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December 15, 2011

Misconceptions about Nazi ideology

One popular trope is that the Nazi racist ideology was atheistic and Darwinian, and the conclusion is drawn that atheism and evolution are thus responsible for all its evils. This was a central theme in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But while that argument has always been specious at best, this article by Coel Hellier methodically lays out the case that even the premise is wrong, and that "Nazi racial ideolology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism."

The main idea of the article is that Hitler was not advocating the creation of a master race by some form of eugenic procedures that originated with Darwin's idea. Hitler was instead advancing the explicitly creationist case that Aryans were god's original creation in the Garden of Eden and that this pure creation was being polluted by interbreeding with inferior races and that this needed to be reversed.

It is a long article that goes into great detail in demolishing this argument by tracing the intellectual roots of Nazism. I will quote just a few excerpts to give you a general sense of Hellier's argument.

Among those who dislike Darwin's explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: "From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists" (which is wrong on all the others, not just Hitler). So widespread is the claim that even many who accept that Darwinian evolution has been established as true, well beyond any reasonable doubt, also believe that Darwinian ideas were misused to justify Nazi atrocities.

Are these claims correct? Remarkably, for a claim so widely accepted, no they aren't. Indeed, the Nazi ideology underpinning the extermination of the Jews was opposed to and incompatible with Darwinism, instead being a religious and creationist doctrine.

They believed that the different human races were distinct and separate, created as God wanted them, and they regarded these permanent racial characteristics as all important to human culture and destiny. Further, they believed that allowing racial inter-mixing had led to the downfall of civilizations, and was a sin against God's creation. Thus they considered it of overwhelming importance to preserve their own Nordic/Aryan race, which they regarded as superior and created in "God's own image", by preventing inter-breeding with "inferior" races which they regarded as literally "sub-human", being separate creations.

So, yes, the Nazis wanted to use selective breeding, but not to create a "master race", but to preserve an Aryan master race, preserving the primordial Aryan characteristics which they believed were the "highest image of God".

This ideology shares one thing with Darwinism, namely the possibility of using selective breeding to achieve a desired end, a possibility mankind had known about since the invention of farming, about 12,000 yrs ago. But in all other respects it is profoundly anti-Darwinian. Whereas in Darwinian evolution all mankind evolved out of a common monkey-like ancestor, with all human races sharing a common origin in the recent past, in Nazi ideology the different human races were distinct and separate creations.

While the mutability of species, with new species evolving out of distant ancestors, is the central theme of Darwinism, the Nazis found that idea anathema, and placed a heavy emphasis on racial purity and the distinctiveness and separateness of different species. Further, the Nazis found abhorrent the materialist notion that man might be just like other animals, and, from their religious and moralistic perspective, they insisted that man had a spiritual soul.

That is why leading Nazi ideologues wrote books explicitly rejecting Darwinism, and why they banned Darwinian works from public libraries. The truth is that nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwin — the slight overlap is only in areas known about long pre-Darwin. Nor are there any quotes of leading Nazis looking to Darwin or pointing to Darwin as justification — if there were the creationists would likely have found them by now. In short, the association of Nazi doctrine with Darwinism is an outright fabrication by those who wish to discredit Darwinism and the scientific account of the origin of man.

Mein Kampf does not mention Darwin even once. Where atheism is mentioned (twice) it is pejorative, associating atheism with Jews and Marxism (e.g. "They even enter into political intrigues with the atheistic Jewish parties against the interests of their own Christian nation" and "… atheistic Marxist newspapers …"). Instead, Mein Kampf presents a religious, creationist and moralistic argument for removing Jews from German society. That is the major theme of the book, running through it repeatedly.

In line with the above Nazi thinkers, Hitler believed that mankind did not have a common origin, but consisted of several distinct and separately created races. The Aryan race was the superior race, with other races such as Jews and Slavs being literally "sub-human". Hitler believed that the Aryans had enjoyed a golden past, and that Germany's current troubles were the result of allowing racial inter-mixing, which was destroying the master race, leading to a degeneration of society. Thus it was morally necessary to prevent racial inter-mixing, if necessary by a "final solution" to the "Jewish problem".

In summary, while Nazi racial doctrine and Mein Kampf share one feature with Darwinism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi doctrine is not derived from Darwinism and is fundamentally incompatible with it. Whereas Darwinism says that all humans have a common origin, that species and races are malleable, evolving over time, and that one could (as with all animals, and if one so wished) artificially control breeding to enhance and select desired characteristics, Nazi doctrine says that human races are distinct and primordial, created separately by the Will of God, who desires that they remain separate, that the moral imperative is to preserve the races in their current state by preventing any racial intermixing, which would be both harmful and sinful.

Above all, while any similarity with Darwinism is only in one mechanism, namely competition and selection, the Nazi motivation for keeping the races separate is profoundly anti-Darwinian and instead religious and creationist.

Indeed, what records we have show that, far from being inspired by Darwin's work (which there is no record of Hitler ever having read), Hitler was instead inspired by religious ideology and the Bible. A revealing notebook shows that Hitler's ideas on race were inspired by his reading of the Old Testament.

Thus nothing in Nazi ideology derives from Darwinism. The few aspects in common were pre-Darwinian; the ideas that originated with Darwin were anathema to and rejected by the Nazis. The widespread blaming of Darwinism as an inspiration for Nazi crimes has no support in historical evidence and instead derives purely from a desire on the part of the religious to smear Darwinism.

Hellier also examines the claim that the Nazi's were atheistic and finds that too to be also false.

The labelling of the Nazis as "atheistic" is similarly motivated and is also the exact opposite of what the evidence says. The Nazi ideology was theistic and religious and an offshoot of Christianity, merging Christianity with Nazi racial theory. It is true that the Nazified Christianity was opposed to more mainstream Christian views, and thus that the Nazis wanted radical reform of the Christian religion, but in no sense was it "atheistic".

While the Nazi's were critical of the current established churches, they considered themselves to be followers of a purer form of Christianity.

Nazi theology, however, departed from mainstream Christianity in regarding the Christian churches as misguided and having been corrupted from the original aims of Jesus by Jewish influence, particularly that of Paul. The Nazis claimed that Jesus was not a Jew, but instead an Aryan (again, to the Nazis these were separately created races).

The Nazis thus founded the German Christian movement, mixing Christian theology with Nazi racial ideology, and espousing a "Positive Christianity" which contrasted with what they saw as the "negative Christianity" of the existing Jewish-influenced churches. With Nazi support, the Deutsche Christen won two thirds of the vote in the 1932 church elections, claimed a membership of 600,000 pastors, bishops, professors of theology, religion teachers, and laity, and were aiming to supplant the Catholic and Protestant churches.

This article is a useful reference to those who bring up the tired 'Hitler was a Darwinian and hence evolution is bad and thus wrong' argument.

December 12, 2011

A clearer definition of atheist

(This is my article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the New Humanist magazine that appeared there with the title No Doubt.)

Charles Darwin believed that God was not required to explain nature and strongly opposed the later attempts by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, to argue that some form of divine intervention was necessary to explain human intelligence and consciousness.

From this, one might reasonably conclude that Darwin was an atheist. And yet he firmly rejected efforts by others to stick that label on him and insisted on calling himself an agnostic. Edward Aveling, a self-professed atheist, tried to convince Darwin that "the terms 'agnostic' and 'atheist' were practically equivalent". Darwin did not challenge Aveling's characterization that an "agnostic was but atheist writ respectable and atheist was but agnostic writ aggressive", but merely questioned why anyone would want to be aggressive.

Darwin's response highlights the fact that calling oneself an agnostic is much more socially acceptable than saying one is an atheist. As a respectable member of the Victorian establishment he likely did not want to disturb the comfortable social world in which he lived. Religious believers are far more comfortable with agnostics. Atheists appear to directly contradict their views; whereas agnostics seem to allow for the possibility that God might exist and thus confer some intellectual respectability on those with belief.

But what exactly is the difference? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an atheist as "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God." That part of the definition as one who "disbelieves" in God is unexceptional. Atheists say that there is no evidence for the existence of God and so it makes no sense to believe in one. It is the word "denies" that creates problems. If by "denies" we mean a willingness to publicly declare disbelief, then it too is acceptable. But if interpreted as implying that the atheist is certain that there is no God, then it is too strong. Since one cannot prove the non-existence of a god, or anything else, no thoughtful atheist would sign on to such a statement.

The OED definition of an agnostic – as "One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing" – hardly banishes the confusion either.

One problem is that this definition fails to distinguish between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. As Ricky Gervais said in response to a challenge as to what right a mere comedian had to make pronouncements on whether God exists; "Since there is nothing to know about God, a comedian knows as much about God as anyone else."

It is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, however absurd (whether it be a god or unicorns), so the purely logical answer to whether anything exists, when the answer isn't "yes", is "I don't know". By this definition we are all agnostic about practically everything.

But there is a difference between saying one is agnostic because of the logical impossibility of proving a negative, and being an agnostic because the evidence is not (as yet, anyway) convincing either way. For example, the currently popular theory of elementary particles postulates the existence of a particle known as the Higgs boson that has as yet not been directly detected. The new Large Hadron Collider at CERN has the detection of this particle as one of its major goals. Until it is detected, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic on the question of its existence. If at some point it is detected, agnostics would shift out of the agnostic camp and into the camp of believers. But when would it become possible to say that it does not exist?

A state of permanent agnosticism in such situations seems unwarranted. After all, we are perfectly comfortable in saying that some things simply don't exist even if we cannot prove it logically. So in the absence of any evidence for existence, what distinguishes those things we can confidently assert don't exist (like unicorns) from those things (like God or an immaterial soul) whose nonexistence some are loth to proclaim?

Science can help here because in that world, when something becomes unnecessary as an explanatory concept, it is confidently asserted not to exist. For example, take the concept of the ether. This was believed to be a material substance that permeated all of space and was necessary in order to explain the propagation of electromagnetic waves. As more and more experiments failed to detect it, the properties of the ether had to be refined and modified to explain away the negative results. Even though the theory of the ether became quite convoluted, it was still thought to exist because it was necessary as an explanatory concept. When Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, he did not prove that there was no ether. What he did with his alternative theory was make the ether unnecessary as an explanatory concept. As a consequence, scientists now comfortably assert that the ether does not exist, just as they were comfortable thinking earlier that it did exist. We are no longer agnostic on the question of ether's existence.

So rather than "One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God", a more accurate definition for atheist would be "One for whom God is unnecessary as an explanatory concept". This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think that God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say "no", they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say "yes", they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

This proposed definition of atheist may not make agnosticism about God completely redundant, because determined people of a philosophical bent can always find ways to salvage any cherished proposition from being rejected. But it would go a long way towards clarifying what atheism represents.

December 01, 2011

African-American atheists

The New York Times had an interesting article (which for some reason was in its Fashion & Style section) about the growing open atheism in the black community, one that has traditionally been seen as more religious and more disapproving of atheism than the population at large.

The article says that less than one-half of one percent of African-Americans are atheist, much lower than for whites. It is possible that the fraction is as large as that of white atheists but that the greater taboos against it meant that they kept quiet about their disbelief and even went with their families to church just to avoid making waves. A young man said that his mother was more bothered by his revelation that he was an atheist than that he was gay, another issue which the black community tries to keep under wraps.

Some of them have been quite outspoken about their views that Christianity should be rejected. The article mentions someone named Wrath James White who has a blog called Words of Wrath where he denounces African-Americans' "zealous embracement of the God of our kidnapper, murders, slave masters and oppressors." He goes on to say that "In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who ... contributes to society and supports his family."

But the internet is changing all that. People are realizing that wherever you are, there are atheists all around you who are just like you. The comments to the NYT article are worth reading because they reveal many other people who are rejoicing in this newfound openness and were glad to see an article in a mainstream publication acknowledging their existence. The internet and social networking sites have allowed them to join up and form communities of their own, and more and more are speaking out openly about their disbelief.

November 15, 2011

The journey from priest to atheist

Eric MacDonald is a former clergyman who became an atheist and he has a blog Choice in Dying which began as a tribute to his wife Elizabeth who chose assisted suicide at the late stages of a serious illness. The original purpose of the blog was to counter the religious objections to assisted suicide but it is now a lot more than that. McDonald is very knowledgeable about theology and is able to counter the arguments of theologians using their own language. His blog is well worth a visit.

He recently posted a thoughtful analysis on the Q&A session of the Haught-Coyne debate. But in the comments, in response to some questions, he describes his own painful transition from priest to atheist and provides insight into how unbelieving priests have to choose their words very carefully to avoid being exposed as apostates. It takes them a long time to explicitly acknowledge even to themselves that they are no longer believers. He suspects that Haught is in the same situation.

While I was a priest, and had to say something to people every week in a homily, I knew within a hair's breadth what I could say. My wife Elizabeth, who was a nonbeliever, would sometimes correct me, and say: "You can't say that" or "You can't say what you want to say in that way." The point she was making was simply that dispelling the clouds too rapidly would make it impossible for us, the congregation and me, to take the next step, if we were going to take it together. So it was essential to lay down some fog, artificial fog, which would allow me to say what I wanted to say, but at the same time not to let people get too close a grasp on what I was saying, which would lead them to say, "Well, you really don't believe at all, then, do you?" As I got closer and closer to retirement, a friend (a retired priest) used to say, "You're going too fast. You'll have talked yourself out of a job if you keep going at this rate" — because, at the time, I was finding it harder and harder to find anything positive to say about Christian belief.

Now, I suspect — though I may be wrong — that Haught is in this position. He wants to be able to speak about faith in very general terms, but he also wants faith to retain its position as a confidence in doctrines that he has really let go of a long time ago, and he's developed a very comfortable way of speaking about his loss of faith in terms of what he considers faith, but most believers would not see as faith at all. He can retain all the usual Christian language, but he doesn't believe any longer in a straightforward way — and this, by the way, is not a fundamentalist, literal style of believing, but believing in the highly intellectualised way in which the Roman Catholic Church defines its doctrines. He simply doesn't notice that when he talks about Jesus he's making a claim to divine intervention in the world for which there is not a shred of substantive evidence. If he noticed that, his house of cards would simply fall apart, so he has to keep it general and unfocused. As Kevin says (#7), theologians are in a tough position. If they dispell the fog the all too human levers are visible, but if they don't dispell the fog, questions will continually arise. In other words, as Haggis says (#5), instinctively it seems that what Haught is saying is rubbish, but it's not easy to see why, and the reason its hard to see why is that Haught has gone to a great deal of trouble of deceiving himself first.

In a later comment, he adds:

I think I went through the same process that Haught is going through, and it took years. When faith is the ground bass of one's life, then, even when faith is breaking down, there are often more reasons to keep a hold on it than to let it go, and it is done, not through deliberate dishonesty, but through a veritable maze of self-deceiving rationalisation.

What looks to an outsider like dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an insider is just common sense. A lot of people, like Haught, go to a great deal of trouble to define faith in such a way that practically anything that is done is done on faith, so religious faith seems innocuous. But that's all part of the smoke-screen. But the fact that he is laying smoke doesn't even occur to him, and it won't until he can get outside of the faith box that he's in. It took a pretty vicious jerk to rattle me out of it, and I daresay it will take as big a bump in life's road to lead Haught out of the maze.

Looking back I can see how careful I had to be not to work too far out of the box, but at the time what I was doing it, it seemed — nay, was — perfectly sincere and honest. Haught, given his situation, will find it almost impossible to get out of the box. It's a very comfortable one. He has status. He is respected. He enjoys the theological game. What would lead him to leave? Of course, something might. But I know, from experience, how much a religious leader loses when he has made the decision that he can no longer speak with integrity about faith. One has to step outside a society in which one had honour and respect, and into a world which is — as the world in fact is — very uncertain. sometimes confusing, and never sure.

When you find religious people, clergy or otherwise, uncomfortable with talking about the concrete aspects of their beliefs, such as what god actually does, and shifting the conversation to the social benefits of religion or in vague terms about meaning and morals, it may well be a sign that they are on the road to unbelief or are already unbelievers and are unwilling to explicitly acknowledge it even to themselves.

October 17, 2011

No atheists allowed

Richard Dawkins was due to speak at a function hosted by the Center for Inquiry that was to be held at the Wyndgate Country Club in the Detroit area. But some official of the club saw Dawkins interviewed by Bill O'Reilly and decided that he/she did not want to have an atheist soiling their premises so the club canceled the event at the last minute forcing the organizers to find an alternative venue for the sold-out event. The CFI is considering suing the country club for its actions.

Of course, what the country club achieved is to give a huge amount of publicity to an event that otherwise only CFI members and supporters would have known about.

October 09, 2011

Dexter the atheist

Via Pharyngula, I learn about another popular TV show in which the main character seems to be an atheist. When ratings conscious TV executives think that it is safe to have a prominent atheist character, that is another sign of the spread of such views.

October 07, 2011

Sexism, atheism, and the volatility of internet discourse

My post on the topic of sexism in the atheist movement generated a lot of comments. As is often the case with heated discussions, a lot of different issues quickly got added into the mix and so it might be good to step back a bit and look at the big picture.

My original question was whether the atheist community had a problem with sexist attitudes towards women as evidenced by the response that Rebecca Watson received when she reported on her blog about an incident in an elevator at an atheist gathering.

But soon other issues entered the discussion, such as whether:

  1. what she experienced in the elevator was indeed a proposition;
  2. her own behavior might have encouraged it;
  3. she herself has clean hands, in that she supposedly reacts angrily to others when she is criticized; and
  4. she over-reacted to something minor by publicizing it.

I have to admit that when it comes to the first two items, I am hopelessly out of my depth and will not even try to venture a judgment, since the world of singles dating is completely foreign to me. For the third point, one commenter made the case that Watson and her supporters also dish it out as much as they get. As to the last point, whatever led up to the incident, I think (hope?) we can agree that Watson had every right to talk about it on her blog. Even if one thinks that it was hopelessly trivial and she was hypersensitive, the fact remains that she was talking about her own feelings on her own blog, and surely she has the right to do that? (After all, there are people who are known to use their blog to even complain about film trailers, an undoubtedly petty topic of no consequence whatsoever.) Similarly, people have a right to respond to her post. This is part of the robust nature of internet discourse.

But I am not sure if any of the above points are germane to the issue at hand. What I feel should be focused on is whether the nature of the responses to her post (irrespective of her personal qualities or even the incident itself) reveals anything about sexism among atheists. And I would venture that it at least raises the prima facie case that a problem exists (which may or may not be greater than the level of sexism in general) and that we would do well to address it.

As an aside, I want to comment on the robust nature of internet communication and how easily people seem to get angry on the web. I am always somewhat taken aback by the flame wars that erupt on the internet, where tempers flare and angry accusations can spring up about minor things.

My first experience with such anonymous anger arose in the very early days of the internet. This was in the good old days of dial-up connections using modems transmitting data at 1200 baud rates. I was part of a statewide movement funded by the National Science Foundation to improve math and science education in Ohio. The movement was a network of mostly middle school teachers sprinkled with a few college faculty like me. Since I had slightly greater familiarity with the internet than most of the other people, like the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I was designated as a moderator for the listserv that was set up for communication. My moderation role was not in the sense of having to give prior approval to people's postings but to provide general guidance on the use of the listserv and address any technical questions that might arise.

There was one teacher who seemed to have the 'caps lock' setting in the 'on' position all the time so that the entire message was always in upper case. After receiving a few such postings, I sent out a message to the list saying that internet protocol used upper case purely for emphasis and usually limited it for single words or a phrase and that a message entirely in upper case meant the author was angry and seen as yelling. I suggested that people might want to unlock the caps setting so that others might not misinterpret their messages as having been written in anger. My whole message was in the tone of being gently helpful, or at least so I thought.

Well, before you knew what, I received a furious message from the perpetrator, sent to everyone on the list (and in upper case of course) asking who the hell I thought I was to try and tell him what he could and could not do and that he had a perfect right to use all caps if he wanted to and by golly he would. I was surprised at this hostile reaction to say the least, since this was not the tone that he would have taken during any face-to-face meetings of the statewide group of which we were both a part. But there was something about the distancing afforded by even our fairly small list that seemed to eliminate the decorum that was the norm.

I let his message go without any response, because once people get into such a stiff defensive posture, there is really no reasoning with them, and it is better just to walk away. In addition, the person who usually gets harmed by such displays of anger is not the recipient of the message but the sender, since almost everyone else wonders why they are being petty and getting so angry about something so relatively minor.

So I am no longer surprised by this phenomenon. But I still do not quite understand it. What is it about internet communication that seems to foster anger and rudeness? Or maybe it doesn't foster it at all but that such impulses were always there but in the pre-internet days it took time to convey those emotions because we had to wait until we met the person or it took time to write a letter or to make a phone call, and by that time we had calmed down. Maybe what the internet does is allow us to act on our impulses immediately without time intervening to cool us off.

September 30, 2011

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins' response to Watson's comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting 'big battles' and that 'lesser' battles don't count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university's Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

September 23, 2011

The ontological argument for god

Here's an attempt to explain Saint Anselm's original argument that theologians love. Apparently Immanuel Kant pretty much destroyed it in its original formulation. But in this clip, theologians like Alvin Plantinga claim to have resurrected it in a better form that shifts the burden onto some thing that he refers to as a theorem in modal logic.

In this next clip Plantinga tries to explain what this 'new' modal argument is.

I must admit, I just don't get it. As I have said many times, I simply do not see how you can answer an empirical question of the existence of anything using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

Another philosopher Colin McGinn tries to explain to Jonathan Miller what the ontological argument is and the problems with it. This part begins at around the 11:30 mark and continues for the first 30 seconds of the second part.

If this is the best argument that theologians can come up with, then god is done for.

August 14, 2011

The coming godless generations

Adam Lee points to data that show the rapid rise of nonbelief among young people, and points to stories of young people challenging the religious privilege that their elders took for granted.

Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones.

But what's different now is that young people who speak out aren't left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there's a thriving, growing secular community that's becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it's much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I've mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they're the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation.

[T]he more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that's been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

This is why it is important for atheists to not rest on our laurels just because we have won the argument. We have to continue to be a very visible and vocal presence in public life, so that those who are hesitant to speak realize that atheists are everywhere and that they have a support network.

I myself have been heartened by the number of people in my own institution who tell me that my atheist presence via this blog has helped them.

August 13, 2011

Victory for atheists in Little Rock

I wrote earlier about how a bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively high insurance for an atheist group to place the message "Are you good without God? Millions are" on its buses, claiming that they feared vandalism by religious people, providing an unintended ironic commentary on religion.

Now a federal judge has ruled in favor of the atheists saying that the bus company's policy violated the free speech rights of atheists.

July 06, 2011

My article in The New Humanist is now online

You can read it here.

The article is titled No Doubt and suggests a short and simple new definition of the term atheist that more accurately and unambiguously captures what that label represents to those who choose to adopt it. This new definition leaves little room for agnosticism.

I'd be curious to hear from the readers of this blog what they think of my suggestion. If you think it is an improvement, maybe you could spread the word to the other atheist forums and groups that you patronize.

June 17, 2011

Limits to consensual actions

Although I do not consider myself a libertarian, I do agree with some libertarian principles, especially the ones that says that adults have the right to privacy and be able to engage in solitary or consensual practices that do not harm others free from interference from the state and society. But Michael J. Sandel in his book Justice: What's the right thing to do? (p. 74) provides a story that sorely tests my allegiance to those principles

In 2001, a strange encounter took place in the German village of Rotenburg. Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, a forty-three-year-old software engineer, responded to an Internet ad seeking someone "willing to be killed and eaten." The ad had been posted by Armin Meiwes, forty-two, a computer technician. Meiwes was offering no monetary compensation, only the experience itself. Some two hundred people replied to the ad. Four traveled to Meiwes's farmhouse for an interview, but decided they were not interested. But when Brandes met with Meiwes and considered his proposal over coffee, he gave his consent. Meiwes proceeded to kill his guest, carve up the corpse, and store it in plastic bags in his freezer. By the time he was arrested, the "Cannibal of Rotenburg" had consumed over forty pounds of his willing victim, cooking some of him in olive oil and garlic.

I had not heard of this shocking story before, even though it occurred quite recently. That two hundred people responded to the ad at all, even assuming that most of them thought it was a joke of some kind, was weird.

Is the negative reaction that most people will feel towards this story a result of revulsion towards cannibalism? And is that feeling rational? After all, once a person is dead, no further harm can be done to that person. When someone dies, we are allowed to use the body for research or to bury it or burn it. In the Zoroastrian religion the custom is to leave dead bodies out in the open to be eaten by vultures, so we could take the extreme position and say it is acceptable for it to be eaten by humans too.

Or is our feeling of revulsion due to the idea that a young and seemingly healthy person in a state of sound mind should voluntarily choose to have himself killed and eaten at the request of a stranger? The whole episode was videotaped (which is why we know that this bizarre transaction was consensual) but the tape also indicates that the dead person had some truly weird ideas of his own and was not of sound mind as we would understand the term, except in the narrow sense that he knew what he was doing.

As you can imagine, the case posed extraordinary problems for the justice system and made me glad that I was not the judge assigned to oversee it.

When Meiwes was brought to trial, the lurid case fascinated the public and confounded the court. Germany has no law against cannibalism. The perpetrator could not be convicted of murder, the defense maintained, because the victim was a willing participant in his own death. Meiwes's lawyer argued that his client could be guilty only of "killing on request," a form of assisted suicide that carries a maximum five-year sentence. The court attempted to resolve the conundrum by convicting Meiwes of manslaughter and sentencing him to eight and a half years in prison. But two years later, an appeals court overturned the conviction as too lenient, and sentenced Meiwes to life in prison.

Sandel reflects on what this might tell us about the limits of libertarianism as a philosophy.

Cannibalism between consenting adults poses the ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership and the idea of justice that follows from it. It is an extreme form of assisted suicide. Since it has nothing to do with relieving the pain of a terminally ill patient, it can be justified only on the grounds that we own our bodies and lives, and may do with them what we please. If the libertarian claim is right, banning consensual cannibalism is unjust, a violation of the right to liberty.

The weirdness of the story does not end there. Sandel says that, "In a bizarre denouement to the sordid tale, the cannibal killer has reportedly become a vegetarian in prison, on the grounds that factory farming is inhumane."

There are some truly strange people in the world.

April 28, 2011

Humanism

Philosopher (and atheist) A. C. Grayling talks to Stephen Colbert about his new book The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

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April 05, 2011

My talk on Why Atheism is Winning

The hour-long talk is now up on YouTube.

There was a lively Q&A that went on for another hour after the talk. I will upload that later.

April 04, 2011

Atheist groups in the US military

Some non-religious members of the US military at Fort Bragg in North Carolina have formed a group called MASH (Military Atheists and Secular Humanists) and applied for official recognition so that they receive the same benefits as religious groups. There are 20 similar unofficial groups of non-theists in US military bases around the world, according to the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

This is not a trivial development. The US military has long had a 'God and country' mindset that is hostile to nonbelievers. These developments show that more and more atheists feel comfortable declaring their nonbelief. The numbers are potentially large. A Pentagon report "concluded that about 20 to 25 percent of military personnel have no religious preference. Up to 3.6 percent identify themselves as humanist — a catchall that can refer to a nonreligious ethical philosophy." Religious non-preference, like saying one is 'spiritual', is often (though not always) a temporary refuge for those who seriously doubt the existence of god but are uncomfortable coming right out and saying so.

We are rapidly approaching a critical point when religious beliefs will collapse because their lack of any rational basis will become increasingly apparent as people in every walk of life begin to point it out.

March 15, 2011

Talk will be recorded

Thanks to the efforts of the officers of the CWRU branch of the Center for Inquiry, my talk tomorrow on Why Atheism is Winning (details here) will be recorded after all and uploaded later.

Of course, this means that I will have to dress better and comb my hair. The sacrifices I make for science and atheism...

February 01, 2011

The conceit and arrogance of the elite

One of the features of society is the profound contempt the elites have for ordinary people, as can be seen in three examples: WikiLeaks, religion, and censorship.

In each of these cases, what we see is worry that the gatekeepers of information are being bypassed and that ordinary people are being exposed to information that the elites feel should be reserved for them.

It is undoubtedly true that people who are not used to evaluating raw, unfiltered information may be unsettled by having access to it. But the solution is not to deny them access but to help them develop, over time, the ability to make sense of it.

Why WikiLeaks has given governments and the establishment media the vapors is not because it has leaked secrets. If all the leakers and recipients of secrets were prosecuted and jailed, hardly anyone in government and the media would be walking around free. Secrets are the lifeblood of the relationship between politicians and the media. Look closely at the number of 'news' stories in the mainstream media that begin with 'High level sources within the government revealed today..." or "According to a leaked secret government report…" As D. D. Guttenplan writes:

Hillary Clinton may not like it, but when [I. F.] Stone observed "the State Dept. is constantly leaking material to favored reporters" back in 1945 (!) he wasn't breaking news either. Reminding Nation readers that "letting 'confidential' information leak out" is "the favorite Washington pastime," he cautioned: "If this is a crime, all but a hopelessly inefficient minority of Washington officials and newspapermen ought to be put in jail."

Government officials leak selected information to advance their agenda (whether personal or political) to selected reporters whom they know will use it in the way they intended and even make the source look good. The reporters in turn know the rules of the game, which is that they advance that agenda in return for future access to more secrets. Practically all of Bob Woodward's entire career is based on this practice. In this way, the hoi polloi only get to hear what the government–media gatekeepers want them to know.

By making secret documents publicly accessible, WikiLeaks has suddenly cut the umbilical cord that mutually nourishes establishment reporters and the government, which is why they are both thrashing around wildly, trying to stop the bleeding. Notice how the US government is trying to walk a fine line and find a way to create new laws or reinterpret old ones to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange while not having those same laws be applicable to (say) the New York Times or Bob Woodward, although this effort is unlikely to succeed legally.

It also appears that the harsh treatment meted out to Bradley Manning is meant to (a) intimidate any other people who might be thinking of leaking documents and (b) cause him to break down and incriminate Assange in some way. When some of us pointed out that torture was abhorrent and that we should not condone its use just because it was used against foreigners because one day it could be used against anyone, that fear was ridiculed. And now we see an American soldier, no less, being tortured.

When high government and media officials sniff that the leaks reveal nothing that they did not know before, they are partly right but this is irrelevant. Establishment reporters are often told a lot of things as background on the condition that they keep it secret. This parasitic relationship has got so bad that some 'reporters' (I use the term loosely) like the late Tim Russert are quite comfortable saying that they simply assume that what they are told is secret to begin with. But the fact that a few reporters are given privileged access to information does not help the average citizen in the least.

You can also be sure that the very same people who are bemoaning most loudly the release of the WikiLeaks documents are the same ones who are voraciously reading them. If the leaks are so bad, why are they not refraining themselves? Why are they trying to deny access to other people? The reason should be obvious. They are fearful or losing their role as gatekeepers of information.

Next: The elite view on religion and censorship

October 12, 2010

"Atheist Philosophies of Death"

Blogger Greta Christina with give a talk on the above topic at a meeting of the CFINO (Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio) at the Brecksville Library, 9089 Brecksville Rd., Brecksville, Ohio at 7:00 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, October 13).

For more details, go here.

October 02, 2010

A simple solution to all theological problems

There is no god.

October 01, 2010

Book review: The Grand Design (Some final thoughts)

In part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of the review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, I looked at the science and at the implications for religion. In this last part, I want to tie up some loose ends.

The Grand Design is a very short book. In addition to being only 181 pages, the lines are double-spaced, the font is large, and it has plenty of white space and many illustrations, which makes the amount of actual text quite small. (My own book God vs. Darwin is 192 pages but I estimate that it has about twice the number of words.) The production values are high, with vivid, colorful photographs and illustrations on heavy-duty glossy paper and careful attention to layout.

Hawking's books are curious. They are supposedly aimed at the general reader but even I, as a physicist though not a cosmologist, find them heavy going at times. When reading them, I find that if I know the material, the writing seems lucid and clear, but if I don't know it already, it seems difficult and obscure, which is why I found the popular success of his A Brief History of Time somewhat mystifying. How much did non-physicists get out of it? Is there any truth to the jibe that it was top of the list of unread best sellers?

Although he tries, Hawking does not have Richard Dawkins' gift for presenting technical ideas in a simple form. He does not have Dawkins' elegant writing style either. Instead of humor and wit, Hawking substitutes a steady stream of somewhat sophomoric facetiousness that quickly becomes tiresome. For example, in talking about symmetries he says, "[I]f you flip a donut over, it looks exactly the same (unless it has chocolate topping, in which case it is better to eat it)" and "[W]e have observed that the moon is not made of cheese which is bad news for mice" and so on, almost on every other page.

There is an odd feature of the book that immediately hits you. Although there are two authors, the book jacket puts Hawking's name on the cover in large type and Mlodinow's much smaller, as if the latter were a ghostwriter. But Mlodinow is not an obvious ghostwriter, a role usually played by a freelance journeyman writer hired to produce a book quickly and polish the prose of the main author. He is a physicist at Caltech and himself the author of popular books on science, so it is conceivable that he was more of an actual co-producer of the science content. Furthermore, the style of writing in The Grand Design is similar to Hawking's previous book A Brief History of Time, suggesting that Hawking was the primary author here too. I don't know what to make of this difference in jacket type size, except that the publishers see Hawking as a brand name that sells books and so wanted to highlight it. Perhaps I am making too much of this.

Hawking's knowledge of the history and philosophy of science is shaky, and he states flatly as fact many things that are mostly folklore. He unquestioningly adopts Karl Popper's model of naïve falsificationism as how science works even though it has been pretty convincingly shown by other philosophers of science that the actual practice of science bears little resemblance to that theory. (I discussed this in some detail in my book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Belief.)

He seems to have great disdain for philosophy as a discipline, dismissively saying right in the second paragraph that "philosophy is dead" because it "has not kept up with modern developments, particularly physics." (p. 5) He is basically picking up where he left off in his earlier A Brief History of Time where right at the end (p. 191) he quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying that "The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language" and describes this as a huge comedown for that discipline from the heights scaled by Aristotle and Kant. But not only did Wittgenstein never write such a thing (as philosophers were quick to point out), there is immense value in philosophy when it comes to clarifying ideas, developing logic, and sharpening language.

What is true (and, putting a charitable spin on it, maybe was Hawking's intent but clumsily stated) is that philosophy's value in addressing empirical questions has greatly diminished. Nowadays if one wants to learn about the origins of life or the universe, one would not consider asking philosophers, the way one might have done (say) two hundred years ago. The situation is even worse for theology since their views on the origins of the universe or the mind or consciousness are seen as even more inconsequential than those of philosophers. This is why the pushback from those two groups has come in the form of them trying to argue that there are still some questions about the world that are beyond the reach of empirical science and thus purely within the domain of philosophy and theology. They are steadily losing this battle.

But no one can have expert knowledge about everything and Hawking's use of history and philosophy of science, though shallow, is meant to provide context and color for the science and to prevent his work from becoming a dreary science textbook. It does not impact the main point of the book. Hawking's strength lies in his deep knowledge of the physics that is most relevant to the questions that he seeks to address: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?, and that he does not hesitate to state unequivocally what he thinks.

September 29, 2010

Helping silent atheists and agnostics find their voice

In a previous post, I mentioned an essay by John Shook, education director of the Center for Inquiry, where he took a gratuitous swipe at those he called "Know nothing new atheists" without naming any or giving any evidence, thus tarring all of us with the same brush.

He is receiving a well-deserved shellacking in the comments section of his blog. One comment by someone named wbthacker was particularly insightful in pointing out why what the new atheists are doing is much better than the accommodationist stance of feigning respect for religion.

Recognize that there are many potential atheists who are not currently "on our side." They are atheists afraid to "come out", and theists who don't really believe, but claim to be religious because it's easier than being an agnostic.

These people might add their voices to ours, if they hear us saying something that inspires them. When we feign respect for religiosity, we tell these people that they may as well stay where they are: that there's nothing wrong with believing myths, if you're nice about it.

I think that's why the New Atheists, have done more to popularize atheism in a few years than happened in the entire century preceding them. They boldly state that it's NOT respectable to believe in something without good evidence, let alone to make important decisions based on myths you can't prove. And this is logically self-evident.

This certainly angers the theists, who are used to being treated with respect they never deserved. But it inspires atheists; it compels them to follow their rational mindset, instead of burying it.

Good point.

September 28, 2010

It's time to put up or shut up

John Shook, Director of Education at the Center for Inquiry, has written an essay attacking those whom he calls "Know nothing" atheists who supposedly attack religion while being ignorant of sophisticated modern theology. Larry Moran, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, has had enough of this kind of vague accusations and issues a very direct challenge [link fixed].

The question before us is whether there is a God or there isn't. So far, I have not been convinced by any argument in favor of supernatural beings. Every single argument that I've encountered seems flawed. Many of them are stupid and nonsensical.

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link.

Try and make it concise and to the point. It would be nice if it's less than 100 years old. Keep in mind that there are over 1000 different gods so it would be helpful to explain just which gods the argument applies to.

I don't care where they post the argument, just get on with it. I'm not interested in any other details about theology. Those points only become relevant once you've convinced this atheist that you have a rational argument for the existence of God. Don't bother telling me how you reconcile your God with evil, or why you believe in miracles, or why transcendence is important in your life, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Don't insult my intelligence by pointing out that religion has done a lot of good things in the past as if that were proof of the existence of the supernatural. Don't be silly enough to try proving god by telling me that religion makes people feel good. So does chocolate, and wine.

That sounds reasonable to me.

"Know nothing new atheists"

A few days ago had a discussion with a philosopher (himself not religious) who railed against those whom he called "Know nothing new atheists" who argued against religion on a very low-level and were not aware of the best of modern theology. I pressed him to name names but the ones he gave (Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers) do not fit this category at all. In fact, they know quite a lot. But I occasionally find the philosopher's attitude among atheists and agnostic accommodationists who seek to separate themselves from people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Coyne, Myers, and other mean old new/unapologetic atheists (like me), and accuse us of ignorance.

Hence it was amusing to get a link (thanks to reader Norm) to an article giving the results of a new Pew survey that found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about "the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life." You can read all the survey questions and the results for each here. (Not to boast, but there was only one question for which I did not know the answer and one for which I was not sure.)

Of course, the philosopher could argue that this survey tested largely low-level factual knowledge and not deep theology. But I am willing to bet that if a similar survey were done on theology, atheists and agnostics would again come out on top. It is because we have studied theology at least to some extent that we realize how content-free it is. In fact, I suspect there is a causal relationship: the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe in god. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."

March 08, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-4: Why evidence is crucial

(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 Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both requests are embarrassing for religious believers and so people must be deflected from asking them.

The reason why evidence needs to be produced for empirical claims becomes apparent when the situation is reversed. When non-scientists demand to see evidence for the claims of science (say time dilation or evolution), we do not fob them off by saying that it is impertinent to make such a request until they have first studied Einstein's or Darwin's works in depth. We try to explain what those scientists' theories assert and, more importantly, what evidence we have that makes us take those claims seriously. The questioners may not have the expertise to fully evaluate the evidence and for that they may need to do some studying on their own, but nonetheless we have an obligation to point them in the correct direction and indicate the nature of that evidence. Sophisticated religious apologists do not provide evidence and try to evade the issue altogether by saying that evidence is unnecessary or adopting the Kierkegaard Gambit.

The nice thing about the call for evidence is that it does not depend on expertise. If someone makes an empirical claim, we do not dismiss it simply because they may not be scientists. In fact, non-professionals often turn up evidence that has implications in astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. If you have evidence to counter the theory of evolution, then it does not matter if you are not a biologist. If you have evidence for the existence of god, by all means present it and atheists will consider it.

If the Kierkegaard Gambit is uniformly applied to all spheres of activity, then we would have to insist that only those people who can produce evidence that they have studied both science and religion in depth can form judgments about whether they are compatible. That would immediately rule out almost everybody, including many theologians and philosophers. And yet, that is not what happens. It is assumed that people like John Haught and H. E. Baber and Karen Armstrong are competent to talk about the implications of science for religion but Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers are not. This is what makes so apropos Daniel Dennett's statement that, "Debating a religionist is like playing tennis with someone who lowers the net for their shots and raises it for yours."

What is fascinating is that ordinary religious people have no trouble understanding the need to provide evidence for their beliefs and they will attempt to do so if asked. Their evidence may be weak or spurious or inconclusive (faces of Jesus in toast, prayers allegedly answered, personal feelings, etc.) but at least they usually try. The whole problem with ultra-sophisticated religionists is that their beliefs are evidence free and thus content free which is why theology is so flexible, able to accommodate anything. If you are not constrained by evidence, then anything goes. As Carl Sagan wrote in Broca's Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. (my italics)

Carl Sagan, like Charles Darwin, called himself an agnostic. Both are people that I describe as 'good' atheists', people whose beliefs are functionally indistinguishable from atheism but who go to great lengths to avoid hurting the feelings of believers, unlike us mean old new/unapologetic atheists. But what Sagan is saying here is as tough as anything that new/unapologetic atheists would say.

And he is right.

POST SCRIPT: And the murderer is…

I grew up devouring the entire oeuvre of English mystery fiction by writers like Agatha Christie. There was something endlessly fascinating about the eccentric and exotic private detective Hercule Poirot investigating murders set in quaint villages and country estates. The denouement was usually dramatic and took place in a drawing room in which the villain is unmasked and immediately confesses.

That Mitchell and Webb Look capture the mood perfectly.

March 05, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-3: The Nineteenth Century Variation

The Kierkegaard Gambit (explained in yesterday's post) is a tactic used to deflect attention away from the awkward request made by atheists to believers to provide evidence for god by challenging the competence of the people making the request. I freely acknowledge that I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor have I studied the works of the famous philosophers in depth. But the claims that atheists make are fundamentally empirical and can be credibly made by anybody, although they do have theological and philosophical implications.

As commenter Eric reminded me yesterday, Richard Dawkins points us to the intellectual paucity of the Kierkegaard Gambit by saying "Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?" Jason Rosenhouse and P. Z. Myers provide other responses to it. Myers has fun pondering what those who use the Kierkegaard Gambit would have said if Dawkins had been the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

As I said yesterday, what atheists say is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

The only god that concerns an atheist like me is some kind of active intelligent entity that exists in the same world that I live in and can thus interfere in its workings capriciously, thus violating the laws of nature that scientists have worked diligently to discover. It is these very laws that provide order to the universe and have enabled us to explain its workings and to create the vast edifice of science and technology that we currently benefit from. Surely it is a matter of some import if those same laws can be overturned capriciously at the whim of a supernatural being? A god who can mess with the laws of science is not someone whose existence I can ignore.

In response to the claim that I made that "There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns", a commenter dismissed it by saying:

Absolutely specious. First off, it conflates names for God with God, showing that the questioner isn't even treating his own claims seriously. Secondly, it groups physical beings (and here I assume that he means the existence of actual "unicorns", "fairies" and "Santa Clauses" and not metaphorical ones, which do exist) with extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence), which either is meant as an attempt to belittle humble folks who think that they are limited and finite or simply indicative of a lack of complex approach to a complex subject out of arrogance or laziness.

It is interesting that this commenter is also claiming that there are "extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence)"? What does that mean exactly? What evidence is there that such beings exist at all? How does the commenter know that such beings exist if they are 'outside of physical existence' since the commenter is presumably inside physical existence? Or is he saying that they exist 'metaphorically' like metaphorical unicorns and fairies? How can one be so confident in assigning attributes to an entity for which there is no evidence?

People can have all the metaphors they want and endlessly debate the attributes of their metaphorical gods, just as they can argue about whether metaphorical unicorns are silver or white and whether these mythical animals are mild-mannered or ferocious in temperament. But they never come right out and say that their god is as much a metaphor as a unicorn. As Greta Christina so lucidly pointed out, even those progressive religionists who say that religion is a metaphor don't seem to really mean it.

When Dawkins argues with theologians and sophisticated religious believers, he sometimes encounters an alternate form of the Kierkegaard Gambit which, to pursue chess terminology, I call the Nineteenth Century Variation. They often accuse him of being 'nineteenth century' in his level of sophistication and of arguing as if they still have the naive belief of god as an old man with a long white beard in the sky. Of course, since they don't, they argue that that makes his arguments irrelevant. Dawkins wonders why they assign to him such a naïve concept of god when it should be obvious that he thinks no such thing:

What, then, is the coded meaning of 'You are so nineteenth-century' in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: 'You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like "Do you believe in miracles " or "Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?" Don't you know that in polite society we don't ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century.' But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.

The nineteenth century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being 'nineteenth century.' It is really quite funny when you think about it. (The God Delusion, p. 157-157)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both are embarrassing requests for sophisticated believers and so atheists must be deflected from asking them.

Next: Why evidence is so crucial

POST SCRIPT: Monty Python sing the Philosopher's Drinking Song

Sing along with them! Its fun! Sadly, Kierkegaard didn't make it into the song.

March 04, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-2: More sophisticated excuses for the lack of evidence

(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.)

Yesterday's post discussed some of the simpler excuses offered by religious believers for the lack of evidence for god and why more sophisticated believers find them unsatisfactory. One alternative line of defense adopted by the later group is to argue that questions of existence are of no importance, that questions about god's existence transcend such mundane concerns. For such people, their concept of god is such that evidence is irrelevant.

People like John Haught, H. E. Baber, and Karen Armstrong have pursued this line of argument to such an extent that it seemed to me that they have defined god right out of existence and are thus operationally indistinguishable from atheists. I have called such people 'religious atheists' because they clearly want to be considered believers. Thus they continue to claim that god does exist but in some vague way that is exempt from the normal expectation that existence claims require at least some evidence to be credible.

At the same time, these people are often formal members of actual religious sects that demand belief in the miraculous. John Haught, for example, is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University. The Roman Catholic church in particular requires belief in a pretty spectacular set of absurdities: the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the perpetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life, etc. Does he believe that all those things are historically factual? Does he believe in transubstantiation? How can he not believe in any of them and still call himself a Roman Catholic, since those are fundamental dogmas that all Catholics are required to subscribe to?

Albert Mohler. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observing an online debate between Richard Dawkins and Armstrong, realizes that these ultra-sophisticated theologians have pretty much lost the game and conceded the argument to atheists. He says that the arguments of people like Armstrong are 'superficial', 'theologically reckless', and 'elegant nonsense.' He says that, "Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong… We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects. Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief."

Recently I have noticed an interesting wrinkle in the response of some apologists to the atheist's challenge to produce evidence. Instead of providing evidence, our competence to speak on this topic at all is challenged. The form of this argument is to say something along the lines of "You really don't know what you are talking about. Kierkegaard (or Kant or Aquinas or Wittgenstein or any other eminent philosopher or theologian) dealt with this issue with great depth and subtlety and until you have studied those works, you should not speak on this issue." I call this debating ploy the 'Kierkegaard Gambit', although any other impressive name in theology or philosophy will do.

As an example, here is one such comment in response to one of my posts: "I wonder why so many physicists and evolutionary biologists and software engineers think that the exploration of meaning and religion must be so fundamentally simple that they can engage in sweeping statements without actually reading anything of the thousands of years of thought on the topic."

As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, "I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it."

Or again, "[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I'll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who's making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three."

That's putting me in my place, isn't it?

What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god's existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.

This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.

But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.

What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

Next: The Nineteenth Century variation on the Kierkergaard Gambit

POST SCRIPT: Philosophers playing soccer

As only Monty Python can imagine. As a background note, the 'Beckenbauer' referred to is a genuine legendary German soccer star who captained their victorious World Cup team in 1974.

March 03, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-1: Excuses for the lack of evidence

(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 noticed an interesting development in discussions of whether god exists. The new/unapologetic atheists have been relentless in hammering home their basic message that in the absence of any evidence in favor of the existence of god, it makes no sense to believe in such an entity. It is not a very difficult argument to understand. The position of the new/unapologetic atheists follows that of the very old 'new' atheist Bertrand Russell, who advised that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true." (Skeptical Essays, I (1928).) Or, as I said in a previous post that describes my basic assertions: "There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns."

This laser-like focus on the need to produce evidence for god has put religious believers in a quandary. Of course 'god' is the name of a slippery and malleable concept and believers often try to evade any pointed criticisms of god's existence by saying that the god the atheists deny is not their concept of god and so those arguments do not apply to them. So let's define what at least some atheists define as god. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 31) defines the god that he finds implausible and it is as good a definition as any: "there exists a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us."

One can add that atheists are philosophical naturalists. Julian Baggini in his Atheism: A Very Short Introduction explains the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism:

What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 13-14)

It should perhaps be clarified that the basic problem that atheists have is with a god that shares the same world as us and whose existence has some impact on the world. If believers want to postulate god as some entity wandering around in an alternate universe distinct from our own that has absolutely no contact with our universe or as some kind of metaphor that also has no empirical consequences in this world whatsoever, they can knock themselves out and we atheists would not be concerned (or even interested) in the slightest. We would pay as much attention to them as we would to people discussing whether unicorns are silver or white.

Atheists have thus set a clear target for religious believers to aim at and refute: Show us the evidence for your god. After all, most religious people believe in a god, defined as a supernatural creative intelligence who is at the very least the creator and guider of our own universe. Surely there must be at least some incontrovertible evidence of his existence? The same goes for the existence of the soul or for miracles or the afterlife.

But such evidence for a 'supernatural creative intelligence', which is the kind of god that atheists seek to refute because it has empirical consequences, has never been produced. This has put religious apologists deeply on the defensive because they know that after millennia of trying, they simply cannot point to any concrete and credible evidence for the existence of such a god.

It can be argued that the entire field of theology is based on trying to specify the characteristics of an entity for which there is no credible empirical evidence whatsoever. It should not be surprising then that there are so many religions offering so many versions of god, and that even within religions there are sects and divisions each with its own variations. In fact, if you get down to the level of a single individual, each person can argue in favor of a purely idiosyncratic god that appeals just to that individual alone. In the absence of any evidentiary requirement, how could you ever prove that person wrong? I suspect that if you take any two people who belong to the very same sect and go to the very same church/synagogue/mosque/temple and ask them to list the properties of their god, they will still not be able to agree on what their god is like. Such a lack of consensus is an indicator that we are dealing with a fictitious entity that never makes contact with the empirical world.

Instead of concrete evidence being provided, what is offered range from vague generalities such as 'everything in the world is evidence for god' to pointing to alleged miracles whose miraculous nature disappears under close scrutiny. Some naïve believers sometimes appeal to personal experience (They "feel" god's presence; god "speaks" to them, they have a "relationship" with god, etc.) but such claims are indistinguishable from any other form of delusion. Others have tried to turn the lack of evidence into a virtue, by saying that god does not want to make it easy for us to believe by providing clear evidence because he believes that faith in the absence of evidence is a virtue. Again, they do not provide evidence to support how they know that their god has this curious notion that evidence about his own existence is a bad thing when it is so obviously a good thing in every other aspect of life.

More sophisticated religious believers want to preserve their credibility as supporters of science and realize that miracles are not only in contradiction to the laws of science, they can be and have been easily explained away. They know that personal feelings and emotions are not credible as evidence. They realize that making a virtue out of the lack of evidence is obviously special pleading at a laughable level.

So what options are left to them? In the next post in the series I will discuss two strategies that are adopted: The Nineteenth Century Gambit and the Kierkegaard Gambit.

POST SCRIPT: Author Terry Pratchett on religion

February 12, 2010

The religious atheists get even more atheistic

(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 been writing about the fact that as scientific knowledge advances, ultra-sophisticated Christian apologists, desperately seeking to find a way to reconcile their need to believe in a god while not contradicting science, have had to redefine god in such a vague and non-interventionist way that I felt justified in giving them the label of 'religious atheists'.

Georgetown University theologian (and accommodationist) John Haught provides the latest example of this kind of religious backtracking by recently writing that the hitherto bedrock religious idea that there is design in life is no longer necessary for religious belief. He says:

The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.

Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution--unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time--that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over. (My italics)

That is interesting. So now even the lack of design is evidence for god! There goes Thomas Aquinas. There goes Paley's watch. There goes intelligent design. The foundational argument of all religions that the cosmos exhibits features of design that are inexplicable without assuming the existence of god is thrown out the window. Instead what he talks about is the 'story and drama of life being much more interesting' than design could ever be. What he seems to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides good drama. Can he be serious?

The arguments of religious atheists like Haught can be summed up simply as: Whatever science discovers, it points to god.

Some years ago, I debated intelligent design proponents in Kansas at their annual soiree. There was a large audience present consisting almost entirely of religious believers, mostly biblical literalists. During the debate, I kept hammering away at the indisputable fact that intelligent design had failed miserably to suggest a mechanism for how it operates or to generate even one prediction that scientists could look for and that therefore it could not be considered a scientific theory.

This message that there was no evidence for god must have disturbed one woman because she came up to me afterwards to give me a definition of god that she felt met all my objections. She had written it on a small scrap of paper during the session. I have kept it all these years, because I was impressed by her sincerity. Her note said:

Consider: Rendered "general" (I.E. The Law of Complex Systems) by the millions of created objects known about, (observed) daily, that: all complex systems (that we know about) owe their existence to acts of creation using planning and work by one or more intelligent living beings (not one exception). (All emphases in the original.)

We should ignore the lack of precision and coherence because it was clearly written in a hurry and spontaneously during the session itself. She was also trying to write it in what she thought was scientific language, adding to its obscurity. But what she is essentially saying is that every single thing in the world is designed, so that they all constitute evidence for the existence of god. She thought that this was a watertight definition of god that could not be refuted.

This is naïve and circular reasoning but excusable in someone who is not a professional theologian but is instead a devout believer who was thinking on the fly. But it actually makes more sense than the convoluted reasoning of Haught and other religious atheists who claim that no evidence is even necessary for god, that the question of his objective existence is also irrelevant, and that all that matters is whether god serves as a good metaphor and provides a dramatic story.

Haught's essay presents an incredibly pathetic argument for god that basically denies god. Jerry Coyne takes it apart, point by point.

If there was ever a time to accuse someone with the cliché of making a virtue out of necessity, Haught's piece provides it.

POST SCRIPT: That Mitchell and Webb Look on Abraham and Isaac

Truly one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Why would anyone even want to worship a god who is such a cruel jerk?

January 12, 2010

Is there an atheist 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.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a 'force' or 'principle' or 'consciousness' or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

January 11, 2010

The consequences of atheism

(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.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like "god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell" or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is 'not natural' (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a 'soul' as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

September 17, 2009

The big tent of the atheists

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently fall prey to the temptation to classify things in groups. I would have been in my element as a 19th century biologist implementing the Linnaean classification scheme of all living things. Recently I have been thinking that the term 'atheist' is associated with too narrow a meaning. In fact, I think that there are six different types of atheist.

The most common type of atheist is the explicit atheist. These are the people who say openly that they do not believe that god exists, and this is the group to whom the label is commonly believed to apply.

Then we have the covert atheists. These are people who no longer believe that god exists but do not feel that they can openly say so. The climate for atheists can be quite hostile in some parts of the world, enough to be socially ostracized or even lose one's job, requiring such people to keep mum about their lack of belief. Others may keep quiet because they belong to religious families and may not want to upset loved ones by speaking about their lack of belief. I suspect that the ranks of elected officials in the US or those seeking such office have a large number of covert atheists.

Other covert atheists work for religious institutions as priests or rabbis or ministers or imams. I have argued before that there is likely to be a high level of covert atheism among religious intellectuals, with the faculty of religion departments in colleges and theological seminaries, upper levels of the clergy, and the Pope being particularly good candidates.

But others may keep quiet about their atheism simply because they like belonging to churches, perhaps for the camaraderie (in many small towns the church and school are the main venues for social gatherings), perhaps because they like to sing in the choir, or because religious institutions provide avenues for social activism. Such people are willing to not speak of their atheism in return for enjoying these benefits.

Then there are the functional atheists. These are people who, while they may or may not say anything about their belief or disbelief in god, or even bother much with this question, live their lives as if god does not exist.

Then there are the agnostic atheists. These are people (like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan) who reject the label of atheist and choose to call themselves agnostics because they have bought into the mistaken belief that atheists are certain that there is no god. Since they don't think one can know such a thing for certain, they call themselves agnostics. As I have argued before, such people are mistaken about what being an atheist implies and they could just as easily call themselves atheists without changing their views in any way.

The fifth category consists of the people I have been writing about recently, such as Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and Robert Wright. They are the people who say they do believe in a god but when they go on to describe their object of belief, it turns out that they do not believe in anything that any traditional believer could relate to, since their god does absolutely nothing but seems to be simply an idea or an object of contemplation. I have called these people worshippers in the Church of the Slacker God but a snappier label for them might be the seemingly oxymoronic religious atheists.

Interestingly, R. Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also sees people like Armstrong as atheists, whatever they call themselves, and seems to agree with me that that her kind of defense of god essentially concedes the debate to atheists. He calls Armstrong's argument 'superficial' and 'theologically reckless' and 'elegant nonsense', writing that "the exchange in The Wall Street Journal [between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins] turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion."

The final category is the spiritual atheist. As the powerful arguments of the atheists sink in and people realize that they cannot be refuted, you can expect to hear many more statements of the "I am not religious but I am spiritual" kind, which usually signals that the speaker is on the way to atheism (or at least has given up on god) but is as yet unwilling to acknowledge this to herself or to others. Because the word spiritual has such an elastic meaning it provides a way out of the impasse for those who shy away from embracing the label of atheism but don't want to be lumped with religious believers either. As usual, Jesus and Mo have a funny take on this.

The people known as 'accommodationists', who claim that the scientific and religious worldviews are either compatible or feel that the incompatibility should not be highlighted, can be found in all these groups. That label describes less of a personal belief and more of a preference for a political strategy.

So we see that atheists are 'big tent' people, welcoming all those who seek to escape from the intellectual straitjacket that religions put on people.

POST SCRIPT: Nutters day out

Max Blumenthal mingles with the crowd at last weekend's demonstration in Washington DC which seemed to bring out the nutters. Some of these people are major-league weird.

And talking of nutters, you may be wondering what Orly Taitz, the person who was leading the 'birther' movement, has been up to. Her most recent case (one of many she has filed that challenged Obama's right to deploy someone to Iraq because he had not proved his citizenship) was thrown out yesterday by a judge who, in a ruling remarkable for its mixture of ridicule and sarcasm, warned her that if she wastes the court's time again with such nonsense, she would face sanctions

Taitz's response to this stinging rebuke? She thinks the judge should be tried for treason! With Orly, the fun never ends.

A motion to have her disbarred for misconduct reveals depths of idiocy that even I had not imagined. This document is a list of just allegations that have not been proven but if even a small fraction are true they reveal a level of wackiness on Taitz's part that borders on delusional.

February 20, 2009

The 'bad atheist' strikes again

My post last week on religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty generated some interesting comments that I started to respond to in the comments section but it got too long (my usual vice) and I decided to do a separate post on the topic.

In the comments, I was accused of wanting to 'banish' or 'abolish' religion and that this was intolerant, akin to those of Christian missionaries who went to Asia and Africa seeking to convert heathen and in doing so disparaged the indigenous beliefs of the people living there. My phrases "getting rid of religion is the goal" and "Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out" were quoted as examples of my lack of tolerance.

I must admit that I am puzzled by this accusation. Although I definitely have said that religion is more a force for evil than for good and that we would all be much better off without it, I have never advocated 'banishing' or 'abolishing' religion as those words imply using coercive measures. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, after all. But I am arguing that we should actively speak out about the vacuity of religious beliefs, just like we should argue against astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft, and all the other irrational belief systems that are used to exploit the gullible. I have argued that religious beliefs act as a kind of gateway drug to those other beliefs.

The charge of intolerance arises because religion has been quite successful in its attempt to stifle any discussion of its irrationality, in seeking to establish the idea that 'tolerance' for religion means not pointing out its flaws and campaigning against it, the way that this cartoon describes.

But all that tolerance requires is not persecuting people for their beliefs or forcing them to change. It does not, and should not, mean requiring the rest of us to act as if those beliefs made sense. People have the right to believe (and advocate for) any belief system they wish, however insane it may seem to the rest of us. They do not have the right to be shielded from critiques pointing out that their beliefs are crazy.

This accusation of intolerance also tends to be selective. Suppose I replaced religion in the offending quotes with (say) the word 'racism' (or sexism or homophobia) so that they read, "getting rid of racism is the goal" and "Racism, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out". Would these statements still be seen as intolerant? Similarly, if I said that we should have as a goal "getting rid of" the terrible religious beliefs of (say) the Taliban by relentless arguing against it and pointing out all its flaws, would that be seen as intolerant?

I think not. In fact, I would likely be praised. But what is the essential difference? The difference, as I see it, is that most people view racism and sexism and homophobia and the Talibanic version of Islam as bad things, but religion in general (at least the mainstream varieties) as a good thing. So the accusation of intolerance is not about the attitude or the words used but about the perceived merits of their target.

It was also pointed out that people like gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. were both inspired by their religion and that if an earlier campaign against religion had been successful, then they would not have been the people they were and we would have been worse off.

The idea that an entire system of beliefs should be maintained and even supported because a few admirable people hold them is a dubious argument. Should we refrain from criticizing fascism as an idea because of the inspiration its philosophy received from composer Richard Wagner? Or refrain from criticizing imperialism because it inspired some of Rudyard Kipling's poetry?

The underlying premise of this argument is that if not for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christian beliefs, he would not have fought the battles he fought and segregation in the USA would have continued forever. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. Similarly it is argued that Christianity gave rise to gospel music and if there had been no Christianity there would be no Mahalia Jackson. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. To bring these assumptions to the surface is to see how untenable they are.

So what if there were no gospel music? That would be unfortunate but music would still be there in its many varied forms. Suppose that we discovered a remote community that practiced child sacrifice and had produced a whole culture of beautiful music based on this practice, with their own equivalent of Mahalia Jackson. Would that require us to not criticize child sacrifice and call for its end?

I am perfectly willing to concede that if there had been no Christianity, maybe Mahalia Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been the people they were. Or maybe they would have found inspiration from other sources, just like many other admirable people in history, because what they believed in or their natural gifts were too strong to be stifled. Most certainly there would have been other great fighters against racism and other great singers. To argue for the support and maintenance of a delusional belief system because those delusions produced a few exemplary people is not really an argument.

It all boils down to the fact that religious people want immunity from strong critiques of their beliefs, for atheists to adopt the policy that even if we think that religious beliefs make no sense, we mustn't say so publicly. But 'bad atheists' like me, not deterred by being "ill-thought of and ill-spoken of" (in John Stuart Mill's words), are simply not going along with that expectation.

POST SCRIPT: Psychic spoon bending

In this sketch by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from their TV show, the Laurie character reacts in an aggrieved way when Fry points out some problems with his claims, not unlike the way that some religious people react when skeptics point out the problems with beliefs in god. Not having an answer based on evidence or reason, they resort to 'taking offense', in the hope that the natural desire of most people to avoid unpleasantness will cause them to refrain from pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs.


February 16, 2009

Religion as a gateway drug

In the February 2009 issue of Harper's magazine, Mark Slouka wrote:

One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo "vibrational aura" that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Is the fact that so many people believe such rubbish necessarily so bad that we need to actively work against them? What harm do they do?

This kind of argument surfaces all the time from people who recognize that religion and belief in god has no empirical basis whatsoever and is thus irrational but that we should indulge them because they make people feel good and is harmless.

I think we would all agree that what people believe is in all cases a private affair that does not do any harm and thus should be free from harassment. Our society is full of people who believe all manner of bizarre and unsubstantiated things and we leave them alone to live their lives. Our psychiatric wards are only reserved for those who are delusional in ways that make them imminently dangerous to others and perhaps themselves, and a humane society takes such people into its care so that they cannot act on their beliefs.

What people say should also be protected. Words, by themselves, cannot harm anyone and thus there can be no justification for restricting speech by and for adults, except for obviously dangerous things like falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

So belief in angels or ghosts or reincarnation or auras or god are, by themselves, harmless. But the fact that something is harmless by itself does not mean that we should passively allow it to exist and even flourish. An open manhole in the middle of a street is harmless by itself. It is not an aggressor. If someone should fall into it, one can still say that it was not the open hole that was at fault but the person for not paying attention to where they were walking. But that does not mean we should not take steps to prevent unsuspecting people from accidentally falling into it.

Religious beliefs are like the open manhole. It is not their existence that is the danger but that they can be the cause of harm. They make it easier for some people to believe the voices in their head that tells them that god is commanding them to do various things, or believe that god is speaking though specially chosen people (like the Pope or Pat Robertson or one of the Ayatollahs) and that thus their words carry extra weight.

The danger with religion is that it is at best like the so-called 'gateway drugs' that can lure unsuspecting people into using more harmful and highly addictive drugs. Once people, at a very early age, are made to think that it is perfectly rational that there is an invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful being who can read everyone's mind simultaneously, talk to them with no on else hearing the voice, and take action in the world while evading all detection, then they have been primed to accept as plausible any and all beliefs, however bizarre, provided it is even vaguely compatible with their childhood indoctrination.

Angels, reincarnation, auras, and the like may be frowned on by Christian clergy and theologians but I suspect that most ordinary Christians think that they are within the broad framework of their beliefs. Notice that the official churches at most indulge in tut-tutting disapproval of these fringe beliefs and never go on a crusade to stamp them all out. How could they? Religious institutions know that there is little that separates them from what are commonly known as fringe beliefs: the spoon-benders, mind readers, psychics, faith healers, crystal-ball gazers, Tarot card readers, snake handlers, and the like. This is why they never aggressively campaign against them. What possible argument could they use that could not be turned against their own beliefs and reveal that their own dogmas are equally baseless?

During the last presidential campaign, many people had a lot of fun at the expense of Dennis Kucinich's admission that he had seen what he thought was a UFO. What a wacky guy! But if they were religious believers, all you had to do was ask them why that was any weirder than believing in a god, and you likely found that they were initially surprised (because the thought had never occurred to them) and then quickly changed the subject as they realized the indefensible position they were in.

All irrational beliefs exist together in a Pandora's Box. Open it even slightly with the intention of letting out only mainstream religious beliefs, and everything else also comes rushing out.

Since free and open thought and speech is a fundamental right and a good thing, this particular Pandora's Box should not be shut. Thus we really have only two consistent options: the rational position that while we should not suppress beliefs, we should actively campaign against all unsubstantiated beliefs and superstitions, which would necessarily include those of mainstream religions; or allow any and all beliefs to be unchallenged, and thus allow the evil and harmful ones to have the same level of approval as that of mainstream religions.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart had a farewell interview with George W. Bush

Will Ferrell as Bush w/Jon Stewart from Will Ferrell

February 13, 2009

Religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty

All religions depend on a particular kind of faith, the belief in something in the absence of, and in fact counter to, credible evidence for its existence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of your faith, and people in religiously plural societies are used to fending off such challenges.

This is why religious people often try to suggest that since atheists cannot prove that there is no god, believing that there is no god is as much an act of faith as believing in a god. They are trying to make it once again a contest of dueling faiths, comfortable terrain for religious people. Atheists should not fall for that rhetorical gambit.

When atheists use the words 'believe' and 'faith', they use them in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence 'believe', many things, such as that the universe is billions of years old. Or one can have 'faith' in the laws of science that keep airplanes aloft.

The words faith and belief used in the scientific context merely represent an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty. Even though we cannot be 100% sure that the current laws of science are true, we have sufficient evidence to commit to certainty and thus have 'faith' (in the scientific sense) that they will not let us down. Otherwise we would be paralyzed, frozen into inaction, afraid to drive a car or step into a building or go by plane, fearful that everything would collapse around us.

This is in stark contrast to the way the same words are used by religious people. They not only have to have faith in the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

As a consequence, the greatest challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, the calm assurance of the latter that god does not exists brings them face to face with their own suppressed doubts in a way that can be much more disconcerting than meeting an agnostic.

Philosopher David Hume said in his work On Miracles: "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..." Astronomer Carl Sagan put it more succinctly: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

The claim that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing entity that exists everywhere in space and time, can even read everyone's mind simultaneously, and yet is undetectable, is about as extraordinary a claim as one can imagine. Yet most people who believe in god do not have any evidence at all for this belief, let alone extraordinary evidence.

Believing in the existence of such a god requires faith in the religious sense, committing to certainty in spite of having no credible evidence or reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is hard which is why religious people are always plagued by doubts. To try and overcome this problem, this deficiency is exalted into a noble virtue: the greater the lack of evidence or even reason for belief, the more the faith is lauded. This enables people suppress their ever-present doubts.

Believing that god does not exist requires faith in the scientific sense, committing to certainty based on overwhelming evidence and reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is easy to make and we make such commitments all the time in our everyday life.

This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.

In Obama's inaugural speech he said that he wanted to "restore science to its rightful place." Applying scientific scrutiny and standards to all beliefs, including religious ones, might be a good place to start.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism on the move

The campaign to put ads on buses in London that said "There's probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy life" generated some publicity and spurred a similar campaign in Washington DC with a more muted message that said "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake." This also has generated some publicity.

These ads were relatively mild in their skeptical message but made me realize that it is not easy to come up with a simple slogan that expresses full-blown atheism in a pointed way that would also be eye-catching and thought-provoking and yet humorous. Any ideas, readers?

February 12, 2009

Darwin's religious legacy: Neutral or anti-god?

Today is the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, arguably the scientist whose work has had the greatest impact on human thought. This major anniversary comes at a time when religious groups, sensing the very real danger that his theory of evolution by natural selection poses to all religious beliefs, are trying to either discredit him or co-opt him.

We are all aware of the attacks from the groups seeking to discredit Darwin's theory, which range from the speaking-in-tongues snake-handlers to intelligent designers, all of whom seek to eliminate or at least undermine its teaching in schools. They argue that this theory is wrong in its essential elements and that god has repeatedly intervened in the workings of the world, especially when it comes to the creation of humans.

In order to combat those attempts, there have been attempts by those groups seeking to co-opt Darwin, the so-called 'moderate' religionists, to resurrect the 'peaceful coexistence' model in the science-religion wars, where religious supporters of evolution join up with scientists to combat the attempts of the anti-Darwinian religious groups to discredit evolution. Advocates of this approach argue for the existence of 'two worlds', the material world that is the domain of science, and a non-material spiritual world that is the domain of god and is outside the reach of science. In the peaceful coexistence model, these two worlds are non-overlapping and thus no conflict need arise between science and religion.

I have argued elsewhere (see here and here) that this model makes no sense whatsoever and leads to all manner of logical contradictions unless one defines the spiritual world in such a way that it has no influence whatsoever on the material world, making it totally redundant. In other words, the only way to salvage religion to make it compatible with a scientific worldview is to strip it of every single feature that we normally associate with religion, something that religious moderates are loathe to do.

But supporters of this untenable 'two worlds' view keep trying, and they are concerned that atheists like me have been using Darwin's theory to attack the very foundations of all religious beliefs, especially the idea that human beings have some special quality that can relate to god. We argue that each and every aspect of humanity, including morality, consciousness, and mind, is not immune to being explained by the natural selection process, and thus god is irrelevant in a Darwinian (and scientific) worldview.

But this is not a popular position to take politically, and has caused some concern to the 'moderate' religion group, since it rejects their claim to some special preserve for religion. A report by Martin Beckford in the February 9, 2009 issue of the The Telegraph (London) describes the latest appeal for the resurrection of peaceful coexistence, as expressed in a letter to the paper. The letter asserts that Darwin's theory is neutral with respect to its implications for belief in god and makes the standard appeal to this so-called middle ground, on the one hand asking evolution's skeptics to accept the validity of the theory, and on the other to atheists to not use the theory to argue against the existence of god.

The influential signatories of the letter include two Church of England bishops, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a member of the Evangelical Alliance, as well as Professor Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, and Professor Sir Martin Evans, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

"We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory's validity."

"At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

The letter writers go on to warn that "militant atheists are turning people away from evolution by using it as a weapon with which to attack religion."

Ross (one of the readers of this blog who sent me this link) thought that I would find it amusing because they are clearly targeting people like me who see Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as devastating for religious beliefs and have had no hesitation in saying so.

So should I listen to this appeal and cease and desist in my efforts to use science as a weapon to undermine religion in order to not alienate the moderate religious supporters of evolution? Of course not.

The problem is that the people who take this peaceful coexistence position are mixing means and ends. The people who are signatories to the letter have as their goal to promote greater acceptance of the theory of evolution, and to do that they seek political alliances between 'moderate' religious people and scientists to combat the blatantly anti-science religious fundamentalists. So for them, popular acceptance of evolution is the goal, and peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religious beliefs and science is the means to achieving that end. This requires them to downplay the negative implications of evolution for religion.

But for atheists like me, getting rid of religion is the goal and scientific theories (including evolution) are a means of achieving that goal. I think religion is fundamentally a bad thing. Evolution and other scientific arguments have definitely anti-religion, anti-god implications and we should not hesitate to emphasize those strong inferences. If this causes discomfort for religious believers, they will have to deal with it by finding arguments and evidence to refute it, not by asking us to not point it out. What the argument of the 'two worlds' advocates reveal is that religious moderates are like religious fundamentalists, willing to accept science only as long as it does not disturb their cherished dogma. They only differ in the dogmas they hold dear.

Does that mean I do not care about the public acceptance theory of evolution? Of course I care and will oppose all efforts to undermine its rightful place in science and science education. But I have confidence in the theory to withstand any and all religious onslaughts because it is a scientific theory, not a propaganda system like religion. Evolution will flourish or die on its scientific merits, because of the evidence and the coherence of its arguments, not because of any political strategy. Whatever the level of antipathy to it, the public and scientific communities cannot ignore it or suppress it, as if it were some system of thought that can be believed or rejected at will. It forms one of the foundations of modern science, an invaluable tool in humanity's progress.

The public may turn against it in the short run but they will have to concede defeat and accept it in the long run, just as they lost with their initial opposition to the theories of the round earth, the heliocentric system, the theory of relativity, and all the other times when religious people foolishly decided that what their ancient religious texts or priests or theologians said or what they 'felt in their hearts' was a more reliable guide to knowledge than data and evidence-based arguments.

Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out. Pretending to act as if 'moderate' religion makes sense, as the 'two worlds' model does, only strengthens all religion, both moderate and fundamentalist.

The age of peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religion and science is over. No modern scientist can credibly argue for its continuation unless he or she is willfully suppressing the obvious contradictions that exist between science and religion.

POST SCRIPT: Meet Charles Darwin

As part of the Darwin year celebrations, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is hosting Floyd Sandford, a Darwin impersonator. The performance is on Saturday, February 14, 2009 from 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. followed by 30 minute discussion.

Admission to this performance (but not to the rest of the Museum) is free and open to the public but requires a ticket. Tickets may be reserved by calling (216) 231-1177 or by registering online.

Professor Sandford is an emeritus member of the Biology Department at Coe College. He performs a one-man show entitled "Darwin Remembers" and lectures on Darwin.


February 11, 2009

The social appeal of agnosticism

In yesterday's post I tried to understand what makes agnosticism different from atheism from agnosticism in any logical or observable way, and did not have much luck, but there were some very interesting responses in the comments.

I suspect that one reason that some nonbelievers find agnosticism appealing is that it is more socially acceptable in religious societies to say that one is an agnostic than that one is an atheist. Because the common (but erroneous view) view of the difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that the former does not know for sure if there is a god or not (or that it may be an unanswerable question) while the latter is sure that god does not exist, religious people may feel that agnostics are not directly contradicting to their own beliefs. They may even feel that they might be able to 'win' over agnostics to god since their minds are not made up.

As a result of this greater acceptance, those non-religious people who do not wish to ruffle feathers with their religion neighbors may prefer to adopt the label of agnostic. For some (like Elizabeth in yesterday's comments) calling oneself an agnostic may serve as a rest stop on the road to complete disbelief, a place to prepare oneself and one's religious friends and family for the reality that one has stopped believing.

Charles Darwin is a good example of this. A shy and retiring man, who sought to avoid controversy and personal conflicts, he preferred to call himself an agnostic instead of an atheist, although by the age of forty it was clear that he had lost all belief in god and religion and had very harsh words for both. As he said in his autobiography:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine. (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen, p. 246)

And yet, he shied away from calling himself an atheist. Edward Aveling, a professed atheist aware of Darwin's reluctance to adopt that label, recounted how at a dinner with Darwin, he tried to convince him "that the terms 'Agnostic' and 'Atheist' were practically equivalent – that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity." (The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters, edited by Francis Darwin, 1958, p. 60.)

Darwin's biographers pick up the story:

They lit cigarettes and Darwin, completely our of character, pitched in. 'Why do you call yourselves atheists?' In his dotage, forty years since his covert notebook days, he finally dragged the issue into the open. He preferred the word agnostic, he said. '"Agnostic" was but "Atheist" writ respectable,' Aveling replied, searching for common ground, 'and "Atheist" was only "Agnostic" writ aggressive.' But Darwin retorted, 'Why should you be so aggressive?' Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people? Freethought is 'all very well' for the educated, but are ordinary people 'ripe for it'? Here spoke the comfortable squire, seeking not to disturb the social equilibrium. (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 657, my italics.)

I think that the italicized passage captures a lot of the truth. There is no question that saying one is an atheist triggers a more negative reaction than saying one is an agnostic. I suspect that many agnostics are like Darwin, effectively atheists but uneasy about the fact that atheism is perceived as being more aggressive in its opposition to religion than agnosticism, though logically and substantively there is little difference. Those, like Darwin, who do not wish to disturb the social equilibrium may find the label of agnostic more appealing.

POST SCRIPT: Oedipus, with vegetables

The story of Oedipus is one of the strangest in classical Greek mythology and literature but the essence of the story is presented nicely in this 8 minute movie, performed entirely by vegetables.

February 10, 2009

The puzzle of agnosticism

I must admit that I find agnosticism puzzling. For me, agnosticism is harder to understand than atheism or religious belief.

There is no doubt that religious people find agnosticism easier to deal with than atheism. You can see it in the way that those religious people who can get beyond the emotional reactions to atheism that I listed yesterday often argue that since one cannot prove that there is no god, one has to admit that one is unsure and that therefore one is 'really' an agnostic. They are right in their argument but wrong in their idea of what atheism and agnosticism involves.

All atheists will readily concede that there can be no proof of the non-existence of god because of the logical impossibility of proving such a negative. But having said that, we do live our lives assuming that there is no god and find that the world makes perfect sense and everything seems to work nicely. We are practically certain that there is no god just as we are certain that we can drive our cars without ever considering the possibility that a unicorn might suddenly run across the street or Santa Claus land in his sleigh right in our path, even though we are not 100% certain that unicorns and Santa Claus and flying reindeer don't exist either

What constitutes atheism should be easy to understand. What I find hard to understand is how the agnostic position differs from that of the atheist. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable."

An atheist would have no objection to that statement. As I have said before, there is no possible logical argument and no conceivable evidence that could ever establish the negative conclusion that there is no god. So agnosticism and atheism seem to me to be logically equivalent, at least as far as that particular dictionary definition goes.

Some agnostics may be seeking to create a distance between themselves and atheists because they suffer from the same kind of misunderstanding about atheism as religious people, thinking that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god, and thus they may wish to separate themselves from those whom they perceive as possessing an unjustifiable and arrogant certainty.

Or perhaps the difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in the secondary definition of an agnostic as "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." (my italics)

It is true that while an atheist is not logically certain there is no god, he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They have no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason. Since atheists live as if there is no god, it is safe to say that atheists are committed to believing in the nonexistence of god.

So is that the difference? Is that why agnostics shun the word atheist and prefer the label of agnostic, because they are uncommitted on this question while atheists are committed? But what does being 'uncommitted' really mean? Is there a difference in the probabilities that atheists and agnostics assign to god's existence? Atheists assign the probability of god's existence to be infinitesimally close to zero. I doubt that the lack of commitment by agnostics to god's existence or non-existence means that they assign 50% probability to each option. Agnostics clearly think that god's non-existence is far more likely than his existence.

So are agnostics distinguished from atheists in that while they think that the probability of god's existence is very small, they give it a slightly higher value than the almost-but-effectively-zero value that atheists assign?

But that kind of difference is hard to quantify. One way to operationalize that vague notion and test the true beliefs of agnostics is to ask them if their lack of commitment to non-belief results in any observable behavioral differences when compared to that of atheists.

Atheists live as if they are sure that there is no god. Do agnostics behave in some way that is different from atheists as a result of being agnostic? Are agnostics nervous about being wrong about god's non-existence and only finding out after they are dead? Are they are hoping that their 'softer' agnosticism will result in god giving them a reduced punishment? Do they at least occasionally go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue or do other quasi-religious things? Are there some things they will not say or thoughts that they will not allow themselves to think because it is too risky, such as, for example, denying the Holy Spirit? After all, Jesus said: "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32)?

If the answer is 'no' to all these questions, then they are atheists irrespective of what they choose to call themselves because they are living their lives as if they are committed to the non-existence of god. If they say 'yes' to any one, then I think we need to define them as believers who have serious doubts. (One wag unkindly described agnostics as cowardly atheists.)

I suspect that there are many agnostics among the readers of this blog. I would be curious to learn what they think on this question.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

I am not sure what "speaks against the Holy Spirit" exactly means but whatever it is, I want to be on record as having thus spoken, like all those who have done so as part of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Pat Condell says that he is so busy denying the Holy Spirit that he has hardly any time for anything else.


February 09, 2009

Atheism going mainstream?

At one point in his inaugural address, Barack Obama started using familiar language in calling for national unity, saying "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus," but the ears of atheists everywhere perked up when he added at the end "and non-believers." Could this, along with the most recent Pew survey that indicates that the influence of religion in America is waning, be a sign that atheism is going mainstream?

The fact that neither Obama nor the Chief Justice was perturbed by the absence of a Bible when he repeated his presidential oath privately because of flubs in the original public ceremony (and no one on Obama's staff seemed bothered enough to go and hunt one down) lends credence to my belief that for many public figures, religion has played largely a ceremonial role, a façade for public consumption, rather than a true belief. It is like standing for the national anthem. How many people stand at home when the anthem is played at some televised event? As philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his 1873 autobiography, "The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion."

These are welcome developments. Atheists in America are used to mostly being treated as invisible in the body politic, while in the realm of personal relations they have been at best objects of puzzlement and curiosity, at worst targets of hostility. The recent University of Minnesota study (Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, American Sociological Review; April 2006, vol. 71, 211-234) that found that Americans listed atheists as those "least likely to share their vision of American society" and disapproved of their children marrying them (atheists ranking below Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals) came as no surprise to them.

The strong negative reaction to atheism is strange. After all, while atheism undoubtedly has implications for one's personal philosophy, it is not by itself strongly correlated with any particular philosophical framework or ideology. Atheists have no strong partisan affiliations based on commonly used labels. They are not obviously liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, and can be found on all sides of any non-religion based issue, whether it is social and economic policy, global warming, or war and peace. Atheists are all over the map.

And yet the reaction of many religious people to discovering an atheist in their midst varies widely over incredulity, pity, aversion, and unease, and it is instructive to look at the reasons why.

Incredulity comes from the fact that some form of belief in god or a supernatural power is so commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a given in American society, that to find someone who does not believe can be jolting, like meeting someone nowadays who believes that smoking is good for your health.

Pity for atheists arises from the feeling that without god, one cannot find any meaning in life, and so an atheist must be a despondent and depressed person, one step away from committing suicide. But talk with any atheist and you will find them just as full of the joy of life as anyone else. We atheists have found meaning in life. The only difference is that we have had to construct meaning for ourselves and have not adopted one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by institutionalized religions.

Aversion towards atheists arises from the misconception that without belief in a god who sets the rules and punishes transgressors, people would have no reason to not do evil things. Such people believe that human beings have no internal moral compass but can only navigate by god's light. This leads to the feeling that atheists bear careful watching as otherwise they might indulge in all manner of criminality and perversions. But those who have studied the correlation of religion with morality find that the moral and ethical sensibilities of atheists do not differ significantly from those of religious people.

It is not hard to see why this must be so. The Bible, like the ancient text of any religion, is full of the most appalling acts ascribed to or approved by god, such as murder, slavery, rape, and genocide. In many cases, the Bible records that even when god was not directly committing these acts, he either viewed them as virtuous or commanded his followers to do them. That leads to the obvious inference that god considers those despicable acts to be good things.

This conclusion is, of course, embarrassing for modern sophisticated believers so an entire theological industry has been created to explain why such things are not to be used as exemplars of how god wants us to behave. Whether one considers such apologetics successful or not, the very fact that believers look for ways to explain away those 'acts of god' shows that people are applying a more fundamental and externally derived set of moral standards to discriminate between those acts and motives that are worthy of ascribing to god (and thus should be emulated) and those that are not.

The fact is that the general principles of morality have always existed independently of, and prior to, the codification of religious morality. Even within the framework of the Bible, people knew that murder was a bad thing (as we see in the story of Cain and Abel) even before the mythical story of Moses and the Ten Commandments where god chiseled that prohibition into the stone tablets. What religious texts did was to codify the moral standards of that time, as well as sometimes impose others ones that worked to the advantage of priests and rulers or advanced some political agenda.

The problem is, of course, is that different religious subgroups have arrived at different conclusions about what is moral and what is not, even though they are using the same religious texts. For some people, persecuting and killing infidels and apostates is a good thing, for others not so much, and both have reason to think that they are doing god's will. How can you conclusively show that the leaders of the Inquisition and the Taliban and Pat Robertson are not the most accurate discerners of god's believers, that the kind of vicious and hateful morality they espouse is not truly god's will?

We cannot and should not decide what is good and bad based on what god supposedly did or what religious books say. That way lies barbarism and war. We have to arrive at a consensus on what is good and bad using basic human values that we can agree on, such as justice and equality. This is not as hard as it may sound. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations and is an admirable statement about what rights any human being, living anywhere, is entitled to. It not based on any religion but on our common humanity and on an intuitive understanding of the conditions necessary for people to live in dignity. Although it is not legally binding on member states, it is a powerful way of holding nations accountable for the way they treat their people.

As a declaration of principles to live by and a guide to how societies should be structured, the UDHR, the product of human beings working together for the common good, is far superior in its morality to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any other religious text purportedly written by god.

POST SCRIPT: Marijuana and jury nullification

The excessive hand-wringing over Michael Phelps and his use of marijuana is illustrative of how absurd our 'war on drugs' mentality is. Most people view the use of marijuana for medicinal or even casual recreational purposes far less seriously than legislators and law enforcement officers do. Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it is considered to be highly addictive and has no medicinal value, and puts it alongside heroin and cocaine.

When ordinary people start to think that a law is absurd and unjust, then you have the potential for jury nullification, which may have been why jurors acquitted a user in a less high-profile case.

For previous posts on jury nullification, see here and here.

January 30, 2009

Justifying universal and existence statements

My post on how we should implement the Year of Reason by asking religious people why they believe in god provoked quite a spirited back-and-forth in the comments section.

In the post, I said that there was no substantive reason that religious people could give in response to the question "Why do you believe in god?" and I categorized the likely things they would say under the headings Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings. I endorsed Sigmund Freud's assertion that religion was a form of mass delusion since so many people believed in something for which there was no credible evidence whatsoever.

Commenter Lucas took exception to my post and critiqued it saying that I should not make statements such as that "There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence" without substantiating them. He said that he himself did believe in god because he had "studied the evidence" and found it to be "extremely convincing".

This is where the discussion in the comments took an interesting and somewhat surprising turn. I asked for an example of the convincing evidence that he had that did not fit under the three umbrella headings that I had given. But Lucas resolutely refused to do so, saying that that was a detour, and that I was using it as an excuse to avoid addressing his challenge to my lack of substantiation.

This post seeks to clarify what seems to be a basic misunderstanding between us about where the burden of proof lies and what kinds of statements need evidence in support of them and what kinds of statements are justified by the absence of evidence against them.

To begin, let me repeat what I said in an even earlier post.

As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. "No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there's no entity having the property." (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

My statement that "There is no evidence for god" is a universal statement whose justification depends on the lack of a counter-example, and so according to the rules of logic, the burden of proof is on the person who challenges it to provide that counter-example. Equivalently, the statement by someone that he or she has convincing evidence for the existence of god that does not fall under the three categories that I provided is an existence statement, and again the burden of proof is on that person to provide an example, not on me to show that he or she has no such evidence.

But if we accept to Lucas's rules of logic, it seems like I cannot even make a claim such as that "there does not exist any dog that can speak English out of its rear end" unless I can provide citations from peer-reviewed journals that assert that the authors have checked every dog (or at least an extensive number of them) and found this statement to be true.

But of course that is absurd. The reason we can confidently make such a statement and expect them to be believed even in the absence of controlled studies is because we apply the commonly accepted rules of logic, not Lucas's rules. I have never personally encountered a dog that can speak out of its rear end and base my statement on the confidence that if anyone in the world had such a dog, it would be an event of such enormous significance that it would be publicized widely and known by everyone. So the absence of a counter-example is, by itself, sufficient to justify the statement.

Of course, someone could claim that I should still not say this because there may be a dog somewhere that can speak out of its rear end but that the owner is keeping it secret and that I do not know for sure that this is not the case. But no one would credit such a statement until the dog is actually produced. This is because the statement that such a dog exists is an existence statement, and the burden of proof is on that person to provide the evidence. It reminds of the claim by the Raelians in December 2002 that they had cloned a human being and would produce the baby later. While this generated a blizzard of publicity, when no baby was forthcoming, people rightly concluded that the whole thing was a hoax.

The point is that there are many statements that all of us can and do routinely make that are perfectly justifiable and accepted as such even if they are generalized from our personal experience of just a few cases, provided the negation of such statements would be extraordinary. These rules of logic are so commonplace and so basic that people may not even consciously realize that they are using them.

So I can confidently say that no cows have seven legs, although I have personally seen only a few cows, noticed that none of them had seven legs, but have not done an exhaustive literature search to see if anyone else had found one. This is because my statement that there does not exist a cow with seven legs is a universal statement. Someone who says I am wrong has to produce such a cow.

This is why I can make the statement that the stated reasons for the beliefs of religious people (except for people like Pat Robertson who have a direct line to god) will fall into the three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, or Argument From Vague Feelings. My statement is a universal statement, based on all the reasons that have been given to me over a long time discussing these issues with thoughtful people, and similar to the ones about the absence of seven-legged cows or rear-end talking dogs. Its validity has to be challenged by providing a counter-example.

So getting back to Lucas's concerns, I am not even asking that any counter-evidence he produces be convincing because what is convincing to one person may not be convincing to another. All I am asking is that he produce any evidence at all that does not fall under those three categories because I am really curious what form such evidence would take, the same way I would be really curious to see what a rear-end talking dog would look like.

It is his choice whether he wants to provide such evidence.

POST SCRIPT: Why science and religion can never be reconciled

Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, has written a terrific review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul by Kenneth R. Miller.

The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

January 13, 2009

The Year of Reason-2: Starting the process

When in social situations people hear that I am an atheist, they often ask why I don't believe in a god. The answer is extremely simple and can be given in just one sentence: There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence. But I have noticed that when people say, for example, that they belong to some religious sect like the Catholics or Judaism or Islam, no one asks them why they joined that sect or why they believe what members of that sect believes, though we would normally do that if people expressed a preference for anything else, say a film or book or a sports team.

I think this reticence to pose what would be a natural question is because religious people know that there is no real answer that they can give as to why they belong to their religious group. Their allegiance has no more substantive basis than those of fervent supporters of the Browns football team who are fans simply because they were born and live in the Cleveland area. To try to give an answer as to why they belong to a particular religious group is to expose the soft underbelly of religious beliefs, so believers protect other believers from this mutual embarrassment, thus allowing religion to persist (as Sigmund Freud says) as a kind of mass delusion. Freud adds, "No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such." (Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, 1961, p. 32.)

But there is no reason that we atheists should play by those rules. As part of the Year of Reason, we need to start poking holes in this mass delusion. I think that if someone asks us why we are atheists we should, after answering, immediately turn the question around and ask people why they believe in god.

What will people say in response to such a question? My guess is that they will first be surprised that such a question is asked at all, because the basis for religious belief is rarely unquestioned. (Thanks to Lucas for pointing out this typo.)

I also suspect none of them will say that they actually saw god or spoke with him/her/it. If they do say such an incredible thing, good follow up questions to ask them are what god looks like, whether it was a man or woman, whether god spoke in English, what tone of voice or accent he/she/it had, what the exact words were, whether anyone else was present to see this visitation and, if not, whether they called anyone else to come and witness this extraordinary event.

But you are highly unlikely to get such a response, unless you are speaking with Pat Robertson to whom god speaks once a year and tells him what is going to happen in the coming year. Since it is god speaking, you would expect 100% accuracy. But the record is, to put it most charitable, spotty which means that either god is losing his/her/its grip, pulling Pat's leg, or that Pat is a fraud. (God's statement about what is going to happen in 2009 is here. You can also see what god said about what would happen in 2008 and 2007 as well.)

Although every religious person says they believe in god and even claim to speak to him, only delusional people actually claim to have heard voices or had visions. As the TV character House tells a colleague in one episode about a teenage faith healer who says god speaks to him, "You talk to god, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic." (This is a terrific episode of House that reminded me of Marjoe. You can seen an extended clip of the episode here.)

The most likely reason people will give for saying they believe in god is the Argument From Personal Incredulity. This is a version of "I don't understand how the complexity of the world and how life could come about without someone to plan and implement it. So there must be a god." This argument is a lazy one. Collectively we know a huge amount about how the world came to be. There will always be some unanswered questions but there is no reason to think that they will not be answered in the future just the way that previously unanswered ones were.

Another lazy argument is the Argument From Wishful Thinking. This is from people who seek to find some meaning and purpose in life but are incapable of doing the work of constructing meaning and purpose for themselves, so resort to the option of buying one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by religions, even though they do not make any sense. Take the central dogma of Christianity: "An omnipotent god loves the world and wants to save his creations from the sin he himself allowed them to commit, so he arranges for the brutal murder by crucifixion of his own son, who is also god, in addition to destroying vast numbers of people with natural disasters, wars, and diseases." Only a person committed to self-delusion would subscribe to such a doctrine.

Another is the Argument From Vague Feelings. Here people will take some perfectly natural events that have some emotional punch and imbue them with immense spiritual or cosmic significance. So you will often hear something about the 'miracle' of childbirth or like Francis Collins's experience of being overwhelmed by the sight of a frozen waterfall and seeing in these everyday things signs from god.

Sigmund Freud, trying to understand the appeal of religion even though he himself saw it as an illusion, reports on a religious colleague who told him that the source of his religion "consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded –as it were – 'oceanic'." Freud says that this vague feeling "is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various religious Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless exhausted by them." (Freud, p. 10, my italics)

Again, we see that belief caused by a purely internal emotional reaction is transformed in the mind of the believer into something objective and tangible, merely because other people also report similar feelings.

Those answers, weak as they are, are actually the ones that will be given by the more thoughtful people. The real reason that most people believe, but which they are unlikely to admit to, is because they are expected to believe. Social norms expect that one belong to some religious group.

So to usher in the year of reason, whenever someone speaks about their religion, let's simply reflect the question back at them: "Why do you believe in a god?" Reason begins with asking questions about what one believes and why, and using evidence and logic as the bases of one's beliefs.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will give the reasons for they believe in god in the comments.

POST SCRIPT: The Rapture is coming! No, really, this time I mean it!

Richard Bartholomew notes that the people who believe in that weird idea known as the Rapture seem to be getting impatient and are hoping that maybe this year will be when the 'third time lucky' superstition actually kicks in.

January 12, 2009

The Year of Reason-1: Understanding the reasons for irrational beliefs

(I was planning to start the new year with this post, but it got pre-empted by the posts on the horror that is being perpetrated on the people of Gaza.)

I think we should declare 2009 the Year of Reason.

This should be the year when we make a concerted effort to wipe out superstitious and irrational beliefs of all kinds. This category includes not only religious beliefs but also absurd and divisive and harmful ideas such as that the people who share one's own nationality and ethnicity are somehow better than those who don't, and thus deserve greater allegiance and consideration.

Familiarity breeds false rationality. For many people, irrational beliefs are what other people hold, not their own. Their own irrational beliefs seem reasonable because they acquired them at a very young age when they tended to believe what the adults in their lives told them and they have rarely been asked why they believe. The power of myths is that it never even occurs to people to question the validity of ideas that they have always had and which everyone around them seems to share..

As I wrote earlier, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that "witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims."

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense." (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people's beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Similar nonsense is believed by Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, all of whom think that the beliefs held by people of other religions are not only wrong but even absurd, despite the fact that there is no difference at all in the evidentiary basis for all of them. All of them have exactly zero credible evidence in support and whose only basis for belief is that they are found in ancient texts of dubious authenticity.

It is telling that some Protestants, who believe almost all of the things in the above list, snigger at the absurdity of some Catholic beliefs such as that Mary remained a virgin all her life and did not die but ascended directly into heaven, or at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Does one need any more convincing evidence that this that religion breeds irrational thinking? (See my earlier post on why religions expect you to believe preposterous things.)

This reminds me of how during the 2008 presidential campaign people in the mainstream media snickered at Congressman Dennis Kucinich because of his statement that he once saw something that he called a UFO. I have written before about my own deep skepticism that there could be alien beings flying around near the Earth but I cannot understand how religious people can make fun of Kucinich. After all, while alien beings flitting around Earth is highly unlikely, at least it is compatible with all the laws of science, while religious people believe in an undetected and undetectable god and all manner of weird ideas for which there is not a shred of credible evidence and which violate all known physical laws. Kucinich at least claims that he actually saw something physical and did not think it was supernatural. Religious people believe in things they have neither seen nor heard but believe because have been simply told by others that they exist.

Bertrand Russell, who came from a wealthy aristocratic family, was not sent to school and had private tutors instead, which gave him plenty of time to reflect on things. As a result, from the age of fourteen to eighteen he successively rejected the ideas of free will, immortality, and belief in god. But he did not share this realization with anyone mainly for fear of ridicule. (My Religious Reminiscences, in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (eds.), Touchstone (1961), p. 31)

Russell was fortunate that he was not exposed to the coercive pressure that accompanies religious beliefs. Our entire social structure has been set up to brainwash children, through a mixture of bribes and fear, into believing in god at an early age, just like they are made to believe in Santa Claus, except that with god the fiction is continued into adulthood by parents and priests and their community, and deviation from such orthodoxy is frowned upon. Most children dislike being different. The peer pressure of other children will cause even those children who question their religious beliefs to keep quiet.

It is easier to believe something, however absurd, if everyone around you also believes it, or at least say they believe in it even if they harbor doubts. And since the question of why they believe is never posed, religious people can avoid the realization that their beliefs make no sense.

So let's make a dent in this protective coat by posing to religious people the question "Why do you believe in god?"

POST SCRIPT: How Muslims/Arabs are stereotyped

Palestinian-American comic Dean Obeidallah from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Thanks to Crooks and Liars). His last bit is particularly poignant given the recent removal of a Muslim family from an AirTran plane after passengers said they heard the family say things they thought were threatening.

Joy Behar had a nice interview with Obeidallah on The View.


January 02, 2009

Atheism and meaning

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) 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" to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses this quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties.

But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists "suffer" from a "lack of meaning" is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don't know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that "the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist". Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world makes a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. It is religious people who have to repeatedly resort to the 'mysterious ways clause', invoking the actions of an inscrutable god when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don't have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines or have to reconcile the vast number of contradictions that immediately arise as soon as you postulate the existence of a god with anything close to the properties usually claimed for it. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one's dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. But atheism does have implications for philosophy.

Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say "There must be more than just this world, than just this life." But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. Because they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the 'mysterious ways clause' and shut down further investigations, they are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying "No admittance by order of religion." They are free to go anywhere and explore and investigate anything. The world is wide open for them.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

Here is the second part of Tom Tomorrow's year in review. (The first part is here.)

April 28, 2008

An Atheist's Creed

In the course of writing many posts on science and religion and atheism, it struck me that I was tangentially making many statements about what I, as an atheist, believe. I decided to summarize those scattered thoughts into one coherent statement. Of course, I am not presuming to claim that all atheists subscribe to this statement. The creed is purely a personal one.

An important point of clarification is necessary. When the word 'believe' is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence 'believe', some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word 'believe' is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

An Atheist's Creed

I believe in a purely material universe that conforms to naturalistic laws and principles.

I believe that the life we have is the only one we will have, that the mind and consciousness are inseparable from the brain, that we cease to exist in any conscious form when we die, and that it is therefore incumbent on us to enable each person to live their one life to the fullest.

I believe in the power of science and reason and rationality to further deepen our understanding of everything around us and to eventually overcome superstition and erase the petty divisions sown by religion, race, ethnicity, and nationality.

I am in awe of the beauty, vastness, and complexity of nature and the universe, and the fact that all arose purely by the working of natural laws.

I believe in the power of ideals such as peace and justice and shared humanity to inspire us to create a free and just world.

I believe in kindness, love, and the human spirit and their ability to overcome challenges and adversity and to create a better world.

I believe in the necessity for credible and objective evidence to sustain any belief and thus deny, because of the absence of such evidence, the existence of each and every aspect of the supernatural.

I refuse to bow, prostrate myself, or otherwise cower before the deities of any religion.

I am neither tempted by the fiction of heaven or any other form of eternal life nor fearful of the fiction of hell.

I choose to live the dignified and exhilarating life of a free-thinker, able to go wherever knowledge and curiosity takes me, without fear of contradicting any dogma.

January 04, 2008

Atheism and Agnosticism

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In an interview, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a "radical atheist," explains why he uses that term (thanks to onegoodmove):

I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as "Atheist," some people will say, "Don't you mean 'Agnostic'?" I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It's easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I hold seriously…

People will then often say "But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?" This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.) . . .

And making the move from Agnosticism to Atheism takes, I think, much more commitment to intellectual effort than most people are ready to put in. (italics in original)

I think Adams is exactly right. When I tell people that I am an atheist, they also tend to suggest that surely I must really mean that I am an agnostic. (See here for an earlier discussion of the distinction between the two terms.) After all, how can I be sure that there is no god? In that purely logical sense they are right, of course. You cannot prove a negative so there is always the chance that not only that a god exists but, if you take radical clerics Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seriously, has a petty, spiteful, vengeful, and cruel personality.

When I say that I am atheist, I am not making that assertion based on logical or evidentiary proofs of non-existence. It is that I have been convinced that the case for no god is far stronger than the case for god. It is the same reasoning that makes me convinced that quantum mechanics is the theory to use for understanding sub-atomic phenomena or natural selection is the theory to be preferred for understanding the diversity of life. There is always the possibility that these theories are 'wrong' in some sense and will be superceded by other theories, but those theories will have to have convincing evidence in their favor.

If, on the other hand, I ask myself what evidence there is for the existence of a god, I come up empty. All I have are the assurances of clergy and assertions in certain books. I have no personal experience of it and there is no scientific evidence for it.

Of course, as long time readers of this blog are aware, I used to be quite religious for most of my life, even an ordained lay preacher of the Methodist Church. How could I have switched? It turns out that my experience is remarkably similar to that of Adams, who describes why he switched from Christianity to atheism.

As a teenager I was a committed Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school chapel in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it.

I've put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense, what I mean is this. In the years I'd spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I'd learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn't seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments which, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and - in terms of logic and proof -just plain wrong. Why was this?
. . .
I was already familiar with and (I'm afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of 'truth'. (I now think this is baloney, but to continue...) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn't stand up to it.
. . .
Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

What Adams is describing is the conversion experience that I described earlier when, suddenly switching your perspective seems to make everything fall into place and make sense.

For me, like Adams, I realized that I was applying completely different standards for religious beliefs than I was for every other aspect of my life. And I could not explain why I should do so. Once I jettisoned the need for that kind of distinction, atheism just naturally emerged as the preferred explanation. Belief in a god required much more explaining away of inconvenient facts than not believing in a god.

POST SCRIPT: The Noah's Ark horror

One of the great triumphs of Judeo-Christian propaganda is getting their followers to overlook the fact that the Biblical Noah story, which many of them believe to be true, would be the worst act of genocide ever, and committed by god to boot. Hellbound Alleee tries to correct this.

January 02, 2008

Atheism and meaning

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) 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" to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses the quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties. But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists "suffer" from a "lack of meaning" is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don't know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that "the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist". Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world make a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. As this latest series of posts has repeatedly pointed out, it is religious people have to repeatedly resort to the MWC ('mysterious ways clause') when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don't have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one's dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. But atheism has implications for philosophy.

Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say "There must be more than just this world, than just this life." But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. It is that they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the MWC and shut down further investigations. They are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying "No admittance by order of religion." They are free to go anywhere and explore anything.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

Here is the second part of Tom Tomorrow's year in review. (The first part is here.)

January 01, 2008

The joy of free thinking

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved. And then the discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year-old fossil that seems like an intermediary between sea and land animals.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share nearly 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry. (The approximately one percent difference, according to The Daily Show, is what causes human beings to kill each other!)

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me of Charles Darwin's central idea, that we are all linked together in one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even seemingly insignificant things like worms and bacteria having common ancestors with us, however distantly in the past that might have happened. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for all religious people, and especially those whose beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah's Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which heroically tries to fit into a 10,000 year old universe model the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined religious apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be most concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve's children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don't have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

So for this new year, I wish all the readers of this blog the joys of free thinking. May your thoughts not be hobbled by superstitions ancient or modern.

POST SCRIPT: The 50 Most Loathsome People in America

I usually avoid reading all the lists of best, worst, etc. that come out this time of year, but this one is actually very good.

Here's #29 on the list Dinesh D'Souza:

Charges: Wrote a book blaming 9/11 on -- who else? -- liberals, because if we didn't live in a free society, then fundamentalists wouldn't dislike us so. Even conservative nuts blasted D'Souza's empathy for poor al Qaeda. Lately, he's been engaging prominent atheists in debates, revealing himself to be a pseudointellectual ass, and then declaring victory. D'Souza's master plan for attacking atheism is the ridiculous Pascal's wager: Atheists could be wrong, and then they'd go to hell, but if the religious are wrong, then they suffer no ill effect -- aside from living their lives in delusion, of course. And possibly going to someone else's hell for believing the wrong religion. D'Souza seems to think that if he speaks more loudly and rapidly than his opponent, he is winning, but his arguments are weak and idiotic, and he never even attempts to truly debate the existence of any god, which is the ostensible point of these debates. Instead, he likes to compare body counts -- Stalin and Mao killed more than the religious leaders of their time -- rather than actually debate whether there is a God, or for that matter a Jesus. This, of course, is because there is no case to be made.

Exhibit A: "[Atheists] are God-haters... I don't believe in unicorns, but then I haven't written any books called The End of Unicorns, Unicorns are Not Great, or The Unicorn Delusion." But what if everyone you met did believe in unicorns, and not only that, but worshiped a unicorn, held a book about unicorns to be the divine truth of the universe, invoked unicorns in political contexts, and speechified about how non-believers were indecent people waging a war on morality, which could only be predicated on the unquestioning belief in unicorns? Then, maybe, D'Souza would think about writing that book. But of course, that's not really true, because if that was the world we lived in, then Dinesh D'Souza would believe in unicorns.

Sentence: Spanish inquisition.


December 28, 2007

Should atheists "come out"? -2

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should "come out." I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should 'come out of the closet.' The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one's work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a 'man of the Book,' made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

In the comments to the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them "You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts."

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT: Follow up by Austin Cline

Austin Cline picked up on the above original post that appeared on January 18, 2006 and added an interesting coda at his website About atheism. He said:

This is very similar to something George Smith wrote:

In Christianity doubt stands opposed not to certainty per se, but to faith. To have faith, in a religious context, is to have absolute confidence in God and to trust his revelations unconditionally. Thus, for the Christian to be uncertain of a divine revelation is bad enough, but to doubt that revelation is incomparably worse, because the latter implies a readiness to criticize that the former does not. ... In short, for the Christian to doubt the truth of a purported revelation is potentially to challenge the authority of the infallible God in whom she believes. It is therefore religious doubt, not atheistic disbelief, that constitutes the greatest threat to orthodox beliefs, because doubt threatens to undermine a belief system from within.

I wonder if this is also one reason why so many Christians insist that atheism is a faith? If, as Singham writes, faith is less threatening than doubt, then “atheism as a faith” can be dismissed more readily than “atheism as a challenge, a question, and a doubt.” I don’t think it likely that many, if any, Christians actually think about the issue in these terms, but this doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t being made unconsciously.

December 27, 2007

Should atheists "come out"?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous posting, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that "More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God."

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are "coming out" more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also "come out", so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don't "come out" because they don't give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that "coming out" in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so "coming out" in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have realized that I was an atheist for about twenty years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. I used to feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other, although nowadays I feel that atheists should be more vocal in their opposition to the increasing encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

"Coming out" might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible and will result in them being isolated.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: "As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken."

It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim "scholars", people who believe that the Qur'an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
. . .
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.
. . .
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has "some cosmic, all-embracing libretto", the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. The only one I know of is House. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT: Review of Expelled

In my series on evolution and law From Scopes to Dover, I mentioned the documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that implies that scientists are conspiring to deny intelligent design ideas a fair hearing.

Dan Whipple of Colorado Confidential attended a preview of the film and has written a review.

October 12, 2007

The case against religion

In the previous post. I argued that more education did not necessarily lead to less religion and that if one thought that its net effect on humanity was negative, one needed to more actively campaign against it. But others disagree. Even those who accept that religion has done some truly evil things might argue that the good that it does compensates (at least partially) and merits preserving it. The mere fact that it is false, it might be claimed, should not be sufficient to cause us to undermine it. They could point to children believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, that these are examples of false but benign beliefs. What is to be gained by destroying such innocent illusions?

But the reason that beliefs in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are benign is because children are deliberately weaned away from such beliefs before they reach adolescence. If we did not deliberately do so, who knows what might happen? We might end up having wars with armies of the followers of Santa Claus battling with those of the Tooth Fairy. Having adults who are capable of causing great harm believing in magical false things is usually not benign. We are unfortunately all too aware of the truth of Voltaire's assertion "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

In a comment to a previous post, Corbin Covault argued that even though religion may be a human construct, it can still serve important functions that merit preserving it. He draws a comparison with government:

One could argue that both [religions and governments] are human social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it be fair to say that the argument that the "militant atheist" makes that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be better off without any governments?

I think that we will all agree that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. We will undoubtedly disagree on whether the net result is positive or negative. But the key question is not how the balance sheet between good and evil comes out for any particular institution, but whether that institution is the only one that provides those benefits, so that we have no choice but to also tolerate the evils that accompany it. With religion, I have argued before that every benefit claimed for it can be provide by other existing sources. If we get rid of religion, while we will lose both the good and the bad, my point was that we can regain every good thing lost using other means and institutions, so in the end we need only lose the bad things caused by religion.

The question then becomes whether we can say the same thing for government. If the answer is yes, then we should undoubtedly get rid of government but currently it seems like the answer is no. We know that there always exists a tension between the existence of governments and individual liberty. But we strike a deal, accepting the restrictions on personal liberty as the price we pay for peace and the benefits of community living. We struggle to define the proper balance between freedom and order. Although we currently seem to need some institutions of government, we are not committed to any one form. We are free to change them if they prove to be evil. We tend to deplore dictatorships and admire democracies and no particular government has any claim to divine sanction. There may come a time when people feel that no government at all is better.

A similar good-evil comparison can be made for science. Science has given us great benefits but has also been responsible for some terrible evils. No scientist can avoid the fact that we are, to some extent, complicit in the many evils done in its name.

My own physics research involved studying what happens when a high-energy photon strikes a nucleus and produces a short-lived sub-nuclear particle called a pi-meson. There is no obvious link between this and any weapons system, but that is deceiving. The whole field of study in which it is embedded, nuclear physics, is an integral part of weapons research. It is not inconceivable that someone else will come along in the future and find that my small and seemingly innocent contribution to the field is important in developing a component of a deadly weapons system. If it happens, I cannot claim complete innocence. Although I may have not intended my work to serve evil ends, the fact that it has the potential to do so is inescapable. No scientist can ever have clean hands.

While it is impossible for scientists to have a perfectly clear conscience, scientists are usually able to figure out rationalizations to justify their actions because the immediate goals of scientific research are usually to benefit humanity. Even those scientists who deliberately choose to work on things that are clearly destructive (the development of agents for biological and chemical warfare or more powerful bombs) usually can find some reason to square their consciences, by appealing to in-group/out-group thinking ("The enemies of my country/race/religion may also be developing these weapons and so I am doing this in self-defense and to protect humanity against a greater evil.").

This was the kind of thinking of many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project during World War II that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. There is no reason to think that they were any more evil than anyone else. In fact, I have met and spoken with Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (for his work explaining the energy production in stars) who was the leader of the theory group on the project and instrumental in guiding and shepherding the many brilliant scientists who worked under him. Bethe struck me as a kind and gentle man, who after the war worked for peace and disarmament. Einstein was the same. Although they both advocated for the development of a nuclear weapons program prior to the war, and their own groundbreaking research was the basis for nuclear weapons, they were also consistently a voice for peace. And there is reason to think that the scientists working on the opposing German nuclear weapons program, led by another Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, were doing so for the same reasons.

It is possible for society to decide to make a judgment that science is too dangerous to continue and to shut it down almost completely. If governments refuse to provide funding for research and for agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, modern science as we know it would cease to exist, because we could no longer maintain a professional class of scientists. Of course, the spirit of scientific inquiry will remain and there will be amateur scientists whose thirst for knowledge will drive them along. But we have to remember that the emergence of the professional scientist, someone paid primarily to do research, is a relatively new invention. In England, such people only came into being around 1850, with Charles Darwin's friends and colleagues Jacob Hooker and T. H. Huxley being two of the earliest. Darwin himself belonged to the earlier tradition of the amateur scientist who was independently wealthy enough to indulge what was essentially a hobby, or who had a job (clergyman or professor) that allowed them sufficient freedom and time to do so.

But in shutting down professional science, people would be aware that they would also be shutting themselves off from almost all the enormous benefits that science provides. And this is where the difference with religion arises. Although it can be argued that science and religion provide both benefits and evils, when it comes to science there is nothing else that we know that can be substituted to provide those benefits. We cannot keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater, so we make a Faustian bargain.

But in the case of religion, there is no benefit claimed by religion that cannot be provided by other institutions. The only real reason to continue supporting the idea of god is that it is true. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence at all in support of that proposition, religion becomes dispensable.

POST SCRIPT: Tortured logic

The Daily Show discusses the damage done to language by the 'war on terror'.

October 11, 2007

The effect of education on religion

Voltaire was stinging in his criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He provided his own definition of a Christian as follows: "A good-natured, simple fellow; a true lamb of the fold, who, in the innocence of his heart, persuades himself that he firmly believes unbelievable things that his priests have told him to believe, especially those he cannot even imagine. Consequently, he is convinced that three x's make fifteen, that God was made man, that he was hanged and rose to life again, that priests cannot lie, and that all who do not believe in priests will be damned without remission."

Voltaire was being sarcastic when he made the statement that Christians are necessarily 'good-natured' because elsewhere he makes clear that he knows that religious people are capable of incredible evil. But he may have genuinely thought that one had to be simple (in the sense of naïve) to believe in god because he viewed the whole concept of god as requiring one to believe preposterous things. As he said: "The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it."

And to reiterate his view that to adopt religion involved the abandonment of reason, he said: "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning." (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764), taken from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations.)

The authors of the current crop of atheist books have attacked religion head-on by showing how untenable the claims of religion are, and how antithetical to rational thought. I have argued before that there are no mitigating benefits for religion that cannot be obtained from other sources. Since people should have the right to believe anything they want, the practical question becomes: What is the best way of making the unappealing aspects of religion better known so that more people will voluntarily relinquish it?

Since the liberal intellectual tradition holds that education leads to critical thinking, the solution is thus seen to lie in more and better education, the idea being that this leads to more reasoning minds, which in turn will lead to greater skepticism towards beliefs that fail the tests of reason and evidence, and hence to the decline of religion.

But this may be too optimistic a view of the power of education. I am not so sanguine that education holds the key. I think Voltaire was wrong in his belief that only the unreasoning could believe in god. As I have repeatedly pointed out, smart people are quite capable of believing weird things and finding reasons to do so, provided the desire to do so is strong enough. So more education will not necessarily lead to less religion. In fact, a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion.

This result was not a surprise to me, despite the widespread critiques by some people that universities are liberal hothouses, indoctrinating students away from 'traditional' conservative values such as religion. As a teacher of many years, I have found laughably naïve the notion that college teachers have such power over student beliefs.

It is true that students are likely to encounter faculty who are, in general, less religious than the general public. An interesting analysis of religious beliefs in academia finds that "academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population."

But this may not be decisive. As I had said earlier, to some extent, the more education one has, the more one is able to find sophisticated reasons to hold on to whatever one wants to believe. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

What more education (especially in college) does to student beliefs may depend on what the students' prior inclinations are. For those who arrive already doubting, the discovery in college that they are not alone, that there exist like minded students who share their views, and the general willingness of academia to treat doubt and skepticism as positive traits, could well speed them along the path to greater non-belief.

But for those who are determinedly faithful, college could provide them with better tools to defend their beliefs. Reason cannot easily overcome the will to believe. As Jonathan Swift nicely put it: "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

So up to a point, more of traditional education actually aids belief, because much of it focuses on information and skills rather than deep learning. The point at which more education leads to disbelief is when people start really looking closely at evidence for beliefs, start trying to integrate different areas of knowledge into a coherent worldview, and begin to get in the habit of making reasoned judgments using incomplete knowledge. This becomes more likely to occur when students do more research-like activities because then the ability to form and defend judgments based on data and evidence and reason becomes paramount.

We see this in the fact that members of the National Academies of Science have far higher rates of disbelief in god than other scientists or the general public. "In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God." (Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 10.)

Charles Darwin is a good example of both aspects of this phenomenon. We know that he was religious in his youth and obtained a degree from Cambridge University in the sciences. At the time of his education, the prevailing view of life was special creation, that god specifically created species to make the fit into particular ecological niches. Nothing he learned at university dissuaded him from this belief and in fact he was strengthened in them and was considering a life as a clergyman. In his autobiography, he discusses how on his round the world voyage on the Beagle, the plants and animals and insects he saw in South America, seemed to challenge the view of special creation. In order to deal with this, he said he started inventing increasingly complex reasons to sustain his belief in special creation. He took this to such an extent that the sailors on the boat, although far less educated than him, found his explanations highly amusing. In other words, those much less educated than he could see the problems with the theory of special creation that he could not because not only did he not want to see them, he had the tools to explain them away.

But as he became more and more absorbed in his studies, went deeper and more global in his thinking, and tried to create an integrated theory to explain his findings, his religious beliefs just could not be sustained and he abandoned them completely, ceasing to believe not just in special creation, but in god as well.

The long-term solution to religion may not be more education but creating a climate where more doubt and skepticism are prevalent and acceptable. It is only then that education has something to work with. The current crop of high-profile books arguing against religion are creating just such a climate and are thus to be welcomed.

POST SCRIPT: Storms in tea cups

Lewis Black lets loose his frustration with political grandstanding over non-issues.

October 10, 2007

Why can't science and religion get along?

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.

This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward L. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation's largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as "distinct" rather than "antagonistic domains of thought," the former dealing with "the facts, laws and processes of nature" while the latter addressed "the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind."

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science's Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: "[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts."

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists' religious views are. A scientist's credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one's area of research. A scientists' attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

I agree with the Baron.

Next: Is more education the answer?

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

"Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." From another great little video clip from the TV show House.

October 09, 2007

Does religion play a uniquely useful role?

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious "moderates" who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious "extremism". They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate "bad" religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god's existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion's name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion exists on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we should try to eliminate false knowledge since nothing is gained by having people wallow in delusion. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc.

Those atheists who argue against doing this and favor the other two options (tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion is general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with "good" religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess "bad" religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of "good" religious people versus that of "bad" religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do friendships and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Elk and Moose Lodges, that mix community with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: "Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed."

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people's basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god's honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god's interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our 'respect for religion' attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is 'really' saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called 'moderates' and 'extremists' about what god is 'really' like and what he 'really' wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

Next: Why can't we all get along?

POST SCRIPT: Silly talk shows

The Daily Show reminds me again why I long ago stopped watching the political analysis shows on TV.

October 08, 2007

Atheist/theist or naturalist/religious?

If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of "a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe"; the pantheist "equates God with the forces and laws of the universe"; the agnostic is "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god"; and the atheist is one "who believes that there is no deity."

Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes "in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world" and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide.

While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view.

The problem with the theist-nontheist division is that it depends on self-identification and all kinds of highly variable subjective factors come into play in deciding what label one assigns to oneself or to others. For example, almost all atheists will readily concede that the non-existence of god, like the non-existence of fairies and unicorns, cannot be proven and that therefore there is always the logical possibility that god exists. As a result, some atheists will prefer to describe themselves as agnostics, since the term atheist erroneously, but popularly, connotes the idea that such people know for certain that god does not exist.

Take the case of Charles Darwin. By the time he reached the age of forty, he was to all intents and purposes an atheist. The shift from belief to disbelief had been steady and inexorable. The more he learned about the laws of nature, the less credibility miracles and the doctrines of Christianity had for him. He considered the idea of a personal, benevolent, omnipotent god so illogical that he said it "revolts our understanding." Darwin wrote that he:

"gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation." There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will. "Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete." (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 245, my italics)

After he lost his faith, he had no doubts or anxiety about it but when pressed to give a label to his religious views he said, "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain Agnostic." Darwin apparently shied away from the label "atheist" as being too aggressively confident, which went against his own cautious and non-confrontational personality, and he took refuge in the new word agnostic, which had been coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley to meet the philosophical needs of just such people. I think many people who are functionally atheists share Darwin's unease with calling themselves that. When I tell people that I am an atheist, for example, they often try to persuade me that I must "really" be an agnostic since I readily concede that I cannot be sure that there is no god.

Similarly, many people probably choose to call themselves deists or pantheists, not because they have any evidence for the existence of the deity, but because they seem to feel that if there is no god at all then there is no meaning to life. Since they desire their life to have meaning, the idea of there being a god is comforting and appealing to them and they seek to find some way to hold on to it, despite the lack of evidence. Deism and pantheism offers such an option without also having to accept the absurdities that formal religions require, like infallible texts and miracles. It allows one to have a god to give one's life meaning for those who need such an external source, while not compromising one's belief that the world behaves in accordance with natural laws.

I feel that a more operationally useful classification scheme would to sort people according to their answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way intervenes in the course of events contrary to natural laws?" In other words, we should ask what their views are on what people normally consider miracles. Those answering in the affirmative would be classified as religious, and those answering in the negative (atheists, deists, and pantheists) would be grouped under the umbrella term naturalist, with the name being selected because all these people see the world operating solely under the influence of natural laws. Most agnostics, other than those who are doggedly determined to not commit themselves, should also be able to answer this question definitely and decide which of the two groups they feel most closely fits them.

(If agnostics are still not sure how to answer, a more concrete version of the question might be to ask them: "If the person whom you respect and trust the most and know to be very religious said that god had spoken to him or her and had wanted a message conveyed to you to give away all your money and possessions to charity, would you do it?" If you do not think this could have happened and refuse the command with no hesitation, then you are operationally a naturalist. If you say you would do it or are not sure what you would do, then you are effectively a religious person. I suspect that most agnostics will fall into the naturalist camp, since agnostics do not usually expect god to actually do anything concrete.)

This kind of naturalist-religious divide provides a more useful classification scheme since it is based on whether there is any observable difference in the behavior of people as a consequence of their beliefs, rather than on their beliefs themselves. The members of the naturalist group (the atheist, the deist, the pantheist, and most agnostics) all live their lives on the assumption that god does not intervene in life in any way. None of them pray or ask for god to intervene. (Those who did pray would be switched from into the religious group because then they effectively believe in an interventionist god.) As I have said many times before, what people say they believe is of little consequence except insofar as it influences their actions.

So the religious-naturalist divide based on the answer to the question "Do you think that god in any way changes the course of events contrary to natural laws?" is, to my mind, a much better measure of the level of belief in god than the theist-atheist divide. It would be nice to see polls conducted on this question. My suspicion is that there are far more naturalists (i.e. functional unbelievers) than one might suspect.

Next: Should atheists seek to undermine religion or does religion play a valuable role that makes it worth preserving?

POST SCRIPT: Sputnik trivia

Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launching into space by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, an event that galvanized the US space program. In 1999, a nice film called October Sky was released based on the true story of a group of high school students in a small mining town in West Virginia who were inspired by Sputnik to build rockets on their own. The film was based on the memoir Rocket Boys of one of the boys Homer Hickam, who later did become a rocket scientist for NASA.

A curious feature of this story is that the name October Sky is an anagram of the name Rocket Boys.

October 05, 2007

Atheism and meaning

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) 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" to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses the quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties. But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists "suffer" from a "lack of meaning" is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don't know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that "the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist". Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world make a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. As this latest series of posts has repeatedly pointed out, it is religious people have to repeatedly resort to the MWC ('mysterious ways clause') when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don't have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one's dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say "There must be more than just this world, than just this life." But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. It is that they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the MWC and shut down further investigations. They are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying "No admittance by order of religion". They are free to go anywhere and explore anything.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: War crimes

Juan Cole analyzes the recently revealed minutes of a meeting prior to the invasion of Iraq between Spanish president Aznar and George Bush where it is made clear that Bush, despite his public statements to the contrary at that time, was determined to attack Iraq come what may and may have even rejected an offer by Saddam Hussein to flee Iraq. Cole argues that this is further evidence of Bush having committed the "war crime of the century" by initiating an unprovoked invasion of another country.

October 04, 2007

More religious needles in scientific haystacks

The arguments that I gave before against taking anthropic arguments seriously apply with even greater force when it comes to the whole intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, whose advocates argue that a very few biochemical processes could not have come into being except by the actions of god and thus this is evidence of god.

If god exists but did not want to give us evidence because he wants us to believe purely on faith, then he surely would not have created the cases used by IDC advocates as examples of his interventions in the evolutionary process. On the other hand, if he wanted to show us he exists, he could have done so directly by stopping the Earth's rotation or something dramatic like that. Instead, we are asked to believe that god wants to give us evidence that he exists but for some reason chooses to provide evidence that is so subtle and ambiguous that it takes professional biochemists to even get a glimpse of it. If that is true, maybe we should abolish the current priesthood and create a new Church of Biochemistry with IDC advocate like Michael Behe as the BioPope, since only biochemists can see god and it was Behe who first saw him.

Although the IDC movement seemed to have died after the Dover trial fiasco, Michael Behe has apparently written a new book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism trying to resuscitate the corpse. Jerry Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago), in his review the book says the following:

What has Behe now found to resurrect his campaign for ID? It's rather pathetic, really. Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry. His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection -- mutation -- is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.

Coyne goes on to clarify an important misconception about the meaning of the word "random" as used in natural selection:

What we do not mean by "random" is that all genes are equally likely to mutate (some are more mutable than others) or that all mutations are equally likely (some types of DNA change are more common than others). It is more accurate, then, to call mutations "indifferent" rather than "random": the chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful.

I haven't read Behe's new book but if Coyne's description of its central idea (that the role of god (aka "intelligent designer") is to create appropriate mutations so that they are not random but are designed to advance evolution towards a particular goal), then this is not even a new idea. This was proposed in the 19th century by eminent scientists such as Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart, and Richard Owen soon after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. (Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, p. 545). They, like Behe, were religious and were disturbed by the fact that Darwin's theory that random mutations and natural selection were sufficient to explain nature seemed to make god superfluous. They too were anxious to find something for god to do. But at least in their defense, they lived before the discovery of genes and DNA as the mechanism for inheritance and the source of mutations. The flowering of Darwinian thinking known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis came long after they were dead. Behe has no such excuse.

What underlies all these people's misgivings about evolution is that it seems to deny some special quality for human beings. They seem to be able to accept evolution for everything else but when it comes to humans think there must be some miraculous spark that is responsible for us. If there is no special plan for humans, then life for them will have no meaning.

But there is really no basis for this belief that we play any special role in the cosmos. What is remarkable is how inhospitable the universe is to human life. As Richard Dawkins, says (Stenger, p. 71, and Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) "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."

If god does exist and humans are special in his sight, then he seems to have been extraordinarily wasteful by making, as far as we know, only this tiny Earth inhabitable, and creating enormous amounts of matter and space that we cannot reach or occupy. It seems like he really does not like us all that much and has essentially made us prisoners, destined to live forever in a tiny corner of the universe, with no chance of escape.

Next: Atheism and meaning.

POST SCRIPT: Remembering the Little Rock Nine

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of Little Rock schools. This moving article profiles the story of one of them, Elizabeth Eckford, whose face was captured in an indelible image of that tumultuous day.

October 03, 2007

Fine-tuning arguments for god

Religious people sometimes complain that scientists do not take their arguments for god seriously. I think that the opposite is true, and that scientists have gone out of their way to argue within the narrow framework set up by religious believers, when it is the whole premise that should be rejected.

Take, for example, the so-called anthropic principle/fine tuning argument that goes roughly as follows: We know that the conditions on Earth are conducive to the creation of life. Small changes in initial conditions of the universe would likely have made life impossible. Furthermore, the laws of physics and the associated fundamental constants seem to have just the right values to enable life to exist. Such 'fine tuning' is highly unlikely to have occurred by chance and thus points to the existence of a god who must have chosen those values in order to allow for life as we know it to come into being.

Some scientists have argued against god while staying within this framework, saying that fine-tuning does not imply the existence of god. After all, we don't know whether other and different forms of life exist on undiscovered planets in this vast universe. Changing the laws and constants may simply mean that different forms of life have come into being that were suitable for those constants on other planets. Others have pointed out that the fine-tuning argument rests on what happens when you change only one parameter slightly while keeping all the rest fixed. Victor Stenger points to studies (God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 148) that show that if you allow all the constants to change simultaneously, even by orders of magnitude, then you can still construct cosmologies in which stars, planets, and intelligent life can plausibly arise.

The willingness of scientists to do all this work shows how far they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate religious arguments. So rather than scientists disrespecting religion, people like Stenger and Dawkins are actually granting it excessive respect by to treating these technical questions seriously when the big conceptual questions expose the silliness of the whole premise.

I have never understood the appeal of the anthropic/fine-tuning argument for god. Think for a moment what it requires us to believe. We are asked to believe that god first created humans (or at least had the idea of what humans should be like), an organism that needed very special conditions (such as oxygen and water) in order to exist. God then had to solve the problem of how to create a planet that had the ingredients to support the existence of the preplanned humans, and then had to fine tune everything else in this vast universe to enable that planet to come into being a long time after he triggered the big bang. We are being asked to believe, in effect, that the entire universe was reverse-engineered by god to meet the needs of humans as currently exist.

Reverse engineering is what we mere mortals have to do because we have no choice. We have to take the universe and life on Earth as given, and the best we can do is try and figure out how they got to be that way. But why would god have to do this? If he was the original designer, present right at the beginning, surely it would have been easier for him to design humans who were robust enough to be able to survive in all kinds of environments. Why would he needlessly box himself in, as the anthropic/fine-tuning seems to imply?

As Stenger astutely points out (p. 154) "In fact, the whole argument from fine-tuning ultimately makes no sense. As my friend Martin Wagner notes, all physical parameters are irrelevant to an omnipotent God. "He could have created us to live in hard vacuum if he wanted to." "

POST SCRIPT: George Bush, comedy writer

Some time ago, President Bush famously asked: "Is our children learning?" Well, he now has the answer.

October 02, 2007

The needle of god in the scientific haystack

In an earlier post, I spoke about studies that looked at claims that god answered prayers. Some of these studies were done by physicians and scientists who were themselves religious, and who presumably would have been immensely pleased if they could have found a positive effect. In fact, as Victor Stenger points out in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the idea that scientists are somehow conspiring to suppress evidence of god's existence (something strongly suggested by intelligent design creationists) is strange. A lot of scientists are religious and nothing would please them more than to find scientific justification for their beliefs. Furthermore, even if you were not religious, it would be very exciting to find evidence of god. Not only would it open up vast new areas of research, you can bet that Congress and foundations would open up their checkbooks and generously fund efforts to further identify the way that god acts in the world.

I myself am a little bemused by these efforts by some scientists to find statistical needles in the haystack for god's presence. I understand that when a hypothesis is raised, scientists instinctively think in terms of setting up research protocols in such a way that they can use statistical tests of significance to see if a positive result has occurred. So when someone claims that prayer can lead to healing, the instinctive reaction of a good scientist is to design a double-blind study to test that hypothesis. But stepping back and viewing the big picture, it just does not make logical sense to me.

The reason is as follows. The MWC ('mysterious ways clause') is either true or false; either god wants to reveal his presence to us or he does not. If it is true and god does not want to let us know about his existence, then he would surely rig the results of any tests like the prayer ones so that the results would come out negative. If the MWC is false and god does want to reveal to us that he exists, then he does not need to do so in a labored way such that only double-blind clinical tests show effects at the boundaries of the significance level. All god would have to do is to do something openly like stopping the Earth's rotation.

So people who invoke the MWC as a way of explaining why god does not reveal himself should actually be hoping for negative results from these kinds of prayer experiments so that their beliefs are consistent. In other words, although they believe that god does answer prayers, when experiments like this are done, those who depend on the MWC to defend their belief in the absence of evidence should hope that god would either ignore the prayers in the experimental groups or answer them carefully and selectively in such a way that the experimenters always find no evidence of god's presence. Otherwise, if statistically significant positive results turn up, it looks like god is not smart enough to thwart the experimenters from revealing his presence.

Of course, one can always create a kind of super-MWC narrative where god has decided to simply tease us with occasional tantalizing glimpses of his existence that can be seen only at the p=0.05 level of statistical significance, so as to keep us in a permanent state of uncertainty. Why anyone would want to believe in such a god is beyond me.

Religious people can invoke the MWC to explain why we don't see direct evidence of god. But then they should not advance fine-tuning or anthropic principle or intelligent design creationism arguments as proofs and evidences of god.

Either god wants to reveal himself or not. Which is it?

POST SCRIPT: Alan Greenspan, comedy genius

Tom Tomorrow exposes the role that Alan Greenspan played in causing the present subprime mortgage collapse and other disasters.

September 28, 2007

The hidden god hypothesis

Believers in god are usually willing to acknowledge that they have no convincing empirical evidence for the existence of god. But at the same time, the claim is made that god could reveal himself/herself any time he/she chose. So why is god's presence hidden?

People who believe in god invariably explain this with one version or the other of a 'mysterious ways clause' (MWC), which argues that god has good reasons for keeping his presence hidden from us and that our mind are too puny to understand the reasons or that he has deemed that we are not yet ready to receive these truths. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card to wriggle out of a tight situation. The very fact that you have to invoke such an escape clause should be a strong indication that there is no rational reason to believe in god.

One argument that is often brought forward is that the personal experiences that people have had of god's presence is evidence of god's presence, and that just because this kind of evidence does not meet the standards demanded by science does not mean it is not valid. Such people argue that they have had some personal experience of god in their lives and this is evidence enough for god's existence.

There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not. If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? Why not simply come out with definitive proof? I have already stated what kind of proof would be really convincing to anyone. God could take over all the TV stations worldwide and announce that next Tuesday, starting at noon, the Earth would stop spinning for 24 hours, so that we would have a 48-hour day. If that happened, I don't see how anyone could dispute god's existence. The Bible says that it has been done before (the stopping the Earth's rotation part, not the TV broadcast of course). In fact, most religions proudly claim that god has shown herself directly to the world in the past. For Christians and Jews, for example, all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and the whole story of Jesus's resurrection, are supposed to be revelations of god, so clearly god was not always interested in hiding his existence. Why would a god who long ago seemed perfectly willing to reveal himself time and time again suddenly become coy now?

Some believers try to produce empirical evidence for god. One sees occasional excitement around experiments to test the existence of god by seeing if (say) prayer is effective. For example, in 2001 there was the much publicized Columbia University Medical Center study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine that, based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for. The statistical significance was p=0.0013 (meaning that such a result was likely to occur by chance in less that 13 occasions out of 10,000, which is better than the usual standard of p<0.05 which is considered acceptable for sociological and medical studies, but is much worse than the standard for physics experiments which is p<0.0001.) This result was trumpeted as 'proof' of the efficacy of prayer and thus implied that is was also a proof of god.

But it soon became clear that there were serious problems with the protocols of the study, and subsequently the lead author of the paper Rogerio Lobo, who was head of the Columbia University department of obstetrics and gynecology, said that he had not been even aware of the study until six months after it had been completed and withdrew his name from the paper. It turned out that a second author of the study Daniel Wirth is a lawyer who had elsewhere claimed evidence for faith healing. He was later imprisoned for fraud in an unrelated matter. The third author Kwang Cha is also a businessman who owns fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Seoul. He left Columbia University and refuses to talk about the study. He was later also accused of plagiarism in another paper by the editor of that journal. (See God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger, 2007, p. 96 for more details.)

Given the strong desire of religious people to find evidence for god, one sees these kinds of prayer studies repeated all the time, and on occasion even produce positive results. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2001 said that praying for patients reduced their length of stay in hospital (p=0.01) and duration of infections (p=0.04). But another study by Duke University, a three-year, double-blind one published in 2005, found no significant effect of prayer in improving patient recovery. Yet another study, published in 2006, of people scheduled to undergo coronary bypass surgery also found no beneficial effect for intercessory prayer. In fact, the group of patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. (See Stenger, p. 99-102 for more details.)

The media are quick to seize on initial reports of the possible scientific evidence for god, but not as enthusiastic when more careful analysis reveals that there was nothing there after all.

But my puzzlement with these kinds of exercises is more basic. Why would god choose to signal his presence on the very edges of statistical significance? Even someone sympathetic to the idea of god would have to concede that god seems like a shy suitor trying to give out subtle signals of interest without being obvious about it. What's the point? Why not hide completely or appear openly and unambiguously?

Again, religious believers can appeal to the MWC, that god has a reason that is unknown to us to play peek-a-boo. But at some point use of the MWC becomes overkill. Using it to explain the existence of something big like suffering, to say that suffering is a great mystery, lends a certain grandeur to that particular admission of ignorance. Invoking the MWC to explain little things like the borderline statistical significance of experimental results makes it seem trivial.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in the other war. . .

Lara Logan reports on waste in Afghanistan.

September 27, 2007

Does god and religion satisfy other human needs?

In the previous post I listed four possible reasons why religion should not be undermined:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Of the four, only the first argument really justifies preserving religion but it does not hold up. There is no convincing evidence at all that god exists and the only rational thing to do is to give up the belief.

All the other arguments are purely utilitarian, essentially claiming that even if religion is based on a false belief, it still has social value that makes it worth preserving. I hear this argument surprisingly often, so it is worth examining.

As for the second argument, if there is no god, then maintaining a belief in it for emotional psychological reasons makes as much sense as not eventually telling children the truth about the falsity of Santa Claus and fairies because we don't wish to harm them psychologically. Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it is than in believing in something fake? An adult who grows up still believing in Santa Claus is much more vulnerable emotionally, and doomed to perpetual disappointment, than someone who grows up realizing that there is no mysterious gift-giver who is periodically going to give them what they want. As George Bernard Shaw: "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

The third argument, that religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown, has been countered so often and so effectively by others that I will not address it again. I described some of the arguments against this position earlier.

The fourth and final reason for upholding religion is that it is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

This is the most crass and is completely indefensible and will be rejected by well-meaning religious believers. But I think that it is the real reason why religion has survived so long in the face of overwhelming evidence for its falsity. State patronage has served religion well. Rulers realized long ago that you cannot rule forever using just force and fear alone. People have to accept that a few are meant to rule and that the majority has to accept being ruled by the minority. People have to accept that their ethnic group/tribe/nation is special and that it is morally right to subjugate and exploit other groups/tribes/nations. The god idea serves this purpose exceedingly well. If people can be convinced that everything is according to god's plan, that it was meant to be that their rulers were destined to rule, then half the battle is won. Those at the suffering end of this arrangement are pacified by being told that they have the consolation of rewards in heaven. In fact, the greater their suffering in this world, the greater the supposed reward, which is a very useful idea for exploiting people even more.

I have written about the useful role that belief in god has played in maintaining systems of oppression here and the cynical way that some non believers support such beliefs to achieve their political ends here.

It really comes down to this fact: If the kind of god most people believe in does not exist, then there is no reason to believe in such a god. It really is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Boneheads on TV

Have you noticed the people in the background on live TV who try to get noticed by doing weird things? Apparently the name for them is "boneheads". The Australian TV show The Chasers (which has become one of my favorites) challenges Chas to see how many bonehead appearances he can make during an awards show.

September 26, 2007

Should religion be undermined?

Religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so pervasive in all aspects of people's lives, that imagining life without it is very difficult. It is like asking an American teenager to imagine life without their cell phone. Not only are people extremely resistant to giving up the idea of god, they also resist giving up qualities they ascribe to god even if those qualities cause severe logical difficulties.

But if we think that belief in god violates reason, should religion be actively undermined? This question, raised by Corbin Covault in his guest post, is not simple to answer. Even if there is no evidence for god, does religion still play a useful role or have some value that makes it a worthwhile belief to support or at least not seek to actively undermine? Or is there something to be gained from actively working to discredit the idea of god, as has been the aim of current best-selling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens? Or should atheists treat religion with benign indifference, the way we treat children's beliefs in fairies, as harmless illusions, not worth wasting time over, except in those instances where it actively does harm?

I can think of four arguments for the continuance of god and religion:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Let me start out by saying that I think only the first reason is sufficient cause for keeping religion. If there is no empirical evidence for god, then we should unequivocally say so and work towards the elimination of such beliefs, just as we dismiss the claims of astrology and belief in ghosts and other similar phenomena. As soon as you start saying that some evidence-free beliefs need to be sheltered from criticism, you lay yourself wide open to special pleading by every charlatan, such as crystal-ball gazers, card readers, faith healers, spoon benders and others who take advantage of the shelter provided by the privileges accorded to religion to ply their trade. They too can say they provide services to meet the emotional and psychological needs of people, such as getting people in contact with their dead loved ones. If you are a person who believes in god, then I am not sure on what basis you can criticize these other groups since the kinds of evidence they invoke is of the same kind that religious people use.

Of course, people should be free to believe anything they want. But I am saying that believers should not feel that they occupy some privileged place in the space of public discourse where only genteel and mild criticisms can be made. I am not suggesting, of course, that such beliefs and the people who hold them should be subject to verbal abuse. What I am saying is that the only standard that applies to them is the same that we apply to any other beliefs, and religious beliefs, especially mainstream one, should not be granted immunity from very close scrutiny and sharply-worded criticisms. So if it is acceptable in public discourse to dismiss the beliefs of flat-Earthers as ridiculous, then it should be acceptable to do so for beliefs in god as well. If it is legitimate to campaign to discourage people from believing in astrology and astrologers, it is just as legitimate to discourage them from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the like.

A curious thing, given the supposedly small numbers of atheists in this country, is the huge popularity of the recently released books that advocate atheism,. I suspect that many more people than we realize have serious doubts about god and religion but have been cowed into not saying anything against religion and god precisely because of this sense that to speak against religion is rude. The arrival of these books and the publicly declared atheism of many people must come as a relief.

What about the tone of the criticisms? It is argued that harsh criticisms are not effective in persuading people to change their minds, that one can 'catch more flies with honey than with vinegar'. It is often pointed out, for example, that Martin Luther King was effective in winning over many people because he did not speak in strong terms. Actually he did express strong views but his language was very measured and his example is often used to argue that tempered language is more effective than harsh.

As I have said before, this depends on whether one is discussing in the private sphere or the public sphere. In the private sphere (in the classroom or in social settings), I tend to not argue in strong terms and in fact do not actively raise the issues at all. During the dinner party discussion I wrote about earlier, I took a soft line, seeking only to explain why I was perfectly satisfied being an atheist. I did not subject my dinner companions' religious beliefs to a cross-examination.

But in the public sphere, one can make the case that opening up beliefs that have no evidence to harsh criticisms can be a very effective way of getting rid of them. For example, we know that most people's belief in Santa Claus does not survive past early childhood. Many are gently weaned away from it by their parents. But for those children determined to hold on to it, it would be an interesting study to see what effect the ridicule of their childhood peers has in getting them to abandon their belief in it.

There is another argument to be made in favor of having at least some people speak out harshly against religion. Take the case again of Martin Luther King, who is often invoked as someone who was successful because he was not abrasive. It must be remembered that King was not speaking and acting in a vacuum. At the same time Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and other radical elements were making very strong attacks in very harsh language on the institutions of racism, and strongly criticizing the non-violent methods of King. King's moderate tone may have been effective with the white community precisely because they could contrast it with what King's rivals for influence in the black community were saying. Since he was seen as less threatening, they could thus warm to it.

In public sphere debates on contentious issues, the labels 'extremist' and moderate' are not absolutes but relative. When the range of opinions expressed is broadened, those who were once thought to be on the fringe now become mainstream. So subjecting belief in god and religion to critical scrutiny by some opinionated anti-theists (the 'extremists') may actually be very effective in widening the range of discussions. Such people are providing an opportunity for those (the 'moderates') who prefer to speak in more tempered terms to emerge from their silence and have a dialogue with religious believers. In the absence of the strong anti-theists, it is these so-called moderates who would have been the ones portrayed as 'extremists', and thus been cowed.

So Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are actually playing a positive role. By getting rid of a lot of the sacred cows prevalent in discussing science-religion issues, they are opening up the field for a whole lot of people to speak more openly about their own disbelief in god.

Next: What about that belief in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and thus has value?

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm TODAY (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Case's Hallinan Center for Peace and Justice.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

September 25, 2007

Pinning down the properties of god

One of the difficult points on which discussions between atheists and religious believers flounder is that while there is a fair degree of uniformity amongst atheists as to what they do and don't believe, there is a huge diversity among religious believers about what they believe. This can be disconcerting because in the middle of a discussion, a religious person will often say, "Oh, but I don't believe in that stuff. My idea of god is quite different." Understandings of god tend to be so fluid that it enables believers to slide from one to another whenever one particular formulation comes under close scrutiny and is shown to be untenable. People tend not to want to be pinned down on what they actually mean by god. This is more so in the case of more sophisticated believers. Fundamentalists are more concrete in their beliefs.

When I was debating the intelligent design movement in Kansas, I would find that the views ranged from believing in the literal truth of the Bible in every detail to people who regarded the Bible as metaphors but still believed in a personal god who could intervene in the actions of the world. If one goes outside the world of intelligent design advocates, one finds an even broader spectrum, people who are what I call 'almost atheist believers,' who call themselves 'spiritual' and whose idea of god is so vague that no empirical statement can be made about it at all. For some, god is somehow synonymous with nature, for others it is the creator of the big bang and nothing else, and so on. They are the people whom Daniel Dennett describes as people who believe in belief, who need to feel that there is something transcendent in their lives and will construct it to meet their needs.

So in order to have a useful dialogue, it may clarify things and avoid misunderstandings if each person knew where the other stood. It is useful, for example, to see if someone accepts the idea that god has the qualities of being omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good).

We know that belief in this god immediately runs into the problem of theodicy, the problem of defending god's goodness and omnipotence when bad things occur, such as the death of an infant or widespread tragedy in the recent tsunami. Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in such a god face:

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

This obvious logical contradiction has resulted in some theologians arguing against assigning all three qualities to god. But which one(s) should be jettisoned? Most people who are not theologians are reluctant to abandon any because it would seem to devalue their concept of god as someone to whom all positive superlatives should apply. Anything less than absolute perfection is seen as unworthy. Such people then have to resort to the 'mysterious ways clause' (MWC) which argues that that while god does have all those three qualities (and more), the reason that things appear to be contradictions to us is because our minds cannot understand god's plans or that he has not confided his plans to us in a manner that we can understand.

But the odd thing is that although believers, by invoking the MWC, have effectively argued that logic and reason and evidence (things they routinely value and use in other areas of their lives) cannot be used to argue against the existence of god, they still try to use evidence and reason to argue in favor of god, and resort to the MWC only when that attempt fails and they end up in a dead end from which there is no escape.

In an attempt to clarify what people mean by god, Victor J. Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12) defines what he sees as the properties of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god as gleaned from their religious texts and official doctrine.

[The Judeo-Christian-Islamic] God is not the god of deism who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all existence. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in very cubic nanometer of the universe, from the interactions of quarks inside atomic nuclei to the evolution of stars in the most distant galaxies. What is more, God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.

Stenger spells out the basic elements that go into this model of god (p. 41):

  1. God is the creator and preserver of the universe.
  2. God is the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature.
  3. God steps in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, which may include violating his own laws as, for example, in response to human entreaties.
  4. God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity, where human beings are special in relation to other forms.
  5. God has endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls that exist independent of their bodies and carry the essence of a person's character and selfhood.
  6. God is the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice, and democracy.
  7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history.
  8. God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence.

This seems like an accurate list to me, corresponding to my own understanding of what mainstream believers say. Stenger deliberately does not include the problematic trinity of omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient qualities (especially the ability to know the future) since those lead to immediate and severe logical contradictions in explaining away things like the tsunami, and makes religion too easy a target to attack. He also does not consider the views of scriptural literalists, the so-called fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims, who take their creation stories and history and images of god straight from their holy books and argue (say) for a 6,000 year old Earth. Such people have abandoned science entirely and there is little one can say to them.

Stenger's book is a detailed analysis of the more sophisticated arguments put forward for a god and he argues that none of them stand up to scrutiny. He looks at all the things that we can infer from the properties of the above god and examines the commonly stated arguments and evidence in favor, some of which have been discussed here too: the appearance of design in nature and the universe; the sense that we have a mind and soul apart from the body; claims of immortality and the afterlife; the idea that the origin of the universe needs an initiator; the 'fine-tuning' or anthropic principle argument; the answering of prayers; and the morals and values argument. He finds that none of the evidence produced in favor of these stands up in the face of close scrutiny. The conclusion is simple: In the absence of evidence in support of it, the god hypothesis is rejected. As Stenger says (p. 71): "Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God."

Stenger is careful to point out that this does not rule out all gods. The MWC enables you to define god any way you like and assign it any properties you wish and be immune from contradiction. But atheists see this exercise as a waste of time.

The problem that arises in discussions with believers is that defenders of god tend to shift around among these qualities so that when (say) feature #2 is shown to cause problems with logic and evidence, they shift to #3, and then when that is shown to be also fraught with problems, they move on to #6. And, when all else fails, there is always the fallback option of invoking the MWC (which is the same as abandoning #8) and serves as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

Perhaps the discussions with religious people would be would be more fruitful if right at the beginning they listed which of the above properties of god they agree with. That would make for a far more focused discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting short debate

Listen to this short debate between a biologist Lewis Wolpert and a Christian theologian William Craig Lane. It raises many of the issues discussed in this post. Listening to the arguments made by this sophisticated theologian you realize how weak the arguments for god are.

September 24, 2007

The end of mysteries and the rise of atheism

The linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once divided up the questions that linguists study into two categories, mysteries and problems. That division has since been seized on and expanded well beyond the field of linguistics and used as a tool to classify all problems of scientific research. For example, Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works (1997, p. ix):

When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Where religion and god have found their strength in the past was in their ability to "explain" the many mysteries that confronted people in the early days before modern science. Of course, such explanations are not really explanations at all in the conventional sense of the world. What we usually expect of an explanation is something either in simpler terms or as an intelligible cause of the phenomenon. To say "god did it" doesn't really advance the discussion in any way.

The progress of science has seen the steady transformation of mysteries into problems. The great mysteries of the physical universe were made into problems with the advent of Newtonian mechanics. For the first time, the behavior of the solar system became comprehensible in terms of natural laws and we had tools to investigate its behavior and make predictions. There were still huge unsolved problems, but that is what they were: problems, not mysteries. Of course, the big questions of the properties of the large scale universe had to await the advances in 20th century physics and big bang cosmology, but Newtonian physics provided such a satisfactory materialistic basis for explaining so many things, that it was hard not to feel that the nature of the universe was no longer a mystery.

This does not mean that all the major questions have been solved. Scientific research is always springing surprises on us. For example, right now dark energy and dark matter are thought to have a pervasive and widespread presence in the universe but have eluded detection for some time. But while they are mysterious, these phenomena are not mysteries but problems, since scientists have fairly well-defined research programs to study them.

After Newton, the next major mystery to fall by the wayside was the mystery of the complexity and diversity of life. The origins of the seemingly exquisitely designed features of nature had to have been totally baffling to people living before the 18th century and one can understand why they might have thought that god was the only explanation. But the arrival of evolutionary ideas with specific mechanisms for how they might work, starting with people like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), started the chipping away of that particular mystery. Although his theory that animals could pass on acquired traits to their progeny is no longer accepted and his name is nowadays sometimes mentioned disparagingly, his work published in 1801 was groundbreaking in that it suggested that the diversity of life was due to natural laws and not necessarily due to some miraculous intervention by god.

Lamarck laid the groundwork for taking these questions out of the realm of mysteries and into the world of problems, work that reached its culmination with the brilliant work of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself in 1861 acknowledged the debt to his predecessor: "This justly celebrated naturalist. . .first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition."

Richard Dawkins argues in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6) that it was Darwin's successful theory of natural selection that broke down a great mystery that had prevented the easy acceptance of atheism:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

So are there any mysteries at all left? I can think of only three possible candidates: the first appearance of life on Earth, consciousness, and the origin of the universe.

The first appearance of life is, I would argue, no longer a mystery although it remains a hard problem. We already have some idea of what the initial conditions of the Earth were and what kinds of properties the earliest replicators need to have in order to evolve and grow in complexity. Experimentalists and theorists are actively working on the problem using many plausible scenarios.

We have not advanced as much with consciousness, but I would argue that the tremendous work that has been done in the area of brain research, artificial intelligence, and artificial life has also shifted this former mystery into the realm of problems. (I will write about these things in the future but the website MachinesLikeUs is a tremendously valuable resource for getting updates on the state of those fields.)

Only the origin of the universe can still be considered as a mystery. Part of the problem is that it is hard to envisage what is "before" the beginning of the universe and what is "simpler" than it, two elements that are needed to construct a satisfactory explanation. The conditions of the very early universe are so very different from the present that it is hard to get a handle on how to handle them. Explaining the origins of the universe may mean going back "before the beginning", if that even makes any sense, and it is not clear how to do that. So for the present, believers in god have a good mystery candidate, the last refuge where perhaps god can act without being subject to scrutiny from those pesky scientists. In fact, in almost any discussion of religion and god, when plausible scientific explanations are given for other things, believers almost invariably resort to the claim that the origin of the universe had to be an act of god.

There are those who will resist the drive to convert mysteries into problems, not for religious reasons but because it threatens to destroy the sense of wonder. There is a romantic streak in many of us that yearns for mysteries, that enjoys the sense of awe that accompanies the feeling that there are things beyond our ken. We are drawn with a curious fascination to stories of the supernatural, of spirits, of "ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night."

While the disappearance of mysteries undoubtedly makes atheism easier to accept, would it be a bad thing not to have mysteries anymore? Would we be losing a sense of awe and wonder? It don't think so. The difference is that while most people have a sense of awe in the presence of unexplained phenomena, atheists have a sense of awe at the power of the mind that can comprehend the phenomena.

Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow says: "I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious ad hoc magic."

I agree with him. Consider the fact that we humans, tiny specks each living for a brief time in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, have been able, by painstakingly building upon the work of our ancestors, to uncover so many deep mysteries of the cosmos, of who we are, what we are made of, and how we got here.

If that is not awe inspiring, I don't know what is.

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public.

They will also be speaking at noon that same day at the City Club of Cleveland.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

September 06, 2007

The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin's time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800's, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted "extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery." (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).

In such a Tory-dominated climate, evolution-related ideas such as that the mind and consciousness were not separate entities and that the body was purely a creation of the brain were strongly frowned upon because they raised disturbing questions such as "[I]f life was not a supernatural gift, if the mind was not some incorporeal entity, what became of the soul? With no soul, no after-life, no punishment or reward, where was the deterrent against immorality? What would stop the downtrodden masses from rising up to redress their grievances?" (Desmond and Moore, p. 38, my italics). We thus see that advocacy or religion and the suppression of atheism has always been a key element in the strategy of those who want to preserve power in the hands of the elite few.

What is interesting is that during this time there was widespread "antitheism," the active opposition to theism. The working classes perceived the established Anglican Church in England, which (like the Roman Catholic Church in France) lived in luxury, as an oppressor and were calling for its abolition.

Science entered into this discussion because the idea that species were immutable had been used to support the hereditary power of the elites. The idea that god had specially created species once for all time was used to imply that social classes were also fixed and ordained by god, and that to challenge them was to challenge god's plan.

The rising popularity of the idea of the transmutation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1774-1829), and the spread of other radical ideas from European mainland, were undermining this idea and fuelling atheistic ideas, along with generating calls for a radical restructuring of society in England and the dethroning of the Anglican Church from its privileged position.

At that time blasphemy was a crime because Christianity was part of the law of the land. The Anglican Church was wealthy because they could impose taxes in the form of tithes on the population, just like the Catholic Church did in France. While the Whigs were for reform and greater democracy, they too were wary of letting the masses get too much power, preferring to have reform-minded elites run things. They feared that loosening the faith of illiterate workers would lessen their ability "to bear up against the pressure of misery and misfortune." (Desmond and Moore, p. 70)

The theologian William Paley (whose famous book Natural Theology (1802) has the famous watchmaker analogy so beloved of intelligent design creationists and reincarnated by them as Mount Rushmore) was very frank about the social function served by religion in keeping the masses from complaining about injustice. He said that "Christian revelation. . . established the existence of 'a future state of reward and retribution.' And retribution in the next life is eminently useful for regulating human conduct in this one. Without the threat of eternal torture, men 'want a motive' to do their duty, and 'their rules want authority.' Promise them future rewards, on the other hand, and a perennial problem is solved: the unequal and 'promiscuous distribution' of power and wealth. The swilling masses will put up with their hardships and degrading 'stations' once they accept that any injustice will be rectified hereafter." (Desmond and Moore, p. 78)

Thus religion served the purpose it still serves today, to help preserve injustice by making the victims accepting of the status quo because they are fearful of divine retribution if they do otherwise. It persuades people to accept injustice and their current exploitation by promising them non-existent rewards that will supposedly receive in the non-existent life after death.

It was in this religious and political climate that Darwin proposed his dangerous idea. He was someone who sought respectability and avoided controversy. It was not in his nature to be a rebel and risk vilification by the Church and the bourgeoisie society in which he was so comfortably ensconced. He knew that his model of how species evolved would cause a stir and he risked being accused of blasphemy.

But at the same time, he was scientifically ambitious and knew that what he was proposing was a grand new idea that would increase his already considerable standing among the scientific peers who understood it and were not blinded by religious dogma. So he developed his theory in secret, sharing his ideas with just a few trusted colleagues, collecting vast amounts of evidence so that when he was finally prodded to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859 by the sudden appearance of Alfred Wallace's similar theory, his work was on a solid empirical foundation that withstood critics' attacks.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

POST SCRIPT: Supply Side Jesus

An alternative Biblical story.

September 05, 2007

The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV documentary A Rough History of Atheism, Jonathan Miller points out that by the end of the 18th century, while skepticism of god and religion was gaining ground among the intellectuals and the elites, and was probably secretly quite widespread, the spread of atheism to the working classes was opposed (even by these enlightened people) because the elites feared that it would destroy the basis of their power. It was fine to discuss atheistic ideas around their dinner tables as long as the servants were not present. As James Mills said to his son, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, "There is no god but it's a family secret."

Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression, from the colonization by Europe of Asia and Africa and South America, to its use during slavery. It was consistently used to divert the energies of the enslaved people away from organizing to fight for their rights and freedom and directed to accepting their lot as god's will and hoping for rewards in heaven. The idea that being rich and powerful is a sign of god's favor is a valuable tool to maintain that status quo.

A belief in the divine right of kings and nobility has always served as a powerful means of social control and a deterrent to democratic ideals, and this had been recognized for a long time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said, "A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side." As Voltaire said, "As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites." Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged the value of religion as a means of social control when he said "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet", echoing Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) who said: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

The cynical view that advocates that religion should be fostered by political leaders even if they do not themselves believe in it, is an attitude still maintained by some Straussian neoconservatives today.

As long as atheism stayed within the rarefied world of the elites and intellectuals, it did not pose a danger to social order. It is only when atheist views threaten to spread to the general public that it is viewed with concern. What we see currently in America may be a replaying of this historical pattern. The recent success of books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the resulting public discussions of atheism that they have provoked have caused a similar disquiet.

For example, "common" people like Tom Paine were considered dangerous when they advocated atheist views, especially since his pamphleteering was reaching ordinary people. Actually, Paine is more properly be described as a deist but his stinging arguments that both Christianity and the Bible were false and many Christian doctrines immoral were enough for him to be labeled an atheist.

France in the 18th century was a fertile breeding ground for atheistic ideas because of the corrupt relationship of the Catholic Church with the French nobility. They both lived luxurious and extravagant lifestyles based on forced taxes exacted on peasants and workers. This led to a great deal of resentment and cynicism against religion and the ruling classes, factors involved in the events leading up to the revolution of 1789.

Atheism became more widespread when it started to permeate popular literature because novels reach a much wider and more middle and low-brow audience than philosophical treatises.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was clearly influenced by Baron D'Holbach and in his most famous book Madame Bovary had one of his characters, the pharmacist Homais, say the following: "I can't believe in an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who puts his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which proves to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in ignorance, in which they would be glad to engulf the people with them." Later on, Homais debates the local priest and urges him to read Voltaire and D'Holbach. It should be not surprising that Flaubert was criticized for his writings, on the grounds of immorality and impiety.

Another French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is quoted as saying: "Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest."

These ideas spread across the channel to England and influenced the climate in which Charles Darwin worked, as I will discuss in the next posting.

September 03, 2007

Shafars and Brights

(Today being the Labor Day holiday, I am reposting an item from July 21, 2005, edited and updated.)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for "shafars" (an acronym he has coined that stands as an umbrella term for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, which has caught on more than Smith's, to have people identify themselves as "brights". Who or what is a "bright"? The bright website says that "a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview." Clearly shafars and brights are almost synonymous.

Smith playfully refers to the "faith" of shafarism and says that "Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science." He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. "None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists."

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God's punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the "religious" perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith's essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.

August 31, 2007

The history of western atheism-3: The first published atheist

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV series A Rough History of Atheism Jonathan Miller awards the honor of being the first published atheist to France's Paul Henri Thiery, Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789). As the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on him says:

His most popular book, Système de la nature (1770) ("The System of Nature"), published under the name of J.B. Mirabaud, caustically derided religion and espoused an atheistic, deterministic Materialism: causality became simply relationships of motion, man became a machine devoid of free will, and religion was excoriated as harmful and untrue. In Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761; "Christianity Unveiled"), published under the name of a deceased friend, N.A. Boulanger, he attacked Christianity as contrary to reason and nature.

It is said that the Baron's salon was a congenial meeting place for all manner of freethinkers, including Benjamin Franklin during his stay in France, but some of his guests were so alarmed at the inflammatory nature of the speculations that occurred that they stopped coming. Even a nobleman like D'Holbach had to be cautious about his views, as atheism was grounds for persecution and even execution, so his works on these subjects were published pseudonymously.

When you read the Baron's views, one can understand his caution. Here is a sample of his writings, which are bracingly direct and modern:

  • If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.
  • If the ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.
  • All religions are ancient monuments to superstitions, ignorance, ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated.
  • All children are atheists -- they have no idea of God.
  • What has been said of [God] is either unintelligible or perfectly contradictory; and for this reason must appear impossible to every man of common sense.
  • The Jehovah of the Jews is a suspicious tyrant, who breathes nothing but blood, murder, and carnage, and who demands that they should nourish him with the vapours of animals. The Jupiter of the Pagans is a lascivious monster. The Moloch of the Phoenicians is a cannibal. The pure mind of the Christians resolved, in order to appease his fury, to crucify his own son. The savage god of the Mexicans cannot be satisfied without thousands of mortals which are immolated to his sanguinary appetite.
  • Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.
  • Tolerance and freedom of thought are the veritable antidotes to religious fanaticism.
  • Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.

Pretty strong stuff, especially for the 18th century, and one can understand why the good Baron was wary of saying these things under his own name. But there is nothing in the above list that any modern atheist would disagree with.

Baron D'Holbach's writings are said to have been extremely influential, perhaps because they said so directly what had been thought secretly for so long in the minds of many thoughtful people. It is very likely that his works were well known to Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather, who was himself a radical freethinker and who had published his own Lamarckian theory of evolution in the book Zoonomia which was published around 1795.

Although Charles Darwin started out as a religious person and was contemplating becoming an Anglican clergyman early on, there is little doubt that the disbelief of his father and grandfather and brother were factors in his later move away from religion. He knew them to be good and decent people and the thought that they would be punished and suffer torments simply because of their disbelief was impossible for him to accept. As he wrote in his autobiography (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 246):

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

The philosopher Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) said that "The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called "faith."" Darwin would probably have sympathized with the statement although, being someone who avoided social controversy, he probably would not have stated it so strongly.

It is interesting to see the interweaving of threads of ideas of religion and science and atheism in those times. Was it the atheist writings of people like D'Holmbach that opened up the creative window for Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and other scientists, freeing them from the constraints of having their science strictly conform to religious dogma? It is hard to say. But the more liberal climate definitely would have helped.

Next in this series: Atheism shifts from the intellectuals to the masses.

August 29, 2007

The history of western atheism-2: The beginnings of modern atheism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) may have unwittingly been the trigger for the revival of freethinking during the Enlightenment. Although he always asserted his own fidelity to the teachings of the church, the clarity of his thinking about the mind-body relationship exposed some of the fundamental problems and contradictions that inevitably accompany religious beliefs.

Belief in god has always required a kind of dualistic 'two different worlds and two different kinds of matter' way of thinking, but usually left unexamined the thorny questions of how the two interacted. Descartes' exposition on this duality and his attempts to find a way by which the world and matter of god interacted with the world and matter of people exposed the difficulties with dualism, problems which plague thoughtful believers to this day as they try to reconcile a scientific perspective with religious faith.

Jonathan Miller in Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief suggests that the first modern philosopher to seriously challenge the basis of the existing religious orthodoxies was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He advocated 'monism', the idea that only one kind of stuff exists, and that stuff is what we see as matter. This ruled out dualism, especially other kinds of non-material entities like the soul and god. Although Hobbes's book Leviathan (1651) advocated a strict materialism of both human nature and knowledge, he was not really an atheist and might better be classified as one of the first modern deists, someone who allows for the existence of some prime mover who set the universe in motion but then does not interfere subsequently.

The official climate in Hobbes' time was still strongly discouraging of any forms of skepticism and people had to be cautious about going against these norms of belief. Perhaps as a result of the alarm caused to the supporters of religion by the spread of the kind of views expressed by Hobbes, in 1694 the British parliament had a long debate and passed a bill that advocated the death penalty for blasphemy if anyone should deny divinity. Early drafts of the bill even included atheism as grounds for execution, although that was not included in the final law that was passed. But it gives us a sense of the degree of public opprobrium that one risked if one espoused any form of heterodoxy.

One can see the strong appeal of deism for freethinkers in those times. Deism allowed people to formally genuflect to god and maintain a stance of official belief in god while allowing the free reign of their intellect in all other matters, especially science, since in the deist framework god was never invoked to explain anything other than the original creation of the universe and its subsequent laws and maintained a strict hands-off policy after that. Since atheism could be grounds for persecution and punishment and even execution, it seems reasonable to suppose that many deists of those days may well have been closeted atheists.

The fact that many of the prominent leaders of the American revolution (such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe) were deists and had no trouble advocating the constitutional separation of church and state makes sense in the light of this historical context. They were rebelling against the restrictive entanglements of religion with government back in England, while trying to be not too far ahead of their own populace in terms of religion. After all, there have always been influential religious zealots in America, some who even went to the extent of seeking out and executing witches, and it would not have been not politically expedient to disavow god altogether. Still, it is quite amazing how sophisticated in such matters the American political leadership of that time was, compared to the present day when leaders publicly express a bizarre belief that god is actually in personal contact with them, and some even do not accept the theory of evolution.

While Hobbes with his theory of monism laid the philosophical basis for modern atheism, Miller argues that he cannot be truly identified as the first atheist. Neither could philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who followed in Hobbes' footsteps. But both were definitely anti-religious and flirted publicly with atheism and it would not be surprising if they were privately so, since both dropped hints that they suspected that most people were a lot less pious than they publicly let on.

David Hume, writing in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757), suspected that there was a great deal of hypocritical piety among his contemporaries:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

One gets the impression that while the people of Hume's time may not have publicly expressed disbelief, there were a lot of knowing winks and nudges exchanged when public piety was encountered.

I think that Hume is describing many people today as well.

Next in this series: The first published atheist.

POST SCRIPT: After Fredo

The Department of Justice, like the IRS, can function effectively only if perceived as above partisan politics. This is because unlike most other government agencies, they can wield great power over individuals and so any action they take has to be seen as not serving a partisan agenda.

Alfredo Gonzales instigated and presided over the almost complete politicization of the Justice Department, making it serve as an extension of the White House, and his welcome departure is being accompanied by calls that he be replaced by someone who will restore some semblance of independence and integrity to that institution.

I am not sanguine that this will happen and am not sure why people have such high hopes. The Bush administration has had a consistent track record of appointing as partisan a political hack as they can get away with to all positions. Right now, the only constraint on its excesses is that the Democrats have to approve the nominee, but I fully expect that the nominee will be someone who they think they can just squeak by the approval process.

This is one of those predictions where I hope I am wrong.

August 27, 2007

The history of western atheism-1: The ancient origins

In the BBC4 TV program Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, host Jonathan Miller states flatly right at the beginning, "This series is about the disappearance of something – religious faith. . . The history of the growing conviction that god does not exist."

(The full three hour, three-part series can be seen starting at the beginning here. The price you pay for it being on YouTube is that each hour is chopped up into six ten-minute segments in order to meet the time restrictions. But the video and sound quality are excellent.)

Miller did a nice job of summarizing the rise and fall and rise again of freethinking. Strictly speaking, his is a survey of atheism just in the western world. In the eastern world of two millennia ago, the widespread acceptance of Confucianism, which placed very little emphasis on a god, and Buddhism, which required no belief in god, suggests that atheism was not perceived as negatively as in the west.

The Miller documentary is structured quite traditionally. It is long on voice-over narration by Miller as he walks through various imposing historical churches, museums, and other buildings and gazes upwards at portraits and statues of the people he is talking about, interspersed with interviews with scholars. It is Miller talking to the viewer in an informal, chatty way, interweaving the history of disbelief with his own journey to a comfortable atheism. But what it lacks in drama and glitz, it more than makes up in the low-key, understated charm that is characteristic of good BBC documentaries. The second and third hours are especially good as the pace picks up.

Miller points out that many of the early Greeks philosophers were freethinkers, highly skeptical of the idea of a god. It is interesting that in those very early days, the Greeks had a much more sophisticated view of god and religion than we have even now, and the program provides many wonderful quotes about religion and god as evidence.

Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

These questions are usually avoided by religious people by invoking ignorance, the 'mysterious ways clause', that says that god has reasons for allowing evil to occur which we are unable to comprehend, although it is not clear how they know that god does not want them to understand. But as the French philosopher Voltaire once said, "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning."

Lucretius (circa 99-55 BCE) proposed a theory of the origins of religion and articulates an early formulation of naturalism: "Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling."

Cicero (106-43 BCE) points out that it is obvious that there is no god and that much public piety is hypocritical and based on fear. "In this subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is do the gods exist or do they not? It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree, if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly. But in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so."

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argues that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

It is interesting that even though the climate for freethinking was better in the time of the early Greeks, Cicero's quote illustrates that people who were skeptical about the existence of god still had to be discreet for fear of repercussions, something that has continued to this day, explaining why so many atheists still are fearful about proclaiming their disbelief publicly.

The conversion to Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337 CE) led to the rise of Christianity being the favored religion of the Roman Empire and the beneficiary of state patronage. It also resulted in forcing freethinkers to lay low in society, and the suppression of those early Greek writings that supported atheism. Heretics were persecuted and this practice became institutionalized with the various forms of the Inquisition by the church beginning around the 12th century. Recall that most 'heretics' were not atheists, but religious people who had views different from that of Catholic orthodoxy. This effectively led to the forcing of specific religious beliefs on people, requiring public affirmations of religious orthodoxy, a practice that has remained in force to this day as we see with politicians routinely spouting pieties.

The arrival of the renaissance around 1500 CE signaled a new time. The birth of the new sciences with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton was coupled with the rise of Arab scholars who had preserved and now resurrected those early Greek skeptical writings. All this led to a flowering of new kinds of thinking. But those early days of modern science did not by themselves lead to a rise of disbelief or atheism. After all, those well-known scientists were all pious people, not skeptics. They simply felt that it was inconceivable that science would reveal anything that was incompatible with god's work in the world so they did not seem to suffer any personal anxieties of disbelief about where their research would lead. They felt that any seeming contradiction between scientific knowledge and the Bible had to be due to a misinterpretation of the Bible. So they were far more sophisticated than current day Biblical literalists who lay the blame for the same conflicts at the feet of faulty science, not religious texts.

When Galileo was asked by the church to explain the conflict between his views and the Bible, he said, quite reasonably, that the church had no choice but to agree with whatever knowledge science was producing. He said it would be "a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something that it was made a sin to believe." (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, 1999, p. 26) Of course, the Catholic Church did not heed his views, putting him under house arrest, and it is amazing that it was only as late as 1984 that they officially apologized for their treatment of him.

So even during the period called the 'enlightenment' (roughly 1500-1800 CE), there continued to be a climate where freethinking was discouraged, with severe penalties for blasphemy. The Inquisition was also gaining strength around this time, forcing freethinkers to suppress public disavowals of god or even of Christian orthodoxy. In this climate, the re-emergence of skeptical beliefs necessarily had to be very cautious and incremental.

Next in this series: The beginnings of modern atheism.

POST SCRIPT: Question: What is a non sequitur?

Miss Teen USA 2007 finalist provides an illustration.

August 24, 2007

The journey to atheism

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from August 8, 2005, edited and updated.)

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

The Roberts quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no real grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship of god to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. People can be urged to accept things on the basis of faith as if it were virtuous to do so.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is very likely that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy since childhood. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize that my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

Another benefit of not believing is that one could be more consistent in how one interpreted events. For example, religious survivors of some calamity are often quick to claim that god must have saved them from harm while refusing to acknowledge that, by that logic, god must have wanted all the others to perish. The media reinforces this kind of silly thinking. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewered how the media quickly jumped on the "It's a miracle!" bandwagon to "explain" the lack of any fatalities when an Air France plane crashed in Toronto in 2005. There was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation for this, which was the calmness and competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the "miracle" theme.

As Stewart said: "The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew's satanic competence."

There was a time when I too would have credited god for saving the people in the plane crash while not laying the blame on him for people who died in other plane crashes. Now those kinds of contradictions are glaringly obvious.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? What seems clear to me is that the standard answers provided by religion that satisfied me once will not satisfy me anymore. I have a much higher standard of evidence. But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence.

June 07, 2007

The consequences of atheism

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like "god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell" or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is 'not natural' (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a 'soul' as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on Oprah

The video of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Michael Moore on her show about his new film Sicko seems to suggest that she is going to take up the cause of a a single-payer universal health care system. (See the Post Script to this post for a preview and a clip from the film.)

If she does so, this could be a big step towards establishing such a system because the platform she has gives her a formidable ability to mobilize public opinion.

June 05, 2007

Is there an atheist philosophy?

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a 'force' or 'principle' or 'consciousness' or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

POST SCRIPT: Video on evolution

Here is a nice video explanation of the evidence for evolution and the common ancestors of humans and other animals.

May 16, 2007

Philosophy and science

An interesting example of the different ways that scientists and 'pure' philosophers view things arose in an exchange I had in the comments of a previous post.

Commenter Kenneth brought up an interesting argument that I had not heard before for the existence of the afterlife, an argument that he said had originally been proposed by the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677). Basically the argument boiled down to the assumption that each one of us is simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. When a person (A) dies, those atoms are dispersed and join the universe of atoms that percolate through space and time. But there is always the possibility that, purely by chance as a result of random motion, a set of atoms will arrange themselves in exactly the same arrangement that made up A when A was still alive. So thus A will have been 'reborn.' Kenneth argues that thus the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle.

The nature of the argument can be perhaps understood better with a simpler example of thoroughly mixing ink and water in a glass and then leaving it alone to sit undisturbed. We would think that this mixing is an irreversible process and that separation into water and ink again would not be possible except as a result of extraordinary efforts by external agents. But in fact if you simply wait long enough, there is a very remote possibility that the random motion of the individual ink and water molecules will result in a momentary spontaneous separation of the mixture in the container into two separate regions, one of pure water and the other of purely ink molecules (whatever ink molecules are).

Since all that this argument requires is the ability to wait for a very long time for which these unlikely events to occur, Kenneth has satisfied himself, from a philosophical point of view, that Spinoza's argument is valid. And that once we concede the possibility that someone's atoms can be reconstituted in its original form, the existence of life after death has been established, at least in principle

But science does not limit itself to these 'in principle' arguments. Such arguments are just the first steps. Science is always looking at the detailed consequences of such ideas in order to translate them into research programs. And this is where Spinoza's argument for the possibility of an afterlife breaks down.

For one thing, the human body is not just an arrangement of atoms, like that of molecules in a mixture of ink and water, or the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in a container of air. The atoms in the human body are bound together in complex organic molecules, which are in turn held together by other forces to form cells and tissues and so on. It is not enough to just bring the atoms together, you also have to create the chemical reactions that fuse them into these molecules, and this requires energy from the outside used in a very directed way.

It is like frying an egg in a pan. Just breaking an egg into a skillet and leaving it there will not result in a fried egg, however long you wait, unless there is a source of energy to drive the reaction forward. A fried egg is not just a rearrangement of the atoms in a raw egg. It is one in which new compounds have been created and the creation of these compounds is a non-random process.

In addition, the probability of all the atoms that make up your body randomly arriving at the same locations that they occupied when you were alive is microscopically small. This is not a source of concern to Kenneth because all he needs is that this probability not be zero in order to satisfy his 'in principle' condition. But there is an inverse relationship between the probability of an event and the likely time that you would have to wait for the event to occur. For example, if you repeatedly throw a die, you would have to wait longer to get a six than to get just any even number because the probability of the former is less than that of the latter.

In the case of the body's atoms coming together again, the probability is so small that the expected time for it to occur would be incredibly long. Again, it would not matter if this were a philosopher's 'in principle' argument. But those arguments tacitly assume that nothing else is changing in the environment and that we have an infinite amount of time in the world to wait for things to occur.

But in reality events are never in isolation and science is always concerned about the interconnectedness of things. And this is where the 'in principle' argument breaks down. We know that the lifetime of the Sun is about ten billion years and that it will then become a huge 'red giant' that will grow enormously and even envelop the Earth. And later still, all the energy producing nuclear reactions in the stars will end, resulting in the heat death of the universe. So there will not be any surplus energy around, even in principle, to drive the chemical reactions to reconstitute the body's molecules, even if they did manage to arrive randomly in exactly the right positions.

I think that this is where scientific research and philosophical speculations diverge. A scientist is not interested in just 'in principle' arguments for the afterlife of the kind that Kenneth says Spinoza makes. To be become interesting to scientists, Kenneth will have to provide at least numerical estimates of the probability the body's atoms reconstituting themselves, and then use that probability to estimate the expected time for such an event to occur.

If that time is more than the expected heat death of the universe, then the question becomes moot. If it is less, then the scientist will ask if there is enough free energy at that time to drive the reaction forward and what is the probability that this energy will spontaneously be directed at the atoms in just the right amounts and directions to recreate the human body.

All these considerations, when brought together, suggest that Spinoza's argument fails and that life after death as proposed by him is not going to ever happen.

That is the kind of difference between the approaches of pure philosophy and science.

May 11, 2007

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these 'new atheists' are now so 'militant'. I do not think 'militant' is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to 'respect' that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like "Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?" So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes ("I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.").

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that 'respect' can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new 'new atheists' are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the 'respect for religion' trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don't believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don't believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of 'lack of respect' comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some 'moderates' fear is that people's attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

May 10, 2007

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty's essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion -- keeping it out of what Carter calls "the public square," making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson's compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience -- a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation -- or to start an argument -- is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God's will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, "I would never have an abortion" or, "Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days." In these examples, as in Carter's, the ensuing silence masks the group's inclination to say, "So what? We weren't discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don't bother us with matters that are not our concern."

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don't think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we'll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let's see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, "Gee! I'm impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith"? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the 'respect for religion' trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced 'to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented' in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like "But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….") when discussing public policy, and that "this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty." He goes on that this requirement "is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience."

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: "Carter seems to think that religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity's role giving meaning to his own life."

So when atheists (of the 'new' variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that "a speaker's depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color."

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

May 09, 2007

Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion

It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called 'fringe' beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called 'shrill' or having 'no respect for religion.'

The way the word respect is used in this context is curious. I am a believer in respect for people. I also have respect for ideas that have merit in the sense that they are backed by evidence and reason. But the phrase 'respect for religion' seems to be demanding something more: that everyone must collude in maintaining the idea that god and an afterlife is a reasonable thing for adults to believe in and that to point out the flaws in those beliefs is to be somehow gauche.

I have written before about author Salman Rushdie who said:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie admires this approach but it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. But I do agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. In fact it is essential that people's ideas be challenged if they are ever to learn. But how one scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation.

While Rushdie is perfectly right in saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism, in the private sphere there is no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration for their sensibilities, even while not avoiding saying what one believes.

But in the public world of ideas, there should be no sacred cows and no idea should be immune from close scrutiny. But the common idea of 'respect for religion' seems to expect more. It seems to demand an acceptance of the following premise: that religious beliefs, at least of mainstream religions, be seen as fundamentally good and reasonable, and that any evil committed in its name be characterized as aberrations. Anyone who challenges this and asserts that the problem may not be that between good and bad religion, but that religious beliefs themselves are a problem is seen as stepping over some line that should not be crossed. So when Sam Harris author of The End of Faith says: "We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man," he is seen as being disrespectful to religion, because he is not distinguishing between 'good' and 'bad' religion.

'Respect for religion' is sometimes taken to suggest that if someone says that they oppose equal rights for gays because their religious doctrines assert that homosexuality is immoral, we are supposed to take that as a serious argument. If someone says that he opposes giving equal rights to gays, we would ask them to provide some justification. But if he says that his religion opposes homosexuality, then that is supposed to be a serious argument, exempt from challenge. Recently I was on a panel that discussed religion and sexuality. The Muslim panel member said that his religion required him to oppose granting homosexuals the same rights as enjoyed by heterosexuals. I said that while I understood his motives for opposing the gay lifestyle, a motive is not an argument. Saying that Islam or Christianity thought homosexuality wrong is as irrelevant to a discussion of public policy as the views of Satanists or any other religious group.

The basic point is that when discussing issues of public policy, there is no reason to provide beliefs based on religion with any special standing. The basic premise of the new atheists is that religious people, when engaged in the public sphere, should conform to the same rules of evidence, logic, and reason that all arguments must follow. If we use that yardstick, then we see that there is no reason to listen to people like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell because they rarely have any arguments, and simply quote Biblical verses to support their prejudices.

It is not an insignificant detail that the idea of 'respect for religion' also plays an important role in shielding religious beliefs from public skepticism. This is partly why people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger, are causing such a stir. They are challenging the idea that religious beliefs have some kind of special status in the public sphere that exempts them from scrutiny using the normal requirements of evidence and reason that we accept as applying to everything else.

POST SCRIPT: The power of tornados

I have never lived through a tornado but this video gives a glimpse of their terrifying power.

May 08, 2007

Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called 'hate crimes' legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."

Some Christian groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the list because they feared that this would prevent them from speaking out against homosexuals, cross dressers, and transgendered people.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole problematic issue of hate crimes, what is relevant to this post is that these Christian groups took particular offense that this vote was scheduled (and passed) on the same day as the 'National Day of Prayer.' They said that it was a 'slap in the face' to Christians, that it was disrespectful to bring up the inclusion of hate crimes against gays on their day of prayer.

Follow me closely here. The first step in the argument seems to be that some Christians feel that they have the right to oppose homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. Fair enough. In a free country people should be able to believe what they want as long as they do not obstruct the rights of others. The next step seems to be that the National Day of Prayer is a day that privileges their particular interpretation of Christianity and thus a discouraging word should never be heard on that day and passing any legislation that offends the sensibilities of those groups on that day is being 'rude' to them.

On one level, this argument is problematic because there are also many religious groups who oppose discrimination against gays and might see this as a perfectly appropriate day to pass such legislation.

The real problem lies in the whole idea of privileging religious beliefs in the public sphere at all. Even designating such a thing as a National Day of Prayer is questionable. Passed in 1952, it resulted from pandering to religious groups in general, not to any particular sect, and it dangerously treads on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Not to mention that it seems a little silly for the government to be getting into the business of exhorting people to pray on a particular day.

I bring up this somewhat trivial blip on the political landscape to illustrate what happens when we let the trope of 'respect for religion' become a rule that is raised to a higher level than others. Why should religious beliefs be granted any special privileges denied to other beliefs?

This is not to say that we should go out of our way to offend religious people by throwing the cold water of reason on their beliefs whenever the topic of religion arises. For example, a close friend of mine, who is very religious, had an adult daughter who died a few years ago. My friend is still grief-stricken and even now will burst into tears when talking about her loss. She consoles herself by saying that she looks forward to the day when she joins her daughter in heaven. I never dispute this when I am with her because we all need some means of coping with life's tragedies and this is hers. The reason for my silence is because of my respect for her as a person and the desire to help her deal with her sorrow.

It is for the same reason that I bow my head when at some function someone starts to pray for something, or why I take off my shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple or a Mosque or wear a yarmulke when attending a synagogue that requires it. It is out of respect for the people there, not for their beliefs. The idea that I am entering a 'holy' space that requires this level of deference makes no sense to me, but I go along with these practices out of a sense of social obligation to not needlessly offend. It means nothing to me either way, so why not accommodate others when entering places that are special to them?

In a non-religious context, it is exactly the same reasoning for why I dress up formally (or as formally as will be acceptable) when I attend a wedding or observe the social niceties expected of me when I am the guest of someone else, such as not putting my feet up on their coffee table or lying down on their living room couch, even though I do these things in my own home.

But when we are discussing public ideas in a public forum, there is no reason to privilege religious beliefs in any way or to cushion religious believers from any arguments against their beliefs. I think Henry Louis "H.L." Mencken, American editor and critic got it right when he said: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

But respect for religion has been extended well beyond this reasonable accommodation that acts as a social lubricant, and seems to seek exemption from public criticism of the beliefs themselves. And it is this applecart that the new atheists are upsetting.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Rowan Atkinson on Jesus's miracles

May 07, 2007

Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the 'new atheists'. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that 'respect for religion' means that one must not point this out.

In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that "witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims."

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said "This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense." (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people's beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:



  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a 'respectable' religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don't pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world's only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn't? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush's home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.

Bush12yearold.jpg

May 04, 2007

The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): "On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against."

Barash summarizes the various suggestions that have been put forth to overcome this problem of how religion could have originated.

Other, related hypotheses of religion include the anthropologist Pascal Boyer's grandly titled Religion Explained, which argues that natural selection would have favored a mechanism for detecting "agency" in nature, enabling its possessor to predict who is about to do what (and, often, to whom). Since false positives would be much less fitness-reducing than false negatives (i.e., better to attribute malign intent to a tornado and take cover than to assume it is benign and suffer as a result), selection would promote hypersensitivity, or "overdetection," essentially a hair-trigger system whereby motive is attributed not only to other people and mastodons, but also to trees, hurricanes, or the sun. Add, next, the benefit of "decoupling" such predictions from the actual presence of the being in question ("What might my rival be planning right now?"), and the stage is set for attributing causation to "agents" whose agency might well be entirely imagined.

Boyer's work, in turn, converges on that of Stewart Guthrie, whose 1993 book, Faces in the Clouds, made a powerful case for the potency of anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see human (or humanlike) images in natural phenomena. This inclination has morphed into a more specific, named phenomenon: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, "real" examples: Jesus' face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary's outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa's profile in a cinnamon bun).

The same kinds of ideas are invoked to explain the origins of morality but here the work has advanced a lot more. The idea that morality comes only from religion has no validity, given that natural selection provides alternative explanations. As Barash says: "Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain "Moral Law.""

This is not to say that the question of the biological origins of morality has been completely solved.

In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson explored the possibility that religious belief is advantageous for its practitioners because it contributes to solidarity — including but not limited to moral codes — that benefits the group and wouldn't otherwise be within reach. That notion, appealing as it might be, is actually a logical and mathematical stretch for most biologists, relying as it does upon group selection. The problem is that even if groups displaying a particular trait do better than groups lacking it, selection acting within such groups should favor individuals who "cheat." Mathematical models have shown that group selection can work in theory, but only if the differential survival of religious groups more than compensates for any disadvantage suffered by individuals within each group. It is at least possible that human beings meet this requirement, especially when it comes to religion, since within-group self-policing could maintain religiosity; it certainly did during the Inquisition.

So where do things stand? The status of the game is that while there have been major advances in understanding the biological origins (based on natural selection) in the propagation and evolution of religious ideas, and the origins of morality, there still needs a lot more work to be done, especially on the question of the origin of religion. As Barash says:

We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

But the goal can never be to change the minds of people about the lack of necessity of god by direct arguments. That rarely succeeds for reasons to be discussed in a future posting. In fact, although I have written many posts on why belief in god is irrational, I basically agree with Charles Darwin's approach when he said "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science."

The reasons for my posts are not to persuade the determined believers to change their minds but to add to the universe of ideas, so that people who are not particularly committed to religion will find that their musings are not the dangerous thoughts of an apostate that will be punished by an angry god, but the perfectly rational doubts that arise in the minds of anyone who values the role of evidence and the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the recent developments is that questions of religion and morality are now being investigated using scientific tools and methods, and those are bound to result in greater detailed understanding of those phenomena.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Apparently ABC News has decided to stage a science-religion debate. Who suggested this idea and offered to represent religion? None other than Ray "Banana Man" Comfort and his sidekick, Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron.

Apparently Comfort requested the debate in order to counter The Blasphemy Challenge. Comfort says: "I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists."

Right. Frankly, if I was a religious person, I would be really worried about letting Comfort be my standard bearer. But who knows, maybe he has found a proof more powerful than the banana. (Scroll down to see the video if you don't know what I'm talking about.) Perhaps he has managed to find god's designing hand in the avocado also. Maybe he will bring along Peanut Butter Man to clinch the case.

The debate will occur on May 5, 2007 and apparently will be streamed live on the ABC website and later be shown on Nightline.

Of course, what Comfort and people like him really yearn for is media exposure and he probably doesn't care if people hoot with laughter at his "proofs" of god.

May 03, 2007

The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher's The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:

1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.

In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.

2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.

If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn't is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.

3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.

The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.

4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.

Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:

5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.

So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.

This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.

Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.

It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person's religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don't even think of their own beliefs as 'beliefs' because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents' beliefs than subsequent children.)

Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one's parents.

To see how believing what one's parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don't touch the fire, don't walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.

But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. "The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience."

So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.

Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are 'memes' (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of 'memeplexes', a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):

• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal's Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don't even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.

I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.

I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots

I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.


Amazing - Watch today’s top amazing videos here

May 01, 2007

The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don't, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: "If we pray for anything that is impossible -- for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ -- it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability."

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god's presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god's presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn't just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the 'pieces' in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.

April 30, 2007

The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: "At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral."

The new atheists make the claim that we should not uncritically accept the NAS statement's implication that god could exist in an undetectable supernatural world about which science can say nothing. For god to have any meaning at all, a universe in which god exists has to be observably different from one in which he or she or it does not exist. Thus Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that if god exists, then that is an empirically testable proposition. He argues that it is the obligation of believers in a god to provide evidence, in the form of testable propositions, for this difference, and have those predictions confirmed by experiment or observation. Otherwise, god is merely a name and an idea conjured up out of nothing and that can do nothing. As it stands, no such evidence of the kind he seeks has ever been provided.

Dawkins also argues that the god that most people envisage has to be a complex being, since it is capable of doing complex things. If so, he argues, how could god have existed in that form at the beginning of time, since everything else in the universe (both matter and life) started from very simple forms and evolved into complexity slowly? How could god come into being as a complex entity right from the start?

It is clear that these kinds of arguments have struck a nerve. They have not only caused a split between elite religion and elite science, they have also caused a split within elite science, between those (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to continue to maintain the political alliance between the two groups, and other scientists who say that a political alliance is too high a price to pay for not speaking out against what they truly believe, that belief in a god not only has no evidentiary basis, it does not even make coherent sense as a philosophical construct. Again, it is Dawkins who states this position most forcefully, stating that the 'two worlds' model is a "cowardly cop out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable." (quoted by Larson and Witham, Nature, vol. 386, April 3, 1997, p. 435-436)

What is happening now is that atheist scientists are no longer silent or discreet about their atheism. More and more secular scientists are not shying away from the explicit implications of how the science in their fields is steadily eroding the remaining niches in which belief in god has taken refuge. Physicists like Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis takes on religion from the physics perspective, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works examines how and why natural selection might have worked to create an advantage for modules to exist in the brain that have a propensity to believe in god and the afterlife, thus making people think it is natural. Neuroscientist Marc Hauser in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong does the same thing for morality, seeking to understand how natural selection may have worked to select for the moral values that we see in people. And Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained takes on the task of seeing how consciousness can arise without any need for any supernatural explanation.

All these works are somewhat speculative since the kinds of investigations being done are quite new. I am not claiming that these major problems have been solved or that these particular authors have even got it right. In fact, although I am broadly familiar with the thrusts of the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have not read them all as yet but will report on them in more detail when I do read them, which should be fairly soon. (A good general review of what these books and others in the same vein say can be found in the essay The DNA of Religious Faith by David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 2007.)

The suggestion that there is nothing metaphysical and non-material about the mind and morality and consciousness has been advanced in the past. The significant new feature is that while in the past questions of mind and morality and consciousness were largely the province of philosophers and theologians and social scientists, it is now scientists, armed with the latest research tools, who are taking direct aim at these areas of knowledge that were once set aside as part of the 'spiritual world' and thus outside the real of scientific investigation.

What has made this shift possible is that scientific knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that we have the ability to construct and test theories and collect actual data that can shed light on these questions. As a parallel, ideas of evolution and common descent existed even before Darwin and Wallace but it was their collection of huge amounts of data in support of those ideas that put the theory of natural selection on a solid empirical footing. The same kind of progression is now happening for the areas of mind, morality, religion and consciousness. And when scientists start to make concerted efforts to solve problems, advances in knowledge tend to occur. If history is any guide, the net result is usually a retreat for religious explanations.

These new atheist scientist authors are in the vanguard of presenting to the general public new scientific research into these areas of knowledge and religious people need to brace themselves for fresh challenges to their beliefs. The theoretical paradigms that emerge from this research will change and improve with time but like previous advances in science that have undermined the credibility of miracles and similar obvious interventions by god in the physical world, it seems inevitable that these new areas of research will proceed in the direction of making religious explanations unnecessary.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Ricky Gervais tackles the book of Genesis

April 27, 2007

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."

Most of the people who subscribe to this kind of statement see no conflict between scientific and religious belief structures because each one deals with one of two distinct worlds that do not overlap. So scientists are supposed to deal with the physical world while religion deals with the spiritual world. Such people tend to view the periodic legal and political skirmishes between the creationist and scientific camps as the work of overzealous extremists, both religious and atheist, who are attempting to mix together things that should properly stay separate. They feel that their own point of view is very reasonable and find it hard to understand why everyone does not accept it.

Stephen Jay Gould, who was himself not religious, was a key advocate of this model of peaceful coexistence between the two worlds (or as he called them 'magisteria') of science and religion, going to the extent of even writing a book Rocks of Ages advocating it. He gave this model a somewhat pretentious name of Non-Overlapping MAgisteria or NOMA.

What this model successfully did was to allow elite religion and elite science to work together against those Christianists who sought to base public policy on religious beliefs. Thus in the periodic skirmishes over teaching intelligent design, prayer in schools, and other church-state separation issues, scientists and elite religionists tended to be on the same side, jointly opposing the attempts of people who sought to replace secular society with one based on a fundamentalist Christian foundation.

But this model peaceful coexistence model has some fatal flaws (that I have discussed before) and can only be sustaine by people strictly compartmentalizing their beliefs to avoid having to come to grips with the problems. Others are aware of the lack of viability of this model but have sought to downplay the problems in order to preserve the political alliance between the elite science and religion camps. But this is where things are changing.

The initial challenges to this peaceful co-existence model came from intelligent design creationism theorists like Berkeley emeritus law professor Phillip Johnson, who sought to drive a wedge between elite science and elite religion by arguing that one could not simultaneously be a methodological naturalist and a believer in god, since the former excluded the latter. His aim was to force elite religionists to make a choice: are you with god or with atheistic science?

In doing so, he was conflating the two different concepts of methodological and philosophical naturalism to serve his rhetorical purposes. As I have written before, one is not forced to be a philosophical naturalist (which essentially means atheist) in order to be a scientist, but there is little doubt that elite scientists are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic.

But more recently, the attack on the peaceful coexistence model has come from a visible and vocal group of atheists who have also argued that this 'two worlds' model that allows elite religion to coexist with elite science is essentially a sham, and that intellectual honesty demands that this be pointed out. This new rise in vocal atheism can be seen everywhere in a flurry of books and films and blogs. There has been a rise in organizations seeking to bring the views of atheists to the public's attention and a new lobbying group has been created called the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) that includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists, and seeks to increase the visibility of non-theistic viewpoints in the United States.

As intelligent design creationism seems to be a spent force these days, receiving one setback after another since the Dover verdict, and reduced to a traveling road show that exhorts the true believers, this new attitude by atheists challenging the two-worlds model comes too late to help the cause of Johnson and his allies to advance the teaching of intelligent design creationism in schools by creating a split between elite science and elite religion. But this new outspokenness amongst atheists has caused some ripples in the fabric of elite opinion, and is sometimes referred to as the 'new atheism'.

Some key voices in this new attitude are Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith), Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained and Breaking the Spell), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis) and Brian Flemming (creator of the film The God Who Wasn't There).

The soothing view of advocates of peaceful coexistence that religion is a neutral ideology that some followers take in an evil direction while others take in a good one is being challenged. The new tack taken by the new atheists is that even though individual religious people are often very good, that is largely irrelevant. The problem with religion is that, at the very least, believing in a god requires one to suspend rational and critical thinking, and that is never a good thing. As Voltaire said: "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

Thus they have taken on the task of highlighting the fact that belief in a god has no credible objective evidence to support it and thus should not be believed by any person who supports reason and science. As Dawkins, one of the most forceful and vociferous among them, says: "I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

It is this new front between elite science and elite religion in the science-religion wars that has caused some turbulence.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Cricket World Cup final

The final of the World Cup is being played between Australia and Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 28, 2007. The game starts at 9:30 am (US Eastern time) and will probably last around six hours, barring a complete rout by one side.

I have been told that people can see a live telecast of it in DeGrace 312 (Biology building). If you want to see what cricket is like as played by two good teams, you should drop by. There is a charge which I think is $10.00 but am not sure since I just heard about it.

In the semi-finals, Sri Lanka beat New Zealand and Australia beat South Africa. South Africa came into the tournament as the favorites but gave several lack-luster performances and barely made it into the final four. Australia has been the dominant team, crushing their opponents, and are undefeated, so they are now the heavy favorites for the title. Sri Lanka has been playing well too, but they will have to be absolutely at the top of their game to defeat the powerful Aussies.

It should be a good game.

April 26, 2007

The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words 'science' and 'religion' are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular 'science'.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular 'science' does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, "Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.")

I hate to assign the label 'science' to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey's terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular 'science' and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular 'science', which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular 'science' and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is 'evil', the product of a 'bad' supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular 'science'. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular 'science' because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular 'science' and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at)case.edu if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group's advisor and have accepted.

The CFA's mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:

-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.

April 20, 2007

Reacting to other people's tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.

It is a little harder to know how best to respond when the tragedy bereaves not you but someone you know personally or, in the case of the Virginia Tech shootings or the death of a much-loved and much admired figure like Martin Luther King, affects such a large enough number of people that we feel a collective sense of loss. But however close I am to the people who actually lost a loved one, I try to remember that what I feel empathetically can never be anywhere close to what they actually feel.

For example, on NPR earlier this week, they quoted a resident of Blacksburg who was attending the memorial service for the dead people at Virginia Tech out of a sense of solidarity. That was admirable but in trying to convey the depth of his sympathy, he said that he felt like one of his own children had been killed. I am sure he meant well, but I personally avoid that kind of sentiment. As I have said earlier, the reason people grieve so deeply over the loss of a loved one is because of the sense of yearning for the missing person, the loss of the relationship and companionship that they once enjoyed. If you never had that companionship to begin with, then the feelings you experience are unlikely to have the deep poignancy that the truly bereaved feel. We can try and imagine what it would be like to have that experience, but I doubt that it comes even close to matching the intensity of the real thing.

I see a lot of this generalized adoption of other people's grief these days. It strikes me as a little bit of verbal overkill. We seem to think that people will be comforted if we say that we are feeling the same emotions as they. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, some people around the world said "We are all Americans now." When major tragedies strike people in other countries, similar sentiments are expressed. I am not sure if this kind of thing really helps the people who are bereaved or instead strikes them as cheap and shallow sentiment. Perhaps the best thing to do in such situations is to express your sympathy for their loss, and simply support them as they work their way through it and not prescribe what they should or should not do. We have to realize that our words can never really capture the emotions that they feel.

It is odd how some people react to the Virginia Tech shootings. Dinesh D'Souza, who had already made a fool of himself on the Colbert Report for suggesting in his new book that the 9/11 attacks were partly due to actions of FDR (!) and the liberals in America (see the postscript to this post) emerges from wherever he obtains his hallucinations to make the strange argument that the response to the recent shooting reveals the deficiencies of atheism! He asserts that 'atheists were nowhere to be found' and advances the argument that because noted atheist Richard Dawkins (who has no connection to the university) was not invited to speak at the Virginia Tech convocation, this shows that atheism is of no use at these times and that therefore god is necessary.

If his appearance on Colbert left any doubt that D'Souza was a silly person not to be taken seriously, this latest evidence sealed the case. It takes an extraordinary level of obtuseness to suggest that events surrounding the cold-blooded slaughter of 32 innocent people are an argument against atheism and in favor of a providential god. Any junior varsity debater could demolish his arguments and the inimitable TBogg shows the way with a cartoon as a bonus. As the Carpetbagger Report says: "Honestly, one might think D'Souza was trying to sound like an idiot."

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings provides the definitive response, especially about D'Souza's statement that: "What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil."

Hilzoy points out "What's especially silly about this sentence is that the problem of evil is a problem specifically for Christians. It is, basically, the problem of how a good and loving God could have created a world with evil in it. Atheists do not have this problem at all. So I guess they don't "deal with it", in the sense in which they don't have to "deal with" the problem of how Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist."

D'Souza seems to be under the weird impression that to be an atheist is to not have emotions like love, sadness, grief, joy, etc., that to be an atheist is to be a machine. He points to poet Nikki Giovanni's speech at the convocation as "as heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning" and suggests that atheists have nothing similarly uplifting to offer at times like this.

But what is odd about this assertion is that Giovanni is reported to be a secular person (though I have not been able to confirm this). Here is the text of her speech in full:

We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite awhile. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to know when to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant in the killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech. The Hokier Nation embraces our own with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.

I don't see any religious symbolism at all. What I do see in her words is a stirring affirmation of life and solidarity, linking the recent sorrow with that of suffering people and animals everywhere, and calling us to draw upon our reservoirs of strength and courage to be unbowed by the madness of the events and fight back to sanity through the tears.

It is an uplifting message for everyone, flying high above the petty divisions of private beliefs and the mud in which people like D'Souza wallow.

POST SCRIPT: Another new episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

In Episode #10, Mr. Deity tries to figure out why hell is so overcrowded.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

April 18, 2007

False symmetry

In recent posts, I have been pointing out that while it is impossible to disprove god's existence, that did not mean that it was rational to believe in god. The reason for those posts was to address a false symmetry that is sometimes posed between atheism and religious belief. That symmetry takes roughly the following form:

1. It cannot be proved that god does not exist
2. Therefore not believing in god's existence is as much an act of faith as believing in it.

Some extend this line of reasoning even further, to argue that therefore atheism is also a religion and that thus keeping prayer and religious education out of schools is equivalent to promoting one particular 'religion' (atheism), and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is a false symmetry. While atheists would accept the first statement, they would reject the second. The crucial difference is the role that evidence plays in shaping beliefs.

I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief in god, then I am curious to learn what form it would take. So far, nothing has been offered, as far as I know.

Atheists take the following position:

1. We believe in those things that have sufficient and convincing evidentiary support.
2. We disbelieve those things for which there is insufficient evidentiary support.
3. The more evidence there is in favor of a belief, the more we are likely to believe and vice versa.

The crucial difference can be seen in response to my question as to what evidence it would take to make them disbelieve in god and the afterlife. The commenters in this blog (who are all people who have obviously given this question considerable thought) agreed that there was no conceivable evidence that would make them give up their beliefs. And yet, they do not believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which have no evidentiary support either. So religious belief is decoupled from evidence. In fact, belief in god in the absence of evidence is taken as a virtue, a sign of the depth of one's faith.

On the other hand, atheists take a position that is consistent with a scientific outlook. They believe in those things for which there is persuasive, objective, corroborative, and cumulative evidence, even if it cannot be proved beyond any doubt. They can also always conceive of some evidence that would persuade them to give up their most cherished theories. For example, if human fossils that are two billion years old were ever found, that would seriously undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Similarly, atheists can conceive of all manner of things that would require them to accept the existence of god. As another example, suppose god were to suddenly appear on all TV stations, announcing his/her existence, the way that V appeared in the excellent film V for Vendetta. Of course, that by itself would not be convincing since people nowadays are skeptical of the power of technology. Some people are convinced that the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks were hoaxes.

So to be really convincing, god would have to announce in that broadcast that he/she would stop the Earth's rotation for 24 hours, starting at some specified time. Such an act would violate the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum, which are foundations of physics. If that happened, I don't see how anyone could doubt god's existence.

Of course, god would have to take some precautions. Simply stopping the Earth's rotation would, according to the laws of physics, at the very least unleash huge tsunamis and earthquakes that would wreak destruction on a massive scale. But since an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god can keep track of and do everything at once, I am sure that these negative consequences of stopping the Earth can be avoided. And this is not asking for too much evidence since the Bible says that god has done this in the past (Joshua 10:12-13). To be accurate, the Bible says that god stopped the Sun, not the Earth's rotation, but we can grant some license for pre-Copernican thinking.

I am not saying that this is the only proof of god's existence that would be acceptable to atheists. One can suggest a vast number of similar evidences. But it does suggest the nature of the evidence that would be required to be convincing.

So that is where things stand. Atheists, like scientists, can always articulate what evidence (or lack of it) makes them believe some things and disbelieve others. They can also specify what kind of evidence would make them call into question what they currently believe and convert them to belief about things they are currently skeptical of.

But religious believers have no choice but to say that there are some beliefs that they will never give up on, whatever the evidence. It is important to realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking this position. Kathy in her comments to previous posts quite rightly points out that faith is irrational and that logic and evidence have nothing to do with it. I agree with her.

What I am saying is that the atheist's lack of belief in god and the afterlife are, like a scientist's, based on logic and the absence of evidence while religious beliefs have to part company with evidence at some point. And this is where the symmetry breaks down.

POST SCRIPT: The secret doubts of believers

In a previous post, I suggested that it was strange that religious believers in their daily lives did not act in ways that were consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful god and suggested that perhaps people were more atheistic than they were willing to let on. Of course, there is hardly any new idea under the sun. It turns out that long ago philosopher David Hume suspected the same thing, as he wrote in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757):

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

April 11, 2007

Religious by day, atheists by night?

Here's a puzzle. Most people in this country are religious. The god they believe in is an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god. If that is the case, why is it that people still do wrong things, things that they believe god will disapprove of? We know that even very religious people still lie and steal and cheat and do all manner of things that their religion tells them is wrong. But if they are sure that god knows all the things they do and is capable of punishing them, why do they still do it?

An obvious response is that human beings are not perfect, they are prone to temptation and that they are going to stray from the path of good behavior. A religious person might couch this in terms of human beings being weak and sinful and that they need to depend on god's forgiveness to save them form their sinful natures. (An atheist would have to depend on his or her conscience and moral sense to help overcome the temptation to harm others for their own gain.)

That's fair enough, but it seems to me that that only explains behavior in which people do something wrong on impulse or on the spur of the moment or by mistake because they did not have time to think things through or figure out what was the right or wrong thing to do. This can arise in tricky ethical situations where one has to make a decision on the spot and one can momentarily forget that god is watching your every move.

But that does not explain why religious people deliberately do things over a long period even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, who railed against gays while having a relationship with a male prostitute, is only one highly publicized example of many cases of both clergy and laity indulging regularly and in a systematic manner in a whole host of activities that they strongly assert to be unquestioningly wrong, not just in sexual matters. If they really thought that god was watching their every move and knew their every motive and that their immortal souls were being imperiled, surely they would desist?

This leads me to wonder as to whether people really believe that god is all the he/she is cracked up to be. Perhaps what we have are closet atheists who pay lip service to the existence of a god but really don't believe it, or at least have serious doubts. Thus they are gambling that they can get away with things they believe are wrong because they think there is a good chance that god does not exist.

It is true that people can be aware of being observed and yet forget that they are under surveillance and act as if they are unobserved. For example, most stores now have cameras that record everything that goes on but we usually ignore them. But our nonchalant behavior usually extends only to those actions that are not serious transgressions. So we might clown around, pick our noses, yawn without covering our mouths, scratch ourselves, and do similar things and not care that we were being watched and recorded. But a serious criminal acting with premeditation would be aware of the cameras and take steps to avoid being detected or identified while stealing. The greater the levels of security, the more likely people would avoid doing something wrong in that store.

Similarly, if you knew that your boss in your workplace had a surveillance system that was monitoring your every move and that people were watching you, surely that would affect your behavior and you would not do what you felt your boss did not want you to?

But we need not limit ourselves to petty criminality. The examples can be multiplied in the worlds of politics, big business, and in interpersonal relations. People consciously do wrong things (cheat on their taxes, defraud their companies, tell lies about others, etc.) all the time, gambling that they can escape the adverse consequences because the earthly authorities are not likely to find out because they do not have the resources to find out everything.

There is no reason to think that such people are any less religious than the average person. Since surely god is the most perfect security system of all, how is it that these people can so easily ignore the fact that the god they believe in knows exactly what they are up to and considers it wrong? Could it be that, deep down, people do not really believe in this kind of god at all, but are simply spouting the pieties that they have been brought up to say from the time they were children?

Are we really a world of closet atheists, too nervous to say out loud what they really believe? That would explain this cavalier attitude to god's watchfulness but I suspect that religious people would not accept it.

I would be curious to hear alternative explanations for this.

POST SCRIPT: Photo touch ups

I recently saw a magazine cover photo of actress Sally Field. She is 60 years old but in that photo she looked a lot younger and I was impressed at how well she had taken care of herself. But was that photo touched up to 'improve' her looks? I don't know but it is clear that the technology is there that gifted people can use to improve your image immensely.

Take for example, this photo. By moving the cursor over and off the image you can compare the images before and after the photo was touched up.

In another image, the bare shoulders from the image of a different woman was grafted onto the image of a woman who was wearing a dress. It is so well done as to be seamless and unnoticeable.

You can see more examples here. Just click on any thumbnail to get the full image.

These touch ups are done by the company Nasonart.com which is run by the editor of MachinesLikeUs, who is also a professional graphic designer, which explains why his website is so attractive!

In some ways, this is disturbing. Can you believe any image anymore? No wonder some women in this country suffer so much, trying to reach the unattainable standards of beauty they see in magazines. Granted, these women are attractive to begin with (he would have a tough time improving a photo of me!) but the retouching takes them to a level of flawlessness that is unattainable in real life.

But it seems that most young people now assume that the people they see in magazines have had their photos touched up, which is reassuring. I think high school yearbooks now do this kind of thing routinely, making people aware of the fact that things are not always what they seem.

April 10, 2007

Why it is so hard to give up belief in the afterlife

It is interesting how one's views can be changed by a comment. Such was the case with Cindy's comment on my post regarding the absence of proof of an afterlife. Cindy said:

I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren't for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it's fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I've seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I'll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can't have 2, they'll still cling to 1.

I think Cindy is really on to something. Clearly people want to believe in the existence of a god and the after life, despite the lack of evidence for either. Although the two beliefs are linked, I used to think that wanting to believe in god was the primary impulse and that belief in an afterlife was something that came along with a belief in god, a fringe benefit if you like.

But Cindy's suggestion is that the reverse is true, that what people really want to believe in is the afterlife, and that belief in god is merely a mechanism that enables that belief.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, god is an abstraction. Hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god. Imagine meeting god. You really would not have much to say and it could be quite awkward, like encountering a stranger at a party. After a little small talk ("Hi, god, nice place you got here. So, . . . read any good books recently?"), you start wishing you could get away to the buffet table.

But that is not the case with people whom we like who have died. It would be like meeting a close friend after many years. We can't wait to find out what they have been up to and getting them up to speed on out own lives. We can imagine ourselves talking to them for hours and days.

All of us have had people and pets whom we have loved and who have died. We have fond memories of them and the desire to continue that relationship is very strong. A recent study reported by Elizabeth Cooney in the Boston Globe of February 21, 2007 says that:

Contrary to traditional notions of grief after the death of a loved one, a new study finds that yearning is felt more powerfully than depression. . . . "Yearning is reacting to the loss of someone or something, and once that is gone, you miss it, you pine for it, you hunger for it, you crave it. That was the primary emotional experience after bereavement, rather than depression," Holly G. Prigerson, one of the authors, said in an interview. . . . "People never get over a loss, they just get used to it," Prigerson said. "Even years after someone dies, they get pangs of grief, they need to think about the person, and they miss them with heartache," she said.

What people find most difficult to deal with in the death of a close loved one is missing the companionship that person provided. It is natural to want to believe in something, such as the afterlife, that promises that that link may someday be renewed.

In my own case, now that I think about it following Cindy's comment, giving up believing in god was not that hard. But my father died nearly thirty years ago, before my own children were born. My greatest regret is that he would not see them growing up because I know how much he would have enjoyed knowing them and playing with them and how much they in turn would have enjoyed his company. The idea of meeting him again was much more appealing to me than the thought of seeing god. Believing that he was somewhere 'up there' looking down on my children was comforting. Even as I write these words, memories of him and the sadness associated with missing him comes flooding back. Giving up that belief was much harder than giving up belief in a god about whom I really knew nothing and with whom I had had no prior relationship or shared memories.

So it makes sense that belief in an afterlife is more important to people than belief in god and that maybe people desperately want to believe in god because it enables them to believe in an afterlife.

POST SCRIPT: Beautiful sand art

While the people who make sand art are obviously very skilled and patient people, what really amazes me is their willingness to spend so much time and effort something that gets destroyed soon after. You can see more exquisite sand art.

sandArt13.jpg

March 27, 2007

Scientific proof of god's non-existence

There were a couple of interesting (anonymous) comments in response to my post on what constitute rational and irrational beliefs. The writer said that I was overstepping the line that divided science from philosophy when I argued that religious beliefs were irrational. The arguments took a familiar form and went something like this:

1. We cannot prove that god does not exist.
2. Hence it is rational to believe that god exists.
3. Scientists should stick to the world of data and not venture to question god's existence since that enters the realm of philosophy, not science. The author states that if a scientist is asked: 'In your scientific opinion, does God exist?' the proper answer should always be, 'I don't know. I don't have any data on the subject.'

I will readily concede the first point, and in fact have done so previously (See here, here, and here.)

But the other two statements do not follow from the first. Just because we cannot prove, using data, the negation of some entity does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in that entity. Scientists constantly make judgments in the absence of data and act on those judgments. In fact, it is essential that they do so, as science could not proceed otherwise.

The only time that you can prove a negative is if you have the ability to do an exhaustive examination of every possible situation. As an example, I can prove to everyone's satisfaction that no unicorns exist in my office because I can search every nook and cranny and show that none are there. But I cannot similarly prove that no unicorns exist anywhere on the Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

I also cannot prove the non-existence of magic unicorns in my office, that only materialize when I am not present and are capable of hiding all evidence of their visits before they disappear again. It seems to me that arguments for the existence of god are of this nature.

But there is another point about the word 'proof' that needs to be emphasized. When scientists use the word 'proof' they use it in a slightly differently way from the way mathematicians use it. In mathematics, a proof is a construct based on an agreed set of axioms and rules of logic. If someone challenges the validity of any of the axioms or one of the rules, then the proof is also called into question. But since the axioms are usually few in number and do not necessarily have to be based on data, mathematicians can agree on the validity of more things as working hypotheses than scientists can.

Scientific 'proofs' do not have the same level of rigor as a mathematical proofs because the axioms themselves are not simply assumptions but are also expected to justified based on evidence. Also there are far more explicit assumptions that go into scientific conclusions than go into mathematical proofs, thus opening them up to far more challenges. This greater degree of challenge that scientific assumptions receive makes scientific 'proofs' different from mathematical proofs. So although I and other scientists use the word proof frequently, we do understand that it is being used in a slightly different sense than a mathematical proof. The word proof is used to signify a reasoned judgment based on the merits of the evidence.

But just because scientific proofs do not have the same status as mathematical proofs does not mean that scientific conclusions cannot be extremely robust. Let me give an example. Most people readily accept that there are just two kinds of electric charge, positive and negative. This is about as well-established a 'fact' as one is likely to find in science. This is one of the most firmly held beliefs in all of science and the entire modern world is constructed on the basis of this two-charge model. No one even thinks of questioning this fact. (Note that 'positive' and 'negative' are just labels and the charges could just as well have been called things like 'green' and 'blue'.)

The interesting question is how it is that we are so certain that there are just two kinds of charges that we base our entire society on it. Do we have certain proof that there are only two kinds of charges? Do we have direct data that no more charges exist? Have we looked everywhere and convinced ourselves of this? The answer to all three questions is no. So how is it that we are so sure that only two kinds of charges exist? It is because of the absence of certain kinds of data.

Here's how that argument works. Suppose you have three charged objects A, B, and C. What scientists find is that if the charges are such that A and B attract each other and A and C attract each other, then it is always found that B and C repel each other. This set of three observations can be explained by (1) postulating that there exist just two kinds of charges, and (2) adopting a rule that says that like charges repel and unlike charges attract. No data has ever been seen that contradicts the consequences of these two assumptions.

Because of the absence of any data that contradicts any predictions based on those two statements , scientists will say that they are extremely confident that there are only two kinds of charges and this is all the 'proof' they need. But note that haven't actually proved it in a mathematical sense. It is just a powerful inference based on the absence of certain kinds of data, but it is sufficient proof to convince scientists.

Notice though that even this 'proof' can be challenged. After all, we have done such experiments with just a few sets of charges. We have not exhaustively repeated them with every single charge that exists in the universe because it would be impossible to do so. As a result, someone can come along and say that scientists are wrong, that there does exist a third kind of charge but that either it has not been found yet or that it does not interfere with the experiments that scientists do. There is no way that scientists can prove this person wrong. How could they? But what they will do is ignore this argument as not worth responding to because that kind of argument has the same standing as magical unicorns in my office or a god who is determined to avoid leaving evidence of his/her existence.

A belief that has no observable consequences is of no use to scientists and they will work on the assumption that this third charge does not exist and that would be perfectly rational behavior. A person who clings to the belief in a mysterious third charge that has no observable consequences will be treated as somewhat eccentric.

Historians and philosophers of science have long pointed out that there is no proposition in science, however idiotic, that cannot be made immune from refutation by the addition of a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses to shield its weaknesses. But if you want to convince scientists that something like a third kind of charge exists, you will have to provide positive evidence, some actual data that cannot be explained by a two-charge theory. For scientists, the absence of such evidence or data is taken as evidence of absence.

It seems to me that the arguments put forward by believers for the existence of god are of the same kind as those that might be put forward for a third charge: It exists but its effects cannot be observed. But just as scientists are perfectly justified in rejecting as irrational that kind of hypothesis when applied to a third charge and confidently proceeding on the basis that it is false, so it is that we can confidently reject the arguments currently given for the existence of god.

So although you may not be able to prove exhaustively that god does not exist, you cannot obtain a stronger scientific proof than what we currently have.

So if someone should ask me 'In your scientific opinion, does God exist?', I would answer 'No' with the same degree of confidence that I would say 'No' to the question as to whether a third type of electric charge exists.

POST SCRIPT: More lists of famous atheists

Some more lists of well-known atheists and agnostics, along with quotations from them justifying their inclusion in these lists, can be found here and here.

Although it should be obvious, I should add that the mere fact that someone famous is an atheist is not being offered as an argument in favor of atheism. Lists of this kind are simply to identify the members of an affinity group. One could do the same thing with lists of vegetarians or Bassett hound owners.

March 22, 2007

Rational and irrational beliefs

Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering if the Pope was an atheist. Of course, I do not know the Pope personally and he has never made a public statement to that effect. It would not really be a good career move on his part.

My point was that the more one thought seriously about god and studied religious texts, the more likely that it was that the whole idea of there being a god and heaven would be seen to be preposterous. All the logical fallacies and lack of evidence would become transparent. Hence I argued that it was amongst clergy and theologians that one was most likely to find atheists because those people are not stupid and they do study religion in depth. The higher one went in the hierarchy, the more intellectual were the clergy and theologians and so, given that logic, I argued that the Pope was a prime candidate for atheism.

Some commenters to that post did not find my reasoning compelling, arguing that such religious people either truly believed what they did or had devised various forms of subconscious rationalizations to protect their beliefs from challenges. The comments were very stimulating and well worth reading.

But I thought about this topic again when discussing the question of what would constitute definite proof of an afterlife. Just as for that case, the only proof that I can think of that one can have for the non-existence of god is the absence of evidence for god. Unlike the famous assertion made by Donald Rumsfeld when he was flailing around trying to explain away the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", absence of evidence for god or the afterlife or the paranormal is evidence for their absence. (If anyone, especially religious believers, can suggest an alternative that they would consider compelling proof for the non-existence of god, I would be very interested in hearing it.)

As far as I can see, convincing proof for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing proof I outlined earlier concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present. In short, it would have to be similar to the encounter that King Arthur and his knights have with god in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), right after the song in Camelot in the following clip.

It is clear that we have never had anything close to this level of proof. All we have are the claims of ancient texts of highly questionable authenticity, and the personal, uncorroborated testimony of individuals that they have 'felt' some presence in their lives that they think is god. Of course, just as in the case of the afterlife, such testimonies have many natural explanations, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

The willingness of people to believe in things for which there is no evidence is not always irrational. For example, take the case of extraterrestrial life or space aliens. A fairly plausible reason can be postulated why they might exist even in the absence of any convincing proof that they do. The universe is a big place that has been around for a long time. The Earth is a tiny speck and reliably recorded human history has only been around for a few thousand years. So it is possible that aliens can live in distant parts of the universe unknown to us or that they have even visited Earth before the evolution of humans. So belief in extra-terrestrial life is not completely irrational.

There are still some difficulties to be overcome. If aliens came a long time ago, surely they would have left some tangible markers of their presence, like we have left stuff recording the visit to the Moon? It is possible to answer that objection by saying that if they came a long time ago, then any clues they left behind could have easily been swallowed up by vast geological changes that have occurred over time. It may be that the movement of continental plates due to drift or the advance of glaciers has resulted in the evidence being taken deep underground and lost to us or that earthquakes and floods and tidal waves have removed their alien artifacts from the surface of the Earth

So a plausible reasons exist as to why space aliens could exist somewhere in the cosmos, and even visited us at some time even though we have not seen them. Although no evidence exists for that ever having happened, it is not irrational to not exclude that possibility.

What is irrational, however, is the belief that aliens are still around and mysteriously come and go in UFOs with flashing lights. The idea that an advanced civilization that is capable of interstellar travel has nothing better to do with its expertise than tease us by playing hide and seek is preposterous.

Most people, because of the similar lack of evidence, do not believe in things like dragons and unicorns, and do not even think of demanding more proof of their non-existence. Why is this? One obvious reason is that with large land animals like dragons, there are not many places where they can be unobserved for long and we assume that these animals are not smart enough to hide their existence from us even if they wanted to do so. After all, for a species to survive over a long period it has to have a large enough number to avoid going extinct. For so many of them to exist and remain unobserved would imply the existence of a fairly large unknown habitat. So the long-term absence of sightings of such animals implies non-existence and it would be irrational to believe in them and most people would accept that. It would not be irrational to postulate the existence of some forms of deep sea life that we are not aware of, because that region of the Earth is still relatively unexplored.

Next: What about belief in god?

POST SCRIPT: Evolution of creationism

British comedian Robin Ince captures the essential difference between intelligent design creationism and science.

March 19, 2007

Proof of the afterlife

Recently a friend of mine posed an interesting question. She said that none of us really know for sure if there is life after death or not, although all of us have our own beliefs. She wondered how differently we would live our lives if we could have conclusive proof either way. This led to an interesting discussion about what would constitute proof in such situations.

This brings us back to the whole problem of what constitutes proof in such cases. The negative is particularly tricky. As far as I can see, to prove that life after death does not exist, the only thing we can have is the absence of proof that life after death does exist. I cannot see how there could be any other kind of proof for such a thing and would be genuinely interested in hearing from anyone (especially from those who do believe in the afterlife) what kind of evidence would convince them beyond a shadow of a doubt that no afterlife existed.

As far as I can tell, the very fact that there has been no convincing proof for thousands of years that life exists after death is all the proof we are ever going to have that it does not exist. So in my opinion, having convincing proof that there is no life after death would not change people's behavior much, since that is pretty much the state of affairs that currently exists. People may say that they believe in it but they really have no basis for believing it and I suspect that its absence would not, deep down, really surprise them. It is only having convincing proof that the afterlife does exist that would change anything dramatically.

Notice that I say 'convincing' proof. There are people who claim to have had near-death experiences where they saw something of the after life. Others claim to talk to or even see dead people. But none of these things really constitute proof because they are all individual reports in the absence of corroborating witnesses. There is a whole range of completely natural explanations that can explain the testimonies of such people, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

A real proof of the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. If asked to be more specific, I would say that it would have to consist (say) of an event in which someone who was well known and whom we know was definitely dead (say Albert Einstein) appeared in public and spoke to a large number of people who had no vested interest in collectively lying. There would also have to be tangible evidence of the event occurring. Furthermore, to rule out any chance of fraud or misunderstanding, this dead person should promise to reappear at a designated time and place under conditions that rule out trickery so that any and all skeptics could be on hand to check the phenomenon out. Albert should also be able to bring along other well known people from the world beyond, like say Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If something like that happened, I think everyone would be convinced.

We have never had anything even close to such a level of proof. So basically, the current state of affairs is such that there has been no convincing proof of the existence of an afterlife. That means that we have all the proof we can possibly get that there is no afterlife.

The only way that people can sustain a belief in the afterlife given the current absence of any evidence in its favor is to argue that there must be an impenetrable barrier that prevents any kind of communication at all between the afterlife world and this one, with no exceptions. In other words, there is a one-time opening between the two worlds that allows the souls or spirits of dead people to cross over but the door closes immediately afterwards preventing any return or communication. But this implies that everyone who claims to speak with the dead is either a fraud or delusional and that all the supposed encounters that people claim to have had with the dead are false. So we are back to having zero evidence for the existence of an afterlife.

If we want to believe at least some of the reports of dead people having communicated with the living, then we have to allow just some people to be able to speak to just a few of the dead. That means the barrier separating the two worlds can be crossed and this raises a whole host of problems. Why is it that the dead don't contact us more often? Why doesn't Thomas Jefferson drop by for regular chats and maybe give the current occupant of the White House some desperately needed advice on what the US Constitution says? Why don't all murdered people whose deaths were unsolved come back and tell us who their killers were?

In fact, believing in an afterlife is much harder than believing in a god. After all, with god, one is presumably dealing with a single entity. People always have the option of assigning inscrutability to god's actions and say that for reasons beyond our ken, god has chosen to keep his/her existence unproven except for highly oblique hints.

But with the afterlife, if it exists, there must be billions of dead souls out there. It is hard to argue that all of them are determined to prevent us from finding out for sure that they exist. Why would they care? Is it a crime in that world for someone to show themselves openly in our world? Is this other world like a prison in which just a few dead people are given permission to occasionally speak to a few living people under extremely controlled circumstances?

Given the overwhelming logical difficulties with postulating the existence of such a spirit world, one wonders why people continue to believe in it. One reason that I can think of is that people have a deep sense of existential loneliness that makes it comforting to think that they are surrounded by the spirits of dead friends and family and that they will join them in the future. It is such a deep psychological need that it overcomes all reason and logic.

POST SCRIPT: Citizen Kane

The classic film Citizen Kane will be screened on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:15pm in Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. It is free and open to the public. (Thanks to Heidi for the info.)

March 14, 2007

Life is coarse grained, research is fine grained

In a celebrated remark in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) involving "hard core pornography", US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

This is a common problem that we all face. There are things that we "know" in a general sense but which we cannot strictly define. Pornography is just one of an infinite class of problems for which we have broad brush definitions (i.e. we think we know it when we see it) but which almost always break down under close examination, and exceptions to the definitions we create can always be found.

I am becoming convinced that this is a general feature of life. Questions have simple answers only when we don't examine them too closely. Suppose, for example, I asked the question "What is the length of my desk?" you would expect that there is a definite length to it and that there should be a straightforward way to get the answer.

At the simplest level, you could take a ruler and measure it and call this the length. But is that the most accurate measurement? A ruler is, after all, a pretty coarse measuring instrument. You could get fancier and use more sophisticated devices such as laser beams and high precision timers to get increasing levels of precision. But at some point you reach a limit to precision because at a fundamental level, because of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the length of the desk is not a well-defined quantity. This is because although the desk looks like an object with sharp boundaries, when you get to the sub-atomic level, we know that the atoms on the surface are quantum mechanical systems and so the edges of the desk are not sharply defined but instead are fuzzy and a blur. How do you measure the length of a blur?

At the large scales with which we normally work, we can ignore this and think of the desk as having a definite length but that is because we are not looking too closely.

For another example, although we all have a general intuitive idea about what is science and non-science, I have previously discussed how, when you look closely at the question, it is hard it is to strictly demarcate science from non-science. This is because the problem of finding necessary and sufficient conditions that demarcate one class of objects from another class of objects is very hard, and perhaps impossible.

While in everyday life we tend to be coarse-grained in our outlook, universities tend to be places where things are examined in fine-grained detail This is partly the reason why universities have received the label of "ivory towers." To those outside the university it can seem like academics are engaged in research at a level of detail that seems pointless and the 'ivory tower' label is sometimes intended as an insult. But the reality is that universities are one of the few places where people try to examine things closely, to see how far we can go in defining things before we reach the limits at which things break down. While to outsiders this may seem like nitpicking, it is important to do this because the consequences of such fine-grained analyses can have practical consequences.

For example, most people have a clear idea of (say) what is alive and what is dead, of what is human and what is not. But those classifications are not as clear-cut as they can seem. What is considered dead for example, has changed over time, from 'heart dead' to 'brain dead' to 'persistent vegetative state.' Knowing the precise limits of knowledge in this area has important practical consequences. (See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of that series.)

It seems to be the case that as much as we might like to have certainty, we can never have it. At some point, we reach a level of detail where we have to make a decision, a judgment, as to what something is and what we need to do. This is why we often delegate to people (judges, doctors, academics, and other experts in each field) who have studied these things the right to make such judgments on our behalf. It is not that they are infallible and cannot be wrong, but because at least they work with an awareness of the limits of knowledge and of the ambiguities that exist at the fine-grained level.

January 02, 2007

The joy of free thinking

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings. See this video for images from the Hubble Space telescope of the deep field that shows galaxies nearly 80 billion light years away. It is at once humbling to realize that we are but a speck in the vast regions of space who occupy a flicker of time, while also exhilarating that despite these limitations of space and time, we have been able, thanks to science, to learn so much about the universe we live in.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share over 90 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry.

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me that we are all linked together by one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even things like worms and bacteria being somehow related to us, however distantly. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for those whose religious beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah's Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which tries to fit the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away into a 10,00 year old universe model.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined literal apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve's children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don't have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

August 18, 2006

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman's top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn't that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on "Christian" principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, a breach in the establishment clause of the first amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to a movement to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. (This is similar to the "wedge strategy" using so-called intelligent design (ID). ID advocates see the inclusion of ID (with its lack of an explicit mention of god) in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.)

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo argues that although he also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, he thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. He gives excellent counter-arguments and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally my sympathies are with Yglesias and Drum, I think Digby wins the debate.

So the idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don't enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

August 17, 2006

The journey to atheism

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize that my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don't personally know of anybody who did such a thing.

August 16, 2006

Agnostic or atheist?

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it "weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic." But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that "an agnostic is a cowardly atheist."

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban "'coercive' public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools." (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its "Wedge" document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O'Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement's close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that "I have no need for that hypothesis."

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

August 15, 2006

Shafars and brights arise!

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for "shafars" (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, more serious than Smith's, to have people identify themselves as "brights". Who or what is a "bright"? The bright website says that a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Smith playfully refers to the "faith" of shafarism and says that "Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science." He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. "None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists."

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God's punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

(See an interview with Pat Robertson on ABC's This Week on May 1, 2005 for another example of the kinds of things he says on national TV.)

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the "religious" perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith's essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.

June 23, 2006

Free will

Belief in a god rests on a foundation that requires one to postulate the existence of a mind/soul that can exist independently of the body (after all, the soul is assumed to live on after the physical death of the body) and freely make decisions. The idea that the brain is all there is, that is creates our consciousness and that the mind/soul are auxiliary products of that overall consciousness, strikes at the very root of belief in god.

So what about the role of free will? Where does that fit in with this? If the mind is an entity that exists independently of the brain and which can influence the brain, then one can think of free will as a product of the mind. But is free will compatible with the idea that the brain is all there is?

The idea that we have free will came under attack with the development of materialistic models of the universe. With the success of Newtonian physics in explaining and predicting the motion of celestial and terrestrial objects, and with the rise of a materialistic philosophy of nature (that everything consists of matter in motion under the influence of natural laws), it became inevitable for people to suppose that the mechanical universe was all there is.

According to the Newtonian model, all you needed to be able to predict the future state of an object was (1) exact knowledge of the current state of the object (known as the initial conditions), and (2) the forces of interaction between the object and its environment, because it these forces, and only these forces, that influenced its subsequent behavior. Since there was no reason to think that these two types of information were unknowable in principle, that implied the future of that object was predetermined. If everything that existed in the universe (including the brain and mind) had this same material basis and consisted of objects in motion, then the logical implication is that the future is predetermined.

Of course, the mere fact of predetermination did not imply that the future was predictable in practice. Since any object other than a few elementary particles is composed of a vast number of constituent elements such as atoms, no program of prediction can be actually carried out, simply because of the enormous complexity of the calculations involved. Since we are not able to predict the future with 100% accuracy in the absence of perfect information, the belief in an undetermined future for anything but elementary particles can be preserved from actual experimental contradiction.

But at a philosophical level, the fact that predetermination existed in the deterministic Newtonian word pretty much killed the idea of free will and the existence of an independent mind, and hence god. So in order to preserve those concepts, one has to find flaws in either or both of the two underpinnings of the Newtonian system given above.

One approach is to argue that we can never know all the forces acting on an object. This is essentially the idea behind the concept of god (or intelligent designer, which is the same thing) whose actions does not conform to any natural laws and hence can intervene in any system in unpredictable ways. There has been no real evidence that such an unknown and unpredictable force exists.

The other approach is to argue that we cannot know, even in principle, what the initial conditions are. This latter view actually has experimental support (at least in some situations) in quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says that there is an underlying limit (inherent in nature) that limits the precision with which we can know the initial state of a system. The quantum world is not totally unpredictable of course. In fact, there exists a very high degree of predictability but it is a statistical predictability that says that we can state with some certainty what will happen on average, but each individual event is unpredictable. A classical analog is the case of tossing a coin. If I toss a coin a million times, I can predict with a very high degree of confidence that the number of heads will be very close to 50%, but I have only a 50-50 chance of guessing the result on any individual toss. And as I said before, almost everything in nature is made up of a vast number of constituent elements so it is the average motions of all these things that actually matter. This is why the predictions of science tend to be so accurate.

But the fact that there is even this small inherent uncertainty in nature has led some religious scientists to argue that quantum mechanics provides a non-deterministic niche that allows god to act and they have seized on it. For example, Brown University biology professor Ken Miller is a devout Catholic who has been a very strong opponent of the intelligent design movement. In his book Finding Darwin's God he reconciles his belief in god with his belief in the sufficiency of natural selection by invoking the uncertainty principle as the means by which god can act in the world and yet remain undetectable. He doesn't actually suggest a mechanism, he just asserts that quantum mechanics allows a window through which god can act.

So in some sense, the uncertainty principle is playing the role that the pineal gland played for Descartes, providing a point of intersection for the intersection of the nonmaterial world with the material world.

Those, like Jeffrey Schwartz and William Dembski, who are looking for new ways to preserve their intelligent design idea, have also tried to use the uncertainty principle to create room for it.

Frankly, this is not convincing. Although the uncertainty principle does assert an inherent limit, set by nature, on some kinds of knowledge, the limitation is highly restricted in its operation, significant only for very small objects at very low temperatures, and does not allow for the wide latitude required to believe in the kind of arbitrary intervention of god in the physical world that is favored by religious people. As the article Religion on the Brain (subscription required) in the May 26, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 52, Issue 38, Page A14) says:

Last year Dr. Schwartz and two colleagues published a paper on their quantum theory in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. They are not the first to try linking quantum mechanics to concepts of consciousness, but such efforts have failed to win over either physicists or neuroscientists, who discount the role that quantum effects would play at the size and temperature of the human brain. In discussions of consciousness, "the only reason people involve quantum mechanics is because of pure mysticism," says Christof Koch, a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at the California Institute of Technology.

Using the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle to sneak in god into the world is not tenable. Those who know anything about quantum mechanics, even those sympathetic to religion, see this as a futile maneuver, serving only to awe those who are intimidated by quantum mechanics.

Many other scientists have been highly critical of Dr. Schwarz; even some researchers interested in exploring spirituality discount his theory. The Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to forging links between science and religion, rejected a grant proposal by Dr. Schwartz, says Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president of the foundation. A cosmologist by training, Mr. Harper says the proposal was turned down because "it had to do with a lot of hocus-pocus on quantum mechanics."

So that is where things stand. To retain a belief in god and free will and soul requires one to postulate not just one non-material entity (god) interacting with the material world, but to suggest that each one of us also possesses a non-material entity (the soul/mind) that exists independently of us and interacts only with our own material brain (and with no one else's brain) in some unspecified way. The mind-body interaction must have a blocking mechanism that prevents such cross-over since, if one person's mind/soul can interact with another person's brain, that can cause all kinds of problems.

Is this a plausible picture? Again, plausibility is something that each person must judge. For me personally, it just seems far too complicated, whereas assuming that the brain is all there is makes things simple.

In my own case, I had already begun to seriously doubt the existence of god before I even thought about the brain/mind relationship. When I started looking closely at how the brain works, I became convinced that the idea of a mind that has an existence independent of the brain was highly implausible. The dawning realization that the brain is all there is sealed the conviction that there is no god.

POST SCRIPT: Running on empty

Money was hard to borrow in Sri Lanka when I was growing up. So we got used to the idea that we had to live within our means or have to (embarrassingly) borrow from friends and relatives. One of the things that took me a long time to get used to in the US was the ease of credit and that people would go so willingly and easily into debt, even for things like unnecessary luxury goods or taking vacations. I am still not used to that actually, even after all these years here. I cannot imagine borrowing money except for absolute necessities.

As we all know, the saving rate in America is non-existent and even (by some reports) negative, which means that as a whole, the people in the nation are spending more than they earn. We also know that the government is racking up huge budget deficits, and record-breaking debt.

Why is this happening? How long can it continue? Why is everyone seemingly oblivious to this?

Danny Schecter has created a new documentary In Debt We Trust: America before the bubble bursts (coming out in June 2006) where he talks about how the rise in debt is being deliberately driven by people who make money off increasing indebtedness.

You can read about it and see the trailer here.

April 12, 2006

Atheism and Agnosticism

In an interview, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who called himself a "radical atheist," explains why he uses that term (thanks to onegoodmove):

I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as "Atheist," some people will say, "Don't you mean 'Agnostic'?" I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It's easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I hold seriously…

People will then often say "But surely it's better to remain an Agnostic just in case?" This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.) . . .

And making the move from Agnosticism to Atheism takes, I think, much more commitment to intellectual effort than most people are ready to put in. (italics in original)

I think Adams is exactly right. When I tell people that I am an atheist, they also tend to suggest that surely I must really mean that I am an agnostic. (See here for an earlier discussion of the distinction between the two terms.) After all, how can I be sure that there is no god? In that purely logical sense they are right, of course. You cannot prove a negative so there is always the chance that not only that a god exists but, if you take radical clerics Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell seriously, has a petty, spiteful, vengeful, and cruel personality.

When I say that I am atheist, I am not making that assertion based on logical or evidentiary proofs of non-existence. It is that I have been convinced that the case for no god is far stronger than the case for god. It is the same reasoning that makes me convinced that quantum mechanics is the theory to use for understanding sub-atomic phenomena or natural selection is the theory to be preferred for understanding the diversity of life. There is always the possibility that these theories are 'wrong' in some sense and will be superceded by other theories, but those theories will have to have convincing evidence in their favor.

If, on the other hand, I ask myself what evidence there is for the existence of a god, I come up empty. All I have are the assurances of clergy and assertions in certain books. I have no personal experience of it and there is no scientific evidence for it.

Of course, as long time readers of this blog are aware, I used to be quite religious for most of my life, even an ordained lay preacher of the Methodist Church. How could I have switched? It turns out that my experience is remarkably similar to that of Adams, who describes why he switched from Christianity to atheism.

As a teenager I was a committed Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school chapel in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it.

I've put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense, what I mean is this. In the years I'd spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I'd learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn't seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments which, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and - in terms of logic and proof -just plain wrong. Why was this?
. . .
I was already familiar with and (I'm afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of 'truth'. (I now think this is baloney, but to continue...) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn't stand up to it.
. . .
Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

What Adams is describing is the conversion experience that I described earlier when suddenly, switching your perspective seems to make everything fall into place and make sense.

For me, like Adams, I realized that I was applying completely different standards for religious beliefs than I was for every other aspect of my life. And I could not explain why I should do so. Once I jettisoned the need for that kind of distinction, atheism just naturally emerged as the preferred explanation. Belief in a god required much more explaining away of inconvenient facts than not believing in a god.

POST SCRIPT: The Gospel According to Judas

There was a time in my life when I would have been all a-twitter over the discovery of a new manuscript that sheds a dramatically different light on the standard Gospel story of Jesus and Judas. I would have wondered how it affected my view of Jesus and god and my faith.

Now this kind of news strikes me as an interesting curiosity, but one that does not affect my life or thinking at all. Strange.

January 18, 2006

Should atheists come out of the closet?

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should "come out." I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should 'come out of the closet.' The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one's work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a 'man of the Book,' made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

During the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them "You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts."

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT 1: Praying for other people's souls

After my op-ed on intelligent design was published in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied "I can only pray for your soul."

When people say they are praying for someone else's soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is "I can't wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you." But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say "I will pray for your soul" instead.

Here's my advice to such religious people. If someone annoys you, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don't think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a "holier than thou" attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT 2: Bush on Global Warming

President Bush, looking surprisingly like actor Will Ferrell, shares his views on global warming. (Thanks to reader Anne for the link.)

November 01, 2005

The joy of free thinking

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share nearly 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry. (The approximately one percent difference, according to The Daily Show, is what causes human beings to kill each other!)

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me that we are all linked together by one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even things like worms and bacteria being somehow related to us, however distantly. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for those whose religious beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah's Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which tries to fit the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away into a 10,00 year old universe model.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined literal apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve's children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don't have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

October 19, 2005

Methodological naturalism

If our car developed a strange and disturbing noise, we would take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem. If, after trying out just one or two ideas and failing, the mechanic threw up her hands and said that she gave up because the cause must be something mysterious and inexplicable, we would very likely switch to another mechanic.

We would do the same thing with a plumber who gave up on trying to find the source of a leak or a doctor who gave up trying to find the cause of an acute pain after merely ruling out gas and muscle pulls.

We want each of these people to keep investigating, to try and find the reason for the problem and not give up until they have solved it. If any one of them told us that the cause was some supernatural power, we would quickly dump that person and find a new one, even if we were ourselves were religious and we preferred to have religious people as our doctors and plumbers and mechanics.

In other words, we want all these people when carrying out their professions, whatever their religious beliefs, to practice methodological naturalism, which is the practice of postulating and testing one natural cause after another as the source of the problem until the problem has been diagnosed correctly. It would be strange for someone to insist on people using methodological naturalism in all these everyday areas of life, while demanding that they give it up in the one area that underlies all of them, and that is science.

And yet, this is exactly what so called intelligent design creationists want scientists to do. IDC people want scientists to not use methodological naturalism but instead concede that some systems have "irreducible complexity", by which they mean that god must have made it. They do not explicitly say god as part of their public strategy. Instead, they adopt a complicated circumlocution that goes as follows: "irreducible complexity implies it must have been intelligently designed which implies the existence of an intelligent designer whose identity and properties we refuse to speculate about." Instead of going through all that, it seems much easier to say "god" since that is what everyone knows we are talking about anyway.

It is clear that the IDC advocates know that they are essentially asking for the overthrow of the foundation of science when they urge the overthrow of methodological naturalism. In the Dover, PA case on the inclusion of IDC ideas in the science curriculum, expert witness Robert T. Pennock made this point explicitly where he highlighted the words of leading IDC advocate William Dembski:

As examples of the movement's intentions, Pennock showed the court a number of articles written by the movement's leaders, including two by William Dembski, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

Discovery has been part of efforts to change wording of Kansas state education standards to be more open to the supernatural in the definition of science. "The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not wrong, but massively wrong," Dembski wrote in an article titled "Building bridges between science and theology."

In another article, titled "What every theologian should know about creation, evolution and design," Dembski wrote, "In the words of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done?

Design theorists aren't at all bashful about answering this question: The ground rules of science have to be changed."

And finally we get this quote from Dembski where he says: "So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, (intelligent design) has no chance (in) Hades."

Clearly, overthrowing methodological naturalism is a key part of their strategy. And they don't care that they are overthrowing something that has been the foundation of the Enlightenment, something that has been the foundation for scientific and technological and medical breakthroughs, and took us out of the dark ages. In their attempt to include their religious views within science, they are willing to gamble with the very essence of science and they are playing for very high stakes.

October 03, 2005

Paley's watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously 'designed' objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?

Identifying the methods we use to classify things is an old and important question that has been addressed by many philosophers, most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein. To illustrate how Wittgenstein differed from his predecessors, I will quote Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pages 44-45):

What need we know, Wittgenstein asked, in order that we can apply terms like 'chair,' or 'leaf,' or 'game' unequivocally and without provoking argument?

That question is very old and has generally been answered by saying that we must know, consciously or intuitively, what a chair, or a leaf, or a game is. We must, that is, grasp some set of attributes that all games and that only games have in common. Wittgenstein, however, concluded that, given the way we use language and the sort of world to which we apply it, there need be no such set of characteristics. Though a discussion of some of the attributes shared by a number of games or chairs or leaves often helps us learn how to employ the corresponding term, there is no set of characteristics that is simultaneously applicable to all members of a class and to them alone. [Note: This is essentially the demarcation problem dealing with the difficulty of requiring necessary and sufficient conditions that was discussed in an earlier posting - MS] Instead, confronted with a previously unobserved activity, we apply the term 'game' because what we are seeing bears a close "family resemblance" to a number of the activities that we have previously learned to call by that name. For Wittgenstein, in short, games, and chairs, and leaves are natural families, each constituted by a network of overlapping and crisscross resemblances. (emphasis in original)

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We can recognize objects designed by humans because we have seen multiple examples of things designed by humans and we can recognize the differences between them and those found 'in nature' (and thus not designed by humans) like rocks, grass, rivers, etc.. The reason why we can all so easily agree that watches are designed is that they have a family resemblance to other items (cars, trains, aeroplanes, iPods, etc.) that we know were definitely designed by humans. Similarly with Rushmore, we have seen numerous examples of sculptures and other art definitely designed by humans and so we can recognize the family resemblance of Rushmore to them.

Small children very quickly can learn to identify, purely on the basis of such family resemblances, whether the animal they see in a field is a horse or a cow even though they may not be able to precisely define each animal. This happens after they have seen some horses and cows and been told by their parents which is which. Even parents don't try to define the animals. They just tell children which is which and that seems to be sufficient.

But when we use this as an analogy, as IDC advocates do, to identifying items (like Behe's bacterial flagellum) as being designed by god, we run into a problem. In order to make that kind of family resemblance identification, we have to already know for sure many examples of things that have been designed by god and those that have not. But how can we know this? Of all the things that we see around us, what examples do we have of things that we definitely know have been designed by god and those that have not? That might be hard to get consensus on.

If you believe in a god who designed everything (grains of sand, rocks, Rush Limbaugh), then the classification system breaks down. If you believe in a god who designed only some things and let others come about 'naturally', then you get caught in a vicious cycle where the things you simply believe to be designed are then used again as models for identifying design of other things.

How, for example, would we teach children how to distinguish between things that are designed by god and those that are not, like we do with horses and cows? What are the things we could point to as exemplars of those two categories? While each of us has a personal experiential database that we can draw upon and use to identify family resemblances between human-designed objects and non-human designed objects, we do not have corresponding databases of god-designed and non-god designed objects.

Thus the watch/Rushmore analogy argument for design does not work in identifying the existence of god as a designer, unless we have an independent means of knowing which items were definitely designed by god and which were not, so that we can classify any specific item according to the family resemblance to each group.

September 30, 2005

Paley's watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the "Mount Rushmore" argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. (emphasis in original)

This idea that it should be obvious to anyone when something is designed and when it is not permeates the literature of the IDC movement and variations of the Mount Rushmore argument is brought up repeatedly because it provides a concrete image of the idea and has a simple persuasiveness. On a recent episode of The Daily Show Dembski was asked by host Jon Stewart about ID and he brought up the Rushmore example again, showing how valuable they think this example is, since on such shows you only have a few minutes to make your case.

Theologians and philosophers, of course, know that this type of argument has a venerable history and goes back two hundred years to the Christian apologist William Paley (1743-1805) and even earlier. Paley was an Anglican priest and in his book Natural Theology (1802) he talks about what would happen if you were walking across a field and came across a stone. You would not ask how it got there because it would seem perfectly natural that the stone had always been there and was not specially created and kept there. But what if you came across a watch? We can quote Paley himself:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.

The IDC argument is to say that there are things in nature that are analogous to the watch and Mount Rushmore in that they clearly could not have occurred naturally and they point to various biological systems that they claim support their position. The more sophisticated IDC people like Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box) take a minimalist approach and point to just a few (five actually) biochemical systems and processes as showing signs of design. But other religious believers take a more expansive view requiring a designer for a rising number of things, like the human eye, humans themselves, animals, etc. Some of them say that all living things must require a designer.

But whatever the sample that is selected for this purpose, all these things, they say, are too complex to have occurred by the gradual process of random mutation and natural selection, with a large number of small changes leading to the large variations in species that we see today.

The usual response by biologists to this argument is that the appearance of design in nature is just an illusion, that random mutations and natural selection are capable of producing the complex biological systems that we mistake for designed objects. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker explicitly addresses Paley's argument, and he followed it up in his other book Climbing Mount Improbable.

But apart from the biological issues, there is also a philosophical argument that is not often brought up and this will be discussed in the next posting.

August 17, 2005

Should atheists "come out"?

In a previous essay, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that "More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God."

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are "coming out" more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also "come out", so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don't "come out" because they don't give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that "coming out" in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so "coming out" in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have been an atheist for over ten years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. As a general rule, I feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other.

"Coming out" might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: "As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken."
It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim "scholars", people who believe that the Qur'an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point. …...
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations. ....
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.
And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has "some cosmic, all-embracing libretto", the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT 1

In a previous post, I wrote about Ockham's razor. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has an example of how the razor currently is being used by some political observers.


POST SCRIPT 2

This is too late for action but I just heard that the Secular Students Alliance had a conference at OSU last weekend. The group's website says that they are:

an educational nonprofit whose purpose is to educate high school and college students around the country about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations….While some students are comfortable with an atheistic outlook, others identify as secular or religious humanists, and yet others prefer the emphasis of skepticism. The SSA acknowledges these differences and seeks to provide channels through which all of these students can explore their particular interests and inclinations through involvement with similar organizations once they graduate.

To any minimally astute observer of the free thought movement, it is apparent that our lack of numbers inhibits our ability to educate the public about atheism, free inquiry, critical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Some time ago, a student at Case approached me about setting up an affiliate group at Case and asked me to be its advisor. I agreed but did not hear anything about it afterwards.

August 12, 2005

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman's top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn't that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on "Christian" principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, a breach in the establishment clause of the first amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to a movement to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. (This is similar to the "wedge strategy" using so-called intelligent design (ID). ID advocates see the inclusion of ID (with its lack of an explicit mention of god) in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.)

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo argues that although he also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, he thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. He gives excellent counter-arguments and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally my sympathies are with Yglesias and Drum, I think Digby wins the debate.

So the idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don't enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

POST SCRIPT

In an earlier post, I discussed the op-ed by a cardinal of the Catholic Church who seemed to be backtracking on the church's acceptance of evolution and floating a trial balloon advocating a position close to that advocated by so–called intelligent design. Now comes an article by George Coyne SJ, the Director of the Vatican Observatory which says that the op-ed was wrong.
So, nearly 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species we may be seeing the beginnings of an internal debate in the Catholic Church on what official stand to take on the teaching of evolution. If the earlier struggle over Copernican ideas is any indication, prepare yourselves for a long, long, debate. (Thanks to Cathie for the link to the Coyne article.)

August 08, 2005

The journey to atheism

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.
"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize hat my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don't personally know of anybody who did such a thing.

POST SCRIPT

It is always interesting how the media instinctively resorts to certain standard tropes to reinforce religious beliefs, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewers this way of thinking when the media quickly jumped on the "It's a miracle!" bandwagon to "explain" the lack of any fatalities from the recent Air France plane crash in Toronto when there was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation at hand. This reason is of, course, the competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the "miracle" theme.

As Stewart says: "The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew's satanic competence."

See the video here.

July 28, 2005

Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it "weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic." But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that "an agnostic is a cowardly atheist."

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban "'coercive' public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools." (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its "Wedge" document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O'Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement's close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that "I have no need for that hypothesis."

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

July 21, 2005

Shafars and brights arise!

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for "shafars" (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, more serious than Smith's, to have people identify themselves as "brights". Who or what is a "bright"? The bright website says that a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Smith playfully refers to the "faith" of shafarism and says that "Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science." He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.
Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. "None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists."

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God's punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."
Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

(See an interview with Pat Robertson on ABC's This Week on May 1, 2005 for another example of the kinds of things he says on national TV.)

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the "religious" perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.
After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith's essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.

POST SCRIPT

I'd like to thank commenters Cool and Becky for recommending the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which is based on the rapture. I read it and it is a funny book, written in a style that is a cross between Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the British schoolboy fiction William series by Richmal Crompton.

There were some plans to make Good Omens into a feature film directed by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, and starring Johnny Depp and Robin Williams, but the project apparently got cancelled due to lack of funding. Too bad.

May 23, 2005

Necessary and sufficient conditions

The problem of finding definitions for things that clearly specify whether an object belongs in that category or not has long been recognized to be a knotty philosophical problem. Ideally what we would need for a good definition is to have both necessary and sufficient conditions, but it is not easy to do so.

A necessary condition is one that must be met if the object is to be considered even eligible for inclusion in the category. If an object meets this condition, then it is possible that it belongs in the category, but not certain. If it does not meet the condition, then we can definitely say that it does not belong. So necessary conditions for something can only classify objects into "maybe belongs" or "definitely does not belong."

For example, let us try to define a dog. We might say that a necessary condition for some object to be considered as a possible dog is that it be a mammal. So if we know that something is a mammal, it might be a dog or it might be another kind of mammal, say a cat. But if something is not a mammal, then we know for sure it is not a dog.

A sufficient condition, on the other hand, acts differently. If an object meets the sufficient condition, then it definitely belongs. If it does not meet the sufficient condition, then it may or may not belong. So the sufficient condition can be used to classify things into "definitely belongs" or "maybe belongs."

So for the dog case, if a dog has papers certified by the American Kennel Association, then we can definitely say it is a dog. But if something does not have such papers it may still be a dog (say a mixed breed) or it may not be a dog (it may be a table).

A satisfactory demarcation criterion would have both necessary and sufficient conditions because only then can we say of any given object that it either definitely belongs or it definitely does not belong. Usually these criteria take the form of a set of individually necessary conditions that, taken together, are sufficient. i.e., Each condition by itself is not sufficient but if all are met they become sufficient.

It is not easy to find such conditions, even for such a seemingly simple category as dogs, and that it the problem. So for the dog, we might try define it by saying that it is a mammal, with four legs, barks, etc. But people who are determined to challenge the criteria could find problems (What exactly defines a mammal? What is the difference between an arm and a leg? What constitutes a bark? Etc. We can end up in an infinite regression of definitions.)

This is why philosophers like to say that we make such identifications ("this is a dog, that is a cat") based on an intuitive grasp of the idea of "similarity classes," things that share similarities that may not be rigidly definable. So even a little child can arrive at a pretty good idea of what a dog is without formulating a strict definition, by encountering several dogs and being able to distinguish what separates dog-like qualities from non-dog like qualities. It is not completely fool proof. Once in a while we may come across a strange looking animal, some exotic breed that baffles us. But most times it is clear. We almost never mistake a cat for a dog, even though they share many characteristics, such as being small four-legged mammals with tails that are domestic pets.

Anyway, back to science, a satisfactory demarcation would require that we be able to find both necessary and sufficient criteria that can be used to define science, and use those conditions to separate ideas into science and non-science. Do such criteria exist? To answer that question we need to look at the history of science and see what are the common features that are shared by those bodies of knowledge we confidently call science.

This will be discussed in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT

I feel that the American media have not given nearly enough attention to the recently leaked secret and explosive "Downing Street memo" from the British secret service that reveals that Bush intended to invade Iraq all along and lied about it to the American people. Juan Cole says that the memo clearly reveals what has been long strongly suspected.

The Bush administration, and some credulous or loyal members of the press, have long tried to blame U.S. intelligence services for exaggerating the Iraq threat and thus misleading the president into going to war. That position was always weak, and it is now revealed as laughable. President Bush was not misled by shoddy intelligence. Rather, he insisted on getting the intelligence that would support the war on which he had already decided.

Cole's article, where he lays out the sequence of events, is a must read.

March 30, 2005

What is your own philosophy?

Professor Sandy Piderit of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case has a wonderful knack of finding interesting sites and posting the links on her blog, so you should check it out regularly. She recently posted the results of an on-line survey that asks you to rate your responses to a series of statements and, based on those responses, gives you an analysis of your philosophical outlook.

Intrigued, I visited the site and below is the breakdown of my philosophical views, based on my own responses:

You scored as Existentialism. Your life is guided by the concept of Existentialism: You choose the meaning and purpose of your life.



“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.�


“It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.�


--Jean-Paul Sartre



“It is man's natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.�


--Blaise Pascal



More info at Arocoun's Wikipedia User Page...

Existentialism

80%

Utilitarianism

60%

Justice (Fairness)

55%

Hedonism

55%

Kantianism

45%

Strong Egoism

35%

Nihilism

20%

Apathy

15%

Divine Command

0%

What philosophy do you follow? (v1.02)
created with QuizFarm.com

One has to be very wary of, and not take too seriously, such quickie surveys (it has 36 questions and can be done in about 5 minutes or less) that purport to make such sweeping analyses of your belief structures. But more than the results itself, what I found interesting were the kinds of statements that were on the survey. For example, one question is “It would be wrong to steal food for a starving person--if everyone stole, society couldn’t exist..� Another was “We should decide the meaning of our lives, rather than letting religion or authority do so for us.�

These are the kinds of questions someone who is interested in developing a personal philosophy of life might ask, so the site is worth a visit. It unpacks the concept of ‘philosophy of life’ and reduces it to a set of concrete statements that anyone can understand without having to have a formal background in philosophy.

For example, I have very little knowledge of the various schools of philosophy that merged from the analysis, and only the vaguest idea of what existentialism is, but my own results seem to indicate that that it is my main emphasis (which seems reasonable to me, according to my rudimentary understanding of that philosophy). Utilitarianism and justice (fairness) and hedonism are a joint second. I had only recently come across the notion of ‘justice as fairness’ in reading A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, who develops his idea as a better alternative to utilitarianism. I like Rawl’s approach, so it will be interesting to see how my philosophical preferences change after I have read the entire book and had time to digest his ideas better.

Anyway, check out your own philosophy by clicking on the link. (You can ignore all that stuff about quiz name, user, and password.) And I’d be interested in seeing your comments posted on what you felt about the exercise.

March 29, 2005

Developing a personal philosophy of life

I wrote in an earlier posting about how college is an ideal place to start thinking about developing a personal philosophy of life, because it brings together all the resources that can help you get started on such a fulfilling journey. I also noted the disturbing trend that the number of college students seeing that as a major goal of college was decreasing over time.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘a personal philosophy of life’? And how does one set about developing one? Does it mean reading books on philosophy and taking courses in them? Not necessarily, though such things can help since it helps you develop the vocabulary to better understand those kinds of questions. I have never had a course on philosophy in my life, but I think that I do have some sort of philosophy. What studying formal philosophy does do is give you the vocabulary to label what you believe and to make better contact with the philosophies of other people.

The first thing to realize is that all of us have some philosophy of life already, although we might not be able to articulate it. What is more accurate to say is that it is likely that we have many philosophies, each dealing with separate areas of life. We might have one for our religious beliefs, one for our political beliefs, one for our scientific beliefs, one for personal relationships, one for life, one for death, and so on. These philosophies may be fairly separate and we simply pluck them off the shelves of our mind to deal with specific situations.

Developing a personal philosophy of life does not mean abandoning all of these separate philosophies and starting from scratch but instead starting the process of bringing these various elements into a common framework. In other words, trying to mold them into a coherent whole, so that the beliefs and values we apply in one area of life are compatible with those in another.

This is far from easy to do. Having separate philosophies for different areas of our lives can make life easy for us in very practical ways and prevent us from facing awkward questions and contradictions. One of the biggest problems that some people face (and which I have discussed before - see here and earlier articles) may be the different philosophies that are brought to bear on science and religion. Another might be those we apply to our friends and those we apply to strangers. People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, Or people who are vegetarians on moral grounds yet are comfortable wearing leather shoes. And so on.

We all have such contradictions. What I am saying is that recognizing their existence and trying to resolve them is the basis of understanding oneself. The act of trying to bring all our separate philosophies into one personal, individualized, coherent framework that makes sense for each one us may not be possible. There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions.

The point I want to make is not that we must have one unifying philosophy, but acquiring the desire to have one and starting us on the road towards developing one of the most valuable things that a university education can give us.