling apology (which might have made the act seem less rude) was actually brusque and unapologetic, which likely added to the women's sense that they were the ones in the wrong, though that is manifestly not the case.

Religions can still be blatantly anti-woman and we are expected to accept it and shrug and act like it is no big deal. As long as such practices arise from old and powerful religions like Judaism or Catholicism or Islam, we are told we must 'respect' their right to treat women as second class or worse.

I am not suggesting that we should go out of our way to make people do things they don't want to do. For example, if I find myself in a situation where I suspect the norms of social behavior are different from the ones I am accustomed to, I try to pick up clues as to appropriate behavior. I do not initiate an offer to shake hands with anyone if I suspect they belong to a group that disapproves of the practice. What I do is wait for them to make the first move and reciprocate accordingly. If they nod, I nod. If they bow, I bow. If they offer their hand, I shake it. But that is different from rejecting an offer of friendship initiated by someone else.

Let me make my point clear. People can avoid any groups of people they like for any reason. That is their right. But they have no right to expect that the rest of us approve of such actions. They are rude and they should realize that others think of them as rude. Religious people have no right to expect that society should be accepting of rude behavior simply because it is based on religious beliefs.

Acts that demean women do not become less so because they are done in the name of god.

POST SCRIPT: The one true god

May 03, 2010

Hindu and Buddhist absurdities

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Religious thuggery and silliness of the kind I described in earlier posts earlier (see here and here) is not limited to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. When people's religious beliefs warp their sense of proportion, let alone their senses of logic and reason, absurdities are sure to abound. It is not hard to find examples in all religions of people who think that their beliefs must be shielded from any mockery or even criticism, and Hindus and Buddhists are no exception to the rule.

For example, we have Hindus so upset over what they perceive as slights to their religion that an Indian culture minister had to offer to quit. What was the issue?

Hindu devotees believe the area between India and Sri Lanka - now known as Adam's Bridge - was built millions of years ago by Lord Ram, supported by an army of monkeys.

But scientists and archaeologists say Adam's Bridge, or Ram Setu, is a natural formation of sand and stones.

On Wednesday the Archaeological Survey of India told the Supreme Court that the religious texts were not evidence that Lord Ram ever existed.

Hardline Hindu opponents of the government accused the administration of blasphemy and protesters carried out demonstrations in the area and in Delhi, Bhopal, and on a number of key highways.

The next day the report was withdrawn.

Two directors of the Archaeological Survey of India were actually suspended for their role in preparing a report that said that religious texts were not evidence for the existence of god and that an army of monkeys did not build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile Hindus in England got upset over the euthanasia of a 'sacred' cow that vets had determined was suffering from multiple ailments. Hindus were also upset over the film Love Guru, saying that "the film will hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus worldwide." Someone called Bhavna Shinde of the Sanatan Society in the US was upset that the main character wears sacred Hindu saffron robes and carries holy prayer beads, and said that "They should draw a line when it comes to people's faith."

Really? Why should we draw a line when it comes to people's faith? What gives her the right to decide when and where lines should be drawn when it comes to public speech? In fact, the very silliness and sensitivity of religious people cries out for mockery. If they try to draw such lines, they are practically begging people to cross them.

In a much nastier case, Muslim widows in India were beaten and paraded naked through streets and forced to eat excrement because they were branded as witches. How were they fingered as being witches? Apparently some 'holy' women in the village have this power of identification.

Buddhism does not get much in the news in the US but you can rest assured that they are as hypersensitive and prone to taking offense over the most ridiculous thing as any other religious group. I am proud to say that the Buddhists in my own country of origin (Sri Lanka) can match any religious group in the world when it comes to hyperventilating over the most trivial of supposed slights. I already wrote how Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka actually managed to get the time zone of the country changed because their 'spiritual plane' had got out of whack with the old time zone., resulting in the terrible tsunami of 2004 and other events.

Then a singer named Akon had to cancel his visit to Sri Lanka after protests about a music video that occasionally showed a Buddha statue in the background. The Sri Lankan government, always obsequious and eager to pander to the Buddhist majority, refused to grant him a visa. In another case, dozens of Buddhist monks (yes, monks) stormed the Sri Lankan Buddhist Affairs Ministry (yes, the government actually has such a ministry if you can believe it) in protest over a poster advertising the film Hollywood Buddha.

And people really want religion to be taken seriously?

POST SCRIPT: Indian skeptic debunks mystic live on TV

A well-known 'tantric guru' boasted on Indian TV that he could kill people using only his mystical powers. "Go on then – kill me" was the response of Sanal Edamaruku who is head of the rapidly growing Indian Rationalists Association. The guru agreed to perform a series of rituals to kill him. An Indian TV station cancelled its regular programming and staged the event live watched by millions of agog viewers. Eat your heart out, American Idol.

Of course, nothing happened. During the whole process, Edamaruku looked alternatively amused and bored, and livened up the proceeding by laughing and taunting the guru. After a while, he objects to all the manhandling which apparently should not be part of a 'tantric process', whatever the hell that is. What surprises me is that the guru agreed to this deal at all, since it would reveal him to be a fake in front of a huge live audience and for perpetuity on YouTube. Did he actually think that he had this power? If so, it is a tribute to his power of self-delusion.

It struck me that Edamaruku should have, at one stage, pretended to die suddenly, to see if the guru was himself shocked that his mumbo-jumbo actually worked.