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June 03, 2008

The end of god-23: The false equivalence of science and religion

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

In this final post in this series, I want to address the attempt to bring down science to the level of religion by arguing that science and religion are equivalent because there exist questions that neither can answer. This approach is illustrated by Lord Winston (emeritus professor of fertility studies, Imperial College London) in his debate with Daniel Dennett.

Winston does this by setting up a straw man version of science as that which consists of certain knowledge. He says: "Dennett seems to believe science is "the truth". Like many of my brilliant scientific colleagues, he conveys the notion that science is about a kind of certainty."

Winston then attacks that straw man, using the Biblical story of Job as a basis for specifying questions that he claims science cannot answer.

God asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the Earth? Do we understand where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet?

The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man's uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous.

Winston's idea, that scientists believe that scientific knowledge is synonymous with certain knowledge, is hopelessly outdated. It was something that originated with Aristotle when he tried to find a way to demarcate between science and non-science, but fell out of favor by the mid-to-late 19th century as a result of the repeated overthrow of long-held and widely believed scientific theories, such as the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system and the phlogiston theory of combustion. It is now generally accepted that all knowledge is fallible. In fact, it is only some religious believers who still cling to the idea that some knowledge is infallible, because they think that their religious texts are directly from god and hence cannot be wrong. To argue, as Winston does, that it is science which thinks of itself as infallible is to wrongly impute to science a claim that is made about religious beliefs.

Winston's other argument, that there are questions ("where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet") that neither science nor religion can answer with certainty and hence that gives both equivalent status in terms of knowledge, is absurd. It ignores the fact that science has produced vast amounts of useful and reliable knowledge over the centuries and continues to do so, while religion has produced exactly zero. Secondly, even for those questions, it is only science that has given us any insight at all as to what answers to them might look like. Religion has only given us myths that have to be re-interpreted with each new major scientific discovery. Religious knowledge always lags behind science and keeps falling farther and farther back. How can anyone plausibly claim that the two knowledge structures are of equivalent value?

Religion and science are clearly not equivalent. Science is always searching for answers to questions and its knowledge evolves as old questions get answered and new questions emerge. I don't know what future research in science will bring forth but I am pretty sure that the science of a hundred years from now will be quite different from the scientific knowledge we have now. Religion, on the other hand, is stuck in the past, still recycling the ideas of five hundred years ago.

Also, we can do perfectly well without religion. All the alleged benefits it provides can be provided by alternative secular sources. We cannot do without science because whatever its faults and deficiencies (and there are many), there is no other knowledge that can replace the benefits it provides.

One final point is about the use of reason and evidence. Religious people like to use evidence and reason when trying to defend their faith and challenge their critics, but turn around and argue that their own beliefs are based on faith and transcend evidence, logic, and reason and so those things should not be used against them.

Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 154) says that if, in a debate with a religious believer, you assert that what he just said implies that god is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil, your opponent will be indignant, saying it means no such thing and demanding that you supply reasons and evidence to justify your assertion. But if you ask religious believers to justify their assertion that god exists, they will invariably end up saying that the existence of god has to be accepted on faith, that this is a question that is outside the bounds of evidence and reason.

Because of this, Dennett says, arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with an opponent who lowers the net when he is playing the shot and raises it when you are. But religious believers shouldn't continue to be allowed to have it both ways. They have managed to do so for centuries because of the idea that 'respect for religion' means not posing hard questions. If religious believers deny a role for reason and evidence in arguing for the existence of god, then anything goes and they are obliged to accept any nonsensical response. (This is the clever premise of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its Pastafarian members who demand to be treated with the same respect as the older religious traditions.) Of course, such a discussion would be a waste of time for all concerned. That is why any worthwhile discussion must involve reason and evidence on all sides.

What I hope this series of posts has done is convince the reader that advances in knowledge in science and other fields over the last two centuries has made god obsolete and redundant. That is a good thing because if we are to have any hope for humankind to overcome its petty tribal differences, it is essential that religion and its associated superstitions be eliminated from the public sphere and religion be categorized along with astrology, alchemy, and witchcraft as beliefs that may have some interest as cultural and historical phenomena but which only the naïve and gullible accept as having any lasting value.

God is dead. Sooner or later, religious people will have to move past their current stage of denial of this fact and accept that reality.

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on the economic stimulus package


June 02, 2008

The end of god-22: Playing with words

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

In the previous post, I said that some scientists (like Einstein) used to use god as a metaphor even though they were not believers, and that this caused some confusion as to what they truly believed.

There are, of course, some scientists who really do believe in god and try to find ways to reconcile their beliefs. Biologist Francis Collins, recently retired head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and an evangelical Christian, has written a book The Language of God where he apparently argues that the structure of DNA reveals god at work. (I plan to read his book in the very near future and will report on what his argument is.) Biologist Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, wrote a book Finding Darwin's God that argues against god's involvement in the evolutionary process (he is an opponent of intelligent design creationism) but tries to use the uncertainty principle as a gateway for god to act in the world without violating the laws of science. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became an Anglican clergyman, argues in his book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship that both science and religion use similar truth-seeking strategies.

Quantum physics has been a real boon to those people trying to find some room for god in science. Such people have exploited some of the admittedly strange properties of quantum physics to make some fairly strong metaphysical claims. while ignoring the fact that it is a materialistic theory that can be used to make precise predictions without requiring any mystical elements. Yves Gingras takes to task those scientists who have exploited this longing for mysticism among the general public, calling, for example, Fritjof Capra's very popular book in this vein The Tao of Physics a 'monumental joke'.

As Gingras says:

What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an allusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science - and The X-Files is science-fiction.
. . .
It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions. This eye-catching genre can only generate bitter disappointment among those motivated by it to pursue the study of science; for they will quickly learn that they will never meet God in a particle accelerator or in a DNA sequence.

The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Physicist Paul Davies is one of the scientists most guilty of creating the kind of ambiguity that Gingras deplores. Davies is a 'Templeton scientist', 1995 winner of their award for attempts to reconcile science and religion, and author of numerous books liberally sprinkled with the words god, spirit, miracle, etc in the titles and the text. Recently Davies wrote an op-ed suggesting that scientists have faith too and that this makes science and religion somehow equivalent.

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. . . And so far this faith has been justified.

Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
. . .
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.

Davies argues that because we don't know why the laws of science have the form they do, science is inadequate. He says "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."

Davies' claim that science falsely purports to be 'free of faith' is itself a bogus argument. What he is doing is conflating two different meanings of the word 'faith', the way I warned against doing for the word 'believe' in my own An Atheist's Creed. Physicist Bob Park gives the appropriate rejoinder.

It's time we had a little talk. The New York Times on Saturday published an op-ed by Paul Davies that addresses the question: "Is embracing the laws of nature so different from religious belief?" Davies concludes that, "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Davies has confused two meanings of the word "faith." The Oxford Concise English Dictionary on my desk gives the two distinct meanings for faith as: "1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof." A scientist's "faith" is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word "faith," therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.

When I or any other scientist says that we have faith in the law of gravity or the conservation of energy or the laws of thermodynamics, we may invoke the same word as religious believers when they say they have faith in god, but we use it in a completely different sense. We have faith because the laws have been tested over and over in very carefully controlled conditions and have never let us down. They have always worked as advertised and thus we have 'complete trust and confidence' that they will continue to do so. Does this mean they always will? We cannot say. There is always the possibility that there is a subtlety in those laws that we are not aware of that may reveal itself under unusual circumstances as a seeming failure. That is why we say that we have 'faith' in those laws instead of absolute certainty. But that tiny residual uncertainty is a concession that scientists make in acknowledgment of the fact that we never know anything for certain.

This is a far cry from religious people having faith in god when they have absolutely no reason for doing so apart from some vague yearnings that are largely the residue of childhood indoctrination. To conflate the evidence-rich use of the word 'faith' by scientists to the evidence-free use by religious people is to be naïve or to willfully mislead.

Even though scientists and religious believers use the same words 'faith', 'belief', and even 'god', they view those words and the world in quite different ways. Scientists should consistently point out this difference so that merely verbal manipulation can be removed from the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting history

The publication of a self-serving book by former White House Press Secretary and Bush confidante Scott McClennan that castigates the behavior of everyone in the White House (except Bush and McClennan) and the media (for its gullibility about its unquestioning acceptance of propaganda and its cheerleading for war with Iraq) has produced a flurry of historical revisionism on the part of the media. McClennan seems to see no irony in charging the media with not asking hard questions when he did nothing but stonewall and lie to the same media.

Much of the media defense has taken the form that everyone at that time believed that Iraq had WMDs.

Not so fast, say Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) news syndicate. That news group was one of the very few in the mainstream American media who expressed some skepticism and backed it up with solid reporting.

Of course, many of us outside the American media Village bubble never bought the case for war either, seeing the whole enterprise as an illegal and immoral fraud from the beginning.

May 30, 2008

The end of god-21: God as metaphor

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

In the previous post I made the point that scientists can, and should be able to, translate between colloquial and scientific descriptions of phenomena but religious believers sometimes get misled into thinking that the looser language represents what is believed by scientists.

The worst example of the misuse of metaphors in science is the word 'god'. Scientists commonly used to use the word 'god' as a metaphor for the inexplicable. So you found people like Einstein saying things like "God does not play dice with the universe", Leon Lederman writing a book about the search for the Higgs boson called The God Particle, and Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time which uses the word god repeatedly. It is not at all unusual for scientists who have made a major discovery or seen something spectacular (like the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of the far reaches of the universe) to be struck with such awe that they strive for a superlative metaphor that can capture the magnitude of their experience. Religious language forms such a major part of our cultural heritage that its words and phrases evoking images of majesty and awe easily spring to mind when we seek such superlatives.

So it should not be surprising that god makes his appearance in the popular works of scientists, though never in technical scientific literature. (Scientists have also found, like many others, that talking about god sells more books.) But when such scientists talk of god, they are well aware that it is a metaphor. It no more signifies a belief in god than when someone says "Thank god!" upon hearing some good news or "Bless you!" when someone sneezes. For Einstein and Lederman and Hawking, god is the name they give to an as-yet-undiscovered set of laws or mathematical equations, not an intelligent entity. Thankfully, the practice of using god as a metaphor in science is falling out of favor.

Einstein's actual view of god and religion is one of contempt as can be seen in a letter he wrote just a year before his death: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

But religious apologists seize upon the use by scientists of words like 'faith' and 'belief' and 'design' to argue that scientists are either secretly religious and inadvertently revealing their beliefs in their use of such words, or that science and religion are equivalent belief structures.

For example, Dr Pete Vukusic, of the School of Physics at the University of Exeter once wrote: "It's amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature's design and engineering is truly inspirational." The IDC people seized upon his use of the word 'Nature's design' to suggest that this implies that there must have been a designer of those butterflies, and that 'nature' was a euphemism for god.

Because these kinds of wordplay confuse the issue of what scientists really think about god, some have suggested that we should be more careful in how we use language and not be so cavalier in invoking religious metaphors. As a result the use of god as a metaphor in popular scientific writing seems to be declining and that is a good thing. Some people advocate going further, suggesting that the use of words like faith and belief be banished from the vocabulary of scientists since they can give the wrong impression and are misused by religious apologists. A letter writer to the May 2008 issue of Physics Today even recommended abandoning the use of the word theory.

I don't agree with this approach. The words belief and faith have perfectly good secular meanings and there is no reason why we should cede them for exclusively religious use. I have also written before that I am doubtful of the effectiveness of trying to restrict the use or meanings of words. While we should strive for precision and accuracy in our choice of words to express scientific ideas, words and meanings evolve and that is what makes language so alive and fascinating. We can no more control linguistic evolution than we can hold back biological evolution. It is better to create a greater awareness amongst the general public that words mean different things in different contexts and when used by different people, and that those should be weighed in the balance when trying to figure out what people are saying.

For example, in my attempt at outlining what I believe in An Atheist's Creed, I used the word 'believe' repeatedly and some other atheists suggested that I should not do so since it made the creed look like a religious affirmation. But I had anticipated this objection and took pains to explain my use of the word in the preamble:

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.

As an aside, I saw some interesting responses to my creed when it was reposted on some discussion boards. I had meant it as a merely descriptive statement of the things that I, an atheist, happen to believe. It was not meant to be a statement of what all atheists believe or should believe. Indeed, some of the beliefs I listed did not even derive from atheism. And yet, some readers took my creed as an attempt to be normative and disagreed with some or all of it, going to the extent of saying that for atheists to have a creed is a contradiction.

They are of course right. Each atheist will believe different things because we have no unifying doctrine, except a shared conviction that there is no evidence for the existence of god. Although I thought I was being clear about my intent, the misunderstanding illustrates the truth of a statement attributed to Karl Popper: "It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood."

POST SCRIPT: Gonzo journalism

Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone is one of the funniest political journalists around. Here he describes to Jon Stewart his experiences as a member of John Hagee's church, before the latter became famous because of his McCain endorsement fiasco. Hagee seems to be even wackier than I had thought.


May 29, 2008

The end of god-20: Science and scientific language

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

In the previous three posts in this series, we saw the failure of attempts to raise religious beliefs to be on a par with science. The second line of defense taken by the new apologists against the attacks of the new atheists is to try and lower science to the level of religion.

This attempt mostly uses plays on words. Apologists have tried to take advantage of the fact that words can have multiple meanings and nuances depending on the context. What they have done is, whenever scientists use certain words in the scientific context, to interpret that statement using an alternative interpretation that is advantageous to their cause.

The most obvious example is the word 'theory'. When the scientific community labels something as a theory, say the theory of evolution or the theory of gravity, they are actually paying it a huge compliment. They are saying that this knowledge encompasses a wide array of phenomena, has a powerful explanatory structure, and has been subject to some testing. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are powerful bodies of knowledge. A theory in the scientific context is not a guess or hypothesis but it is in the latter senses that this word is used by lay people. Religious apologists who dislike some particular scientific theory use the lay meaning to imply that such a theory has no merit.

This argument is, of course, purely semantic and has been countered so much and so often and so thoroughly, and the use of the word theory in science has been explained with such care, that anyone who still continues to use this argument to discredit a scientific theory they dislike (like some religious people do with the theory of evolution) can justly be accused of being either deeply ignorant or willfully deceptive.

But that hasn't stopped religious apologists from still trotting out this old chestnut. But in Florida recently, that attempt boomeranged badly. What happened is that in February of 2008, that state revised its science standards and for the first time actually included the word evolution in it, a century and a half after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace's theory took its bow. Of course, this made the religious people in Florida upset and they adopted the usual strategy of demanding that the word evolution always be prefaced by the word 'theory', thus in their minds making it seem less credible. But in a clever countermove, the pro-science forces agreed to this provided that evolution be referred to as 'the scientific theory of evolution' and that for the sake of consistency, every scientific consensus theory also carry the same preamble. So now the standards refer to 'the scientific theory of electromagnetism', 'the scientific theory of gravity', etc. as well as 'the scientific theory of evolution'.

The religious opponents of teaching evolution did not seem to realize that they have not only strengthened public awareness of the power of the word theory in science, they have also conceded that evolution is a scientific theory and put evolution on a par with other well-established scientific theories, something that they have been strenuously opposing all this time. Their strategy had been to argue that the theory of evolution was a bad theory, not worthy of inclusion alongside the 'good' theories of science, but the exact opposite has now happened, at least in Florida.

Other words that have been exploited by religious people to imply that scientists secretly do believe in god are 'design' , 'create', and 'believe'.

Scientists are partly responsible for this confusion. Scientists use words that seem to imply external intelligence and intentionality to things, even though they don't believe it, because it makes for livelier language. For example, they will say things like "a bird's wings are designed to enable it to fly" or "a gene wants to propagate itself" or "the electron tries to move towards the positive nucleus".

For example, in the book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan writes:

The existential challenge facing grasses in all but the most arid regions is how to successfully compete against trees for territory and sunlight. The evolutionary strategy they hit upon was to make their leaves nourishing and tasty to animals who in turn are nourishing and tasty to us, the big-brained creature best equipped to vanquish the trees on their behalf. (p. 129)

Language like this gives the impression that grasses have minds and will, although the author believes no such thing and is merely indulging in a rhetorical flight of fancy. But there is a danger when people use language like this because it can be wrongfully interpreted to imply that these things have human-like intelligence and agency and that there is some purpose behind their actions, or worse, have an external intelligence or agent acting on their behalf. Of course, scientists speaking this way do not intend any such thing. For them, this is just a convenient shorthand language and if necessary the same ideas can be expressed in more accurate but verbose intentionality-free language that removes the hint of a designer.

In his wonderful book The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins repeatedly shows how to translate such metaphorical language into a more precise scientific one. For example, it is well known that cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they chirp very loudly, enough to attract the attention of dangerous predators. Therefore the foster mother bird gives the baby cuckoo more food than it gives her own chicks in order to keep it quiet and not attract predators that might attack her own chicks. Biologists speak of the baby cuckoo 'blackmailing' its foster mother with the threat of revealing the location of its nest to predators in order to get more than its fair share of food. But that description, although vivid and memorable, seems to ascribe all kinds of human-like thoughts and motives to birds.

Dawkins shows how to translate this loose talk into respectable, scientific language.

Cuckoo genes for screaming loudly became more numerous in the cuckoo gene pool because the loud screams increased the probability that the foster parents would feed the baby cuckoos. The reason the foster parents responded to the screams in this way was that genes for responding to the screams in this way had spread through the gene pool of the foster-species. The reason these genes spread was that individual foster parents who did not feed the cuckoos extra food, reared fewer of their own children – fewer than rival parents who did feed their cuckoos extra. This was because predators were attracted to the nest by the cuckoo cries. Although cuckoo genes for not screaming were less likely to end up in the bellies of predators than screaming genes, the non-screaming paid the greater penalty of not being fed extra rations. Therefore the screaming gene spread in the cuckoo gene pool. (p. 132)

You can see that being scientifically precise takes more words, is less vivid, and is much harder to sustain all the time. As a result, scientists tend to use the looser style whenever possible although they can, and should be able to, translate between metaphorical and scientific descriptions of any phenomena.

But religious people sometimes take the metaphorical language literally, and from there it is a short step to envisaging some intelligence acting in nature, and seeing intentional design and causation to what are merely the results of the working out of the laws of probability and natural selection.

POST SCRIPT: We are all atheists about many things

In this short video clip, Richard Dawkins makes a simple but important point.

May 28, 2008

The end of god-19: Why religious institutions do not seek evidence for god

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

In the previous post, I said that sometimes the argument is made that the scientific community should pursue even tentative clues for the existence of god or the paranormal because the people who originally stumble over them do not have the kinds of resources and expertise to mount the kind of sophisticated studies to validate them.

It is true that good studies require resources, knowledge, and skill. But it is not as if the scientific community has a monopoly on these things and that believers in god have no access to them. After all, religion is probably the world's biggest industry. (I am tempted to use the word racket.) Billions of people all over the world, even among the world's poorest, are persuaded to give vast amounts of money to religious organizations. If there is one institution that has the money, the interest, the skills, and the expertise to pour into finding conclusive evidence of god, it is organized religion and its associated institutions.

So why don't the Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques around the world set up research institutes to find evidence of god, instead of expecting others to do their work for them? Even if a very tiny fraction of their annual revenues were set aside to fund such institutes, those bodies would have huge budgets, enabling them to staff and resource them at a very high level, unimaginable to any secular research organization. People who have tentative evidence for god can send it to these research institutes for more thorough investigation instead of pestering scientists who have many other things to do.

So why don't religions do this? Why don't they go full throttle to research and find conclusive evidence once and for all for the existence of god?

I think it is because the leaders and theologians of all religions already know that they will not find any evidence and they are scared that such an effort would reveal to the world the total bankruptcy of the idea of god. They would prefer that this be a secret known only to them and atheists. That way they can continue to delude people that these non-existent gods exist, and more importantly, keep persuading people to contribute money to keep the churches and clergy and assorted hangers-on in the style to which they have grown accustomed. This would explain why religious leaders raise 'faith' to such high esteem when it comes to religion, while praising reason and critical thinking in all others spheres of human activity. When it comes to religion and religion alone, they insist that it virtuous to strongly believe in something in the absence of any credible evidence whatsoever, behavior that would be considered madness in any context other than religion.

A telling example of this desire to actually avoid doing any research that might reveal the bankruptcy of their ideas can be seen in the behavior of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people. In the Templeton Foundation, they have an organization that has a lot of money and is eager to fund research into finding evidence that belief in god is compatible with a scientific outlook. Physicist Bob Park gives some background into the foundation and its founder and what it seeks to achieve.

It was initially the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and the first winner in 1973 was Mother Teresa. Winners have included Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Billy Graham got it in 1982, Charles Colson of Watergate fame in 1993 and Paul Davies in 1995. But in 1999 Ian Barbour, a student of Fermi, was the recipient. A professor of physics and theology at Carleton College, Barbour was credited with initiating a "dialog between science and religion." Templeton admired Barbour, and coveted his dialog. The scientific revolution, after all, led to the fantastic growth in the world economy that made him a billionaire. Templeton believes God has chosen him to show the world that, as he put it, theology and science are two windows on the same landscape. So he changed the name to the Templeton Prize for Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. It is the largest prize for intellectual accomplishment in existence, chosen to be bigger than the Nobel. Since that time, six of the last eight winners of the Templeton Prize have been physicists. They all relied on the anthropic principle in their Templeton Prize statements.

There are 8 physicists among the 34 recipients so far of the Templeton Prize, and Park says that a couple more had degrees in physics.

The Foundation is currently running a series of dialogues on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?". The answer is, of course, a resounding "Yes!" as this series of posts has pointed out, but clearly the foundation is hoping that the answer they get is no.

So did the IDC people submit proposals to the Templeton Foundation asking for support for investigations to find evidence for an intelligent designer? Well, no. As this news report said:

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

What the IDC people want to do is run a purely public relations campaign, consisting of books, articles, debates, films, all of them whining about how scientists are being mean to them and ignoring the evidence of a designer. But when it comes to doing actual research to back up their claims of having evidence, they refuse to even ask for money to pursue this line of research from an organization eager to fund them.

The major religions and their theologians and religious apologists also show this strange reluctance to do any actual research to find evidence for the existence of god while simultaneously seizing on anecdotal reports of crying statues and visions and stains on highway overpasses as evidence.

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this seemingly contradictory behavior. I have said before that I think that the Pope and other high-ranking clergy and theologians of all religions are very likely to be secretly atheists. They are smart people who have thought a lot about all the arguments against the existence of god that have been raised by the new atheists and elaborated on in this series of essays. Unlike for ordinary people, these arguments cannot be new to them and they are smart enough to recognize their force. They must know in their hearts that they have absolutely no basis for believing in god. The most charitable view I can assign to them is that they believe they believe because they desperately want to believe, a form of self-delusion. The more cynical view is that these high-ranking church dignitaries are laughing all the way to the bank, amazed that there exist so many suckers in the world willing to believe in the pious platitudes they put out, and to donate money to support them and their parasitic institutions.

I am not referring to ordinary worshippers or their local clergy, many of whom are likely to be genuine believers. My cynicism is directed at those occupying the top rungs of the hierarchy, who have the means and ability to truly investigate the evidence for god but refuse to do so and instead prattle on about the virtues of evidence-free faith.

Thus the first approach of apologists, to try and elevate religious beliefs to the level of science has failed. In the next post we will look at the second approach, and see how they are trying to lower science to the level of religion.

POST SCRIPT: On being happy

We can learn a lot from the Icelanders about how to be happy.

May 27, 2008

The end of god-18: Passing the buck

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

When it is pointed out that religious people have never provided any credible evidence for the existence of god, some religious apologists argue that the evidence for god is not definitive at present but only tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. They claim that scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs, because of the opposition of the scientific community to anything that challenges their dogmatic materialistic worldview. This is an argument that is popular with the intelligent design creationism movement.

But a close look at that argument reveals how absurd it is. The first obvious question is why god is so coy about revealing evidence for his existence. Either he wants to reveal his presence or he does not. If the former, then surely it would be easy for god to conceive of ways to do so that would be unambiguous and incontrovertible and could not be denied by even the most ardent materialist. On the other hand, if god does not want to reveal his presence then surely he would be able to easily hide the evidence, so that no tentative evidence should exist.

To overcome this problem, we are asked to accept that god is like one of the criminals one finds on TV shows like Columbo or Monk, someone who makes really careful plans to hide his tracks but then inadvertently leaves some subtle clues behind that a scientific detective stumbles over. It seems highly implausible to have a god who wants to hide evidence of his presence but then inadvertently drops clues here and there that reveal his existence. How could god be so careless?

But religious apologists counter that objection with another variant. They say that god is inscrutable in his actions (this is the favorite argument when apologists cannot explain some thing) and so he must have his reasons for wanting to leave just tantalizing clues to his existence. Maybe he likes to leave us puzzles to solve. It is not up to us to ask why he does what he does but simply investigate and go where the evidence takes us.

This argument is usually accompanied by the complaint that the scientific community is not picking up on these clues and using its expertise and resources to do the necessary follow up. This argument is echoed by those people who believe that psychic and paranormal phenomena should also be more vigorously studied by the scientific community. The reluctance of the scientific community to do so is again taken as a sign of their dogmatic opposition, based on their materialist philosophy, to believing that such phenomena exist.

This is a really curious argument. If some people believe that they have tentative clues that point to the existence of god (or other psychic and paranormal phenomena), then they are the ones who should be investigating it further to find conclusive evidence. What they are saying instead is that they want other people to devote enormous amounts of time, expertise, and resources to investigating their idea. The obvious response to this is: why should they?

The reasons for scientists not taking up this challenge are quite simple. Let me give an example. I (like almost any other scientist whose name somehow becomes known to people outside academia) occasionally hear from people who are convinced that they have some paranormal power or have some evidence of god and want me to look into it. Just recently I heard from someone who claims that she can, using her mind alone, relax a person's bladder muscles. Really. I declined her offer for a demonstration, the way I always decline these invitations, and it was not out of fear that I might wet my pants in her presence.

The reason that scientists are unwilling to participate in things like this is for purely practical reasons, not dogma. Past experience has shown that all these investigations have produced exactly zero credible evidence for the existence for god or the power of prayer or other paranormal phenomena, so why should we waste our time pursuing what is almost certainly yet another wild-goose chase? Come to us when you have credible evidence and then we can talk. For example, perhaps the bladder-relaxing woman can go to a Cleveland Browns football game and cause every one of the spectators and players in the stadium to release their bladders at the same time. That would certainly get a lot of attention. Or if her power doesn't extend to more than one person at a time, she could go to one public event after another and cause the chief guest (maybe even the President if she can get in to such an event) to release his or her bladder while making a speech. Such serial public urination by high profile people would surely result in calls for investigations.

I believe that the scientific community is perfectly justified, based on the record to date, to refuse to be drawn into any further investigations for the existence of god or the power of prayer or psychic or other paranormal powers. When scientists have done so in the past, most notably with claims of the power of prayer to heal people, nothing has come of it. It has proven to be a waste of time.

But that does not mean that such phenomena should not be investigated at all. So who should do the work?

Next: Who should investigate the evidence for god

POST SCRIPT: California gay marriage ruling

Glenn Greenwald has studied the California Supreme Court 4-3 ruling that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples gay marriage.

He points out that the ruling is at once both very significant in its implications for the long term future of gay marriage but less significant in its immediate impact on the rest of the country, since the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 allows states to not recognize marriages certified by other states. So gay people in Ohio cannot go to California and get married and then return and expect full rights. As a result, we may see a loss of gay people from Ohio and other states as they move to states that don't have discriminatory laws on their books.

As usual, Greenwald is well worth reading. He makes an important point:

The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into "marriage." It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between "marriage" (as a religious institution) and "civil unions" (as a secular institution) -- i.e., that California law could leave the definition of "marriage" to religious institutions and only offer and recognize "civil unions" for legal purposes -- provided that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining "marriage" for religious purposes.

I have long thought that it makes sense for the government to only be involved in creating civil unions for all couples. If religious institutions want to have something symbolic called marriage and restrict those to only heterosexual couples, then they should of course be free to do so. But such a status should not confer any additional legal benefits.

May 23, 2008

The end of god-17: The god who loves playing peek-a-boo

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

There used to be a time when religion and belief in god reigned supreme and science was secondary. It was believed to be incontrovertibly true that god existed, and one did not really need to argue in favor of that proposition. Scientists of the period earlier than (say) the 18th century took the existence of god for granted and saw their research as shedding light on how god worked. True knowledge was believed to be derived from god. Some religious apologists use the views of religious scientists of that time (like Newton) to support the contention that science supports the existence of god, since those scientists believed in god.

But all that has changed dramatically. Scientific knowledge has advanced greatly since that time while religious knowledge has remained static and this has resulted in the link between science and religion being severed. Beginning with the theory of evolution, science first shed its role of being subservient to religion and later abandoned even the pretence of trying to show that the two knowledge structures were consistent with each other. This liberation from the constraints of religious dogma has led to the dramatic advances in science and of our knowledge of how things really work. And what has become clear is that the concept of god is totally irrelevant to understanding anything about the world. Science has made god obsolete and redundant.

It is now the knowledge created by science that is supreme. Although this knowledge is not infallible and is constantly subject to change and revision, there is nothing else that comes close to it in terms of reliability and usefulness. The achievements of science are unquestionable. Science is also truly universal. Its principles transcend narrow sectarian divisions of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Anyone who rejects modern science and its methods of evidence and reason to create new knowledge is increasingly being seen as someone who is living in the past.

As a result, religion and belief in god is being increasingly revealed as little more than an irrelevancy, a bunch of superstitions, belief structures that children are taught and might find credible while they are still young but which are childish to cling on to when one has reached adulthood.

Faced with this new reality, and not having any new evidence to produce in their favor, what religious apologists have done is try and reframe the debate. One approach that is taken by advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) is to argue that science is dogmatically burying its head in the sand and deliberately avoiding, ignoring, or suppressing evidence for the existence of god. The second approach is to argue that science is just like religion because they are both faith-based, and that thus they are equivalent knowledge structures that each person can accept or reject on the basis of which faith they prefer.

In the first approach, believers try to elevate religion to the level of science while in the second approach, they try to bring science down to the level of religion. Both approaches try to equate science with religion.

The first argument, that scientists, because of a dogmatic commitment to materialistic explanations for phenomena, are deliberately ignoring the evidence for god, is really rather ridiculous. The reason that scientists seek materialistic explanations is not because they have received an edict that they must do so but simply because such an approach has been extraordinarily successful for doing research

It is undoubtedly true that scientists can be and have been dogmatic. There have undoubtedly been instances where individual scientists who have been the passionate originators or supporters of some theory have ignored or even suppressed evidence for alternative theories. Scientists are all too human and can fall prey to the same kinds of failings as other people. A scientist may well suppress evidence of a rival theory that challenges his or her own work out of petty ambition or jealousy or fear of failure.

But to extend this to saying that the community as a whole is suppressing evidence of the existence of god is preposterous. After all, this is god we are talking about. You know, lord of the universe, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, etc. A scientist who suspected that he or she had evidence of such a being would be mad to try and suppress it. After all, god could presumably easily thwart the pathetic attempts of any mere mortal to throw a cloak over him. Besides which, a scientist who tried to do that would presumably be inviting everlasting torments in hell. Scientists may be dogmatic but they are not that stupid.

It is far-fetched to think that a scientist would not reveal evidence that is unearthed for the existence of god or even the supernatural and the paranormal. After all, such a thing would be the biggest discovery in the history of the world. We live in a world so steeped in religious superstition that there are billions of people who so desperately seek a sign from god that they are even willing to accept as evidence pieces of burnt toast that seem to show an image of Jesus, despite the fact that no one knows what Jesus looked like, assuming he even existed. A scientist who revealed convincing evidence for god would be guaranteed to receive fame and fortune beyond imagination. The scientist would be even bigger than Oprah, if you can imagine that. Why would they not reveal the evidence for god? It makes no sense.

To counter this objection, religious apologists have a variant of this scientific dogma argument and that is to argue that perhaps the evidence that some scientists have for god is not definitive enough but at present is somewhat tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. The scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs. This is the premise of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

In the next post I will examine the plausibility of this argument.

POST SCRIPT: More religious craziness

As if his other views were not problematic enough, new audio clips of his sermons have emerged where John McCain's buddy John Hagee claims that Hitler was used by god as a 'hunter' to hunt the Jews in order to encourage them to go to Israel.

And of course, this craziness has to be true because Hagee says he got it from the Bible. You wonder how the Bible can say that since it was written before Hitler? You are ignoring the magic interpretive glasses that all deeply religious people have that enables them to see precisely what they want to see in their religious texts.

The Hitler sermon was apparently too much for McCain who has now rejected Hagee's endorsement.

The kind of thinking that religious people like Hagee exhibit has its own weird logic. They believe in a god who is a micromanager. Hence any major event (hurricane, genocide, war) had to be planned and implemented by god. They also believe that the Bible is the blueprint for god's plans for the world. Once you accept those premises, then it's off to the races, trying to infer the reasons for god's actions by combing through the Bible.

Meanwhile, another McCain backer, a major evangelical pastor Rod Parsley has been preaching violently anti-Muslim sermons.

So now that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have been targeted, McCain only needs to add anti-Hindu and anti-Buddhist backers to his roster to have the Grand Slam.

May 22, 2008

The end of god-16: The tortured reasoning of the new apologetics

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

In the previous post I discussed the fact that the new religious apologists start by arguing that a God of the Ultimate Gaps cannot be ruled out as a logical possibility and then simply assert that this means one can believe in a Personal God as well.

This raises an interesting question. Why do religious apologists take this tortured style of bait and switch arguing? Why not, right from the start, argue for the existence of a Personal God, the way that religious fundamentalists do? After all, the same logical arguments used in favor of the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps can also be used to argue for the existence of a Personal God. In fact, such an argument can be used for the existence of anything you like, however preposterous, as was emphatically pointed out by Hermione Granger in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007, p. 411) when she says, "But that's – I'm sorry, but that's completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove [the Resurrection Stone] doesn't exist? Do you expect me to get hold of - of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist!"

In order to logically argue this way for the existence of a Personal God, all you have to do is add the feature that this god, for inscrutable reasons, has decided to hide all evidence of his existence and has made his presence so undetectable that his existence is evidence-free (except for a few clues here and there) and requires unquestioning faith to accept that he exists. This is a logically impeccable stance to take since we cannot prove such a negative. We cannot logically exclude such a possibility any more than we can logically exclude the possibility of fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Of course, such arguments for the existence of god are pretty much free of any content. They do not really add anything to our knowledge and such reasoning is designed "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind", as George Orwell so pithily put it in his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. But since belief in god means abandoning belief in reason and evidence, this lack of content should not bother apologists.

So why is it that when you ask more sophisticated religious people why they believe in god, they will initially resort to something like that there must have been someone who initiated the big bang or first created life or the anthropic principle? This is a far cry from the kind of god they actually believe in, a Personal God. Why not simply start with the latter god and say that we cannot logically rule any type of god we wish to believe in?

I think that there are two reasons for this tortured argumentation route.

The first is that this argument is so obviously self-serving, so obviously tailored to support a pre-determined conclusion, that it invites ridicule.

The second is that sophisticated religious people are embarrassed by those religious people whom they themselves look down upon as anti-science extremists, such as religious fundamentalists and young Earth creationists, and seek to find ways to differentiate themselves from them. These latter groups people believe in a Very Personal God who micromanages everything down to the last detail, to the extent of whether they recover from an illness, whether they win the lottery, whether they get a new job or a promotion, and so on. But what is worse is that many also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that every event recorded in it is historically accurate, and reject all of science in order to cling on to their idea that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, Adam and Eve were real people, Noah's flood actually happened, and so forth. They also reject the theory of evolution almost in its entirety, believing that god created each species individually.

Such fundamentalist believers in a Personal God are an embarrassment to the sophisticated religious apologists because the latter like to think of themselves as children of the Enlightenment, supporters of science and reason, while the former are seen as ignorant prisoners of medieval thinking. So in order to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists, the new apologists need to resort to using the God of the Ultimate Gaps to try and establish a kind of respectable intellectual beachhead, and then sneak in a watered down version of the Personal God behind it, hoping that no one will notice the switch.

Just like people put out the good china when guests are visiting while using plastic plates in everyday life, the God of the Ultimate Gaps has become the god that sophisticated religious believers trot out for formal public occasions where the existence of god needs to be defended, while the Personal God is the one secretly believed by them in everyday life.

Next: A god who plays peek-a-boo.

POST SCRIPT: The O'Reilly gift that keeps on giving

I mentioned recently that a video clip had surfaced of Bill O'Reilly letting loose an obscenity-filled tirade at an off-camera producer on his former show Inside Edition. O'Reilly has apparently sanctimoniously chastised celebrities for using obscenities, so this example of his hypocrisy did not go unnoticed.

I showed this clip earlier of Stephen Colbert coming to the defense of his hero by revealing his own meltdown many years ago.

Perhaps you were wondering how the producer at the receiving end of O'Reilly's anger reacted. Now someone has managed to obtain video of the producer's reaction. (Very strong language advisory)

You can now even dance to this remix of O'Reilly. (Very strong language advisory)

The lesson is that in the internet age, be very careful if there is a camera anywhere near you.

May 21, 2008

The end of god-15: Switching gods in mid-argument

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

In my previous post in this series, I argued that sophisticated religious apologists know that the only kind of god that they can argue for that can co-exist with our current state of knowledge is a God of the Ultimate Gaps, who created at one instant the universe and its laws and at a later instant created the very first form of life, and then did nothing else at all after that

But they also know that this god lacks broad appeal. After all, most people want to believe in the Personal God, an entity that has human attributes, who cares about them as individuals, listens to their prayers, and is willing and able to violate all the laws of nature to do them a personal favor. In other words, people seem to have a deep emotional need for a combination of a father figure and a powerful best buddy. It simply will not do for sophisticated religious apologists to tell them that their Personal God is dead and that all they have is an austere, aloof, retired, God of the Ultimate Gaps. Religion as we know it, a multibillion dollar international business, would quickly lose all support. People would rapidly desert their religious institutions (and more importantly not give money to them) if their Personal God is taken away from them.

So what we see in debates is that sophisticated religious apologists, after arguing for the logical possibility of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, then do a swift about-face and argue that this means they are also justified in believing in a Personal God. While this may be a somewhat watered down version of the Personal God believed in by religious fundamentalists, perhaps requiring a stated belief in just a few basic tenets such as that Jesus rose from the dead, it serves the purpose of opening the door for the entry of each and every variety of traditional and popular Personal Gods. After all, if you allow that Jesus rose from the dead, then it is not a stretch to believe that he did other miracles and from there, it becomes simple to believe that he is all around you all the time and listens to your every word.

In other words, apologists seem to believe that allowing for the possibility of existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps allows for the possibility of existence of a watered-down Personal God which in turn allows for the existence of a full-blown Personal God which in turn allows for every superstitious belief that people have in the supernatural, all the way down to the cults and fanatics. This is how 'moderate' religion serves to provide intellectual cover for the beliefs of fundamentalists and extremists, even as they deplore their actions.

After spending the whole evening arguing for the possibility of the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, in his final closing statement at the very end of the The God Delusion Debate, religious apologist John Lennox pulled off this classic bait-and switch by simply asserting, without any evidence or argument whatsoever, that he believed in the whole story of Jesus and his divinity and his actual physical resurrection. In other words, that he accepted as true the whole Christian god belief complex, miracles and all. He seemed to think that the logical possibility that a God of the Ultimate Gaps existed gave him the license to believe in anything he wanted.

His debate opponent Richard Dawkins had, of course, seen this happen before, though he seemed a little surprised that someone of the intellectual stature of Lennox would attempt such a crude rhetorical ploy. He wearily responded that it always seemed to come down to this: that religious apologists start by saying that they accept science and begin with sophisticated arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. It is kind of sad.

I too see this same kind of argumentation all the time. After making the trite point that it is logically impossible, at present, to exclude the possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, people then seem to think that gives them the license to believe in any and all gods and still have that considered a rational belief. It seems like they think that if atheists can be made to concede the possibility of a powerful god who can create the universe, then they must concede the possibility that this god can be a Personal God capable of doing anything, including being born of a virgin, doing miracles, rising form the dead, listening to and answering each person's prayers, revealing his likeness on toast and on highway overpasses, etc.

It is to avoid falling prey to such a bait and switch argument that one has to, when talking to religious people, establish right at the beginning exactly what kind of god they believe in: a Personal God, a God of the Gaps, or the God of the Ultimate Gaps, so that they don't later shift between the various gods.

Next: Why do sophisticated apologists resort to this tortured style of reasoning?

POST SCRIPT: Flying fish

This remarkable video captures a fish flying for 45 seconds. It is an amazing sight.

May 19, 2008

The end of god-14: Sleight-of-hand arguments for god

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

When religious apologists like D'Souza appeal to Augustine's statement that the universe had a beginning as evidence that Christianity is right, they do not spell out the full implications of what they are saying because that would show the ridiculousness of the argument. If they really believe that Augustine's 'prediction' is not just a lucky guess but is really an argument in favor of god, that must mean they are saying that god whispered this revelation in his ear.

But if so, why is god so stingy with revealing information, only telling Augustine something that he had a fifty percent chance of guessing right anyway? Why didn't god tell him, way back in the 4th century, something that would have made for a truly spectacular prediction, such as that the universe is bathed in a cosmic microwave background radiation at a temperature of 2.7K? Why is it that every one of the 'predictions' of Augustine or the Bible that apologists point to is entirely consistent with what any person living at the time the Bible was written could have guessed at with high probability?

The fact that in the 21st century religious apologists are using such weak arguments in favor of religion is a sign of desperation.

The current use of arguments initially proposed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century is another example of this. Aquinas is often quoted as the source of the 'first cause' argument, that every created thing must have a creator and that thus one can argue backwards to the existence of an ultimate creator.

Aquinas thought that by starting from the recognition of the distinction between what things are, their essences, and that they are, their existence, one could reason conclusively to an absolutely first cause which causes the existence of everything that is.

Thus Aquinas's ideas are the foundation of the new apologists' argument for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. But as I have argued, the theories of evolution and big bang cosmology have shown how complexity can naturally arise out of simplicity and thus that the fact that some things in nature appear to be created is just an illusion. So while the origins of the universe and of life still have no satisfactory answers, the chain of reasoning used by Aquinas to argue that they must have a creator is no longer valid. Aquinas' argument has ceased to be an argument in any meaningful sense of the word and become merely an ad hoc assumption.

A notable feature of the new apologetics is the use of sleight of hand arguments. One saw this on full display in the way John Lennox argued with Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion Debate. Lennox has impeccable academic credentials, and thus makes an ideal, sophisticated, religious apologist. He is a mathematician and philosopher of science, a Reader at Oxford University ('Reader' is a very senior academic rank in the British university system and equivalent to a full professor in the US), and a practicing Christian. He is not some third-tier pundit like D'Souza. He is a serious person so when he says that it was his study of science that brought him to Christianity, his arguments are worth listening to.

Lennox stated right at the beginning of the debate that the god he believed in was not a God of the Gaps. As I have said before, all sophisticated religious apologists now routinely make this disavowal because modern science has explained all the old gaps that earlier religious people had depended upon as evidence of god at work. Then for nearly the entire debate, Lennox argued on a highly sophisticated plane, arguing that science has not provided convincing answers to the big questions of how the universe was created and how the first life forms came into being. He also invoked the anthropic principle (that the universe seems to have just the right properties necessary for us to exist) as a further argument.

I have dealt with the flaws of anthropic principle argument before and will not repeat them here, except to quote physicist Bob Park who ridicules the anthropic principle (that "The fundamental parameters of the universe are such as to permit the creation of observers within it") saying, "I believe an equivalent wording would be: "If things were different, things would not be the way things are.""

What Lennox says about the unanswered big questions is, of course, true, and any atheist would concede that. He also argued that god was a possible explanation for these two unsolved problems and that there was no logical basis by which science could rule that explanation out. Of course any atheist would concede that point too. (He also suggested that since the Bible spoke of the world having a beginning, it could be said that the Bible predicted the big-bang theory. This is, of course, a common but worthless argument, as I have pointed out earlier with respect to Saint Augustine's similar 'prediction'.)

So throughout the debate, Lennox was arguing for the possibility of the existence of what I have called the God of the Ultimate Gaps, some non-sectarian, powerful, amorphous entity who acted just twice in all of time: who created at one instant the universe and its laws with just the right properties to produce the universe we have billions of years later, and at a later instant created the very first form of life to set evolution in motion, and then did nothing else at all after that. This is a logically defensible position, given our current state of knowledge, and one can understand why sophisticated apologists are fond of it.

Of course, such an argument does not really add anything to our knowledge. Can one think of anything more useless than invoking god to explain the unexplained, such as the origin of the universe or the creation of the first replicator? This is the basic problem with theology. As H. L. Mencken said, "Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing." (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 560).

But as we will see in the next post, after to going to all this trouble to establish the logical possibility of the existence of the God of the Ultimate Gaps, sophisticated religious apologists abruptly switch arguments on you, hoping no one will notice.

POST SCRIPT: Weird videos

The BBC has compiled ten weird videos for the week, including a short clip of the robot Asimo conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

May 16, 2008

The end of god-13: The new apologetics, same as the old

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

Religion has always had its own defenders, called religious apologists, who have tried to find ways to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable and at least somewhat consistent with advances in knowledge in science and other areas. In response to the recent onslaughts on their faith by the new atheists, there has arisen in response what one might call the 'new apologetics', attempts to combat the arguments of the new atheists. But in examining these arguments one is startled to discover that there is really nothing new.

While this series of posts has demonstrated that developments in science over the last two centuries have resulted in powerful new evidence and arguments against religion and god emerging thick and fast, religious apologists are still appealing to the arguments of Saint Augustine of Hippo (4th century), Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and William Paley (19th century), and even Paley is just revamping the arguments of his predecessors.

As Sam Harris says in his book The End of Faith (2004):

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach. (p. 21-22)

The only thing that is new about the new apologetics is that the new apologists have taken those very same old arguments and tried to redefine terms and adjust their meanings to respond to the genuinely new arguments and evidence of modern science and the new atheists.

Recall that there are still two major unanswered questions in science: the origin of the universe and the origin of life. The new apologetics, as I said earlier, has seized on these to create a God of the Ultimate Gaps as an 'explanation' for these questions.

But when we say these two questions are as yet unsolved by science, it has to be realized that it is not that scientists have no idea whatsoever about how the two major events occurred, but that the suggested solutions are as yet somewhat speculative. In the case of the origin of the universe, one suggestion is that our universe may not be unique but just one of many possible 'multiverses'. There has been more substantive progress in the area of the origin of life, suggesting that a credible model is not far off. (I have discussed some of the possible candidate models in an earlier post.) But in both cases, we do not have the level of evidentiary support and predictive capabilities that would elevate these speculations to the level of scientific theories and so scientists would likely label these two problems as yet unsolved.

Religious apologists, perhaps sensing that the origin of life is a problem that may be solved fairly soon and thus shying away from depending too much on that being inexplicable, have focused more on the origin of universe as an argument for god and even argued that big-bang cosmology suggests the existence of god. They argue that the anthropic principle (the idea that the properties of the universe seem to be fine-tuned in just the right way for life as we know it to exist) is evidence for god, although that argument makes no sense.

John Lennox (in his The God Delusion Debate with Richard Dawkins) even suggests that since the story of Genesis postulates that there was a beginning to the world, this means that the Bible predicted the big bang theory! Dinesh D'Souza in his debate with Daniel Dennett suggests something similar, that Saint Augustine anticipated the big-bang theory and thus this must somehow be seen as a 'win' for religion and evidence for god.

D'Souza is correct that Augustine's cosmology

"affirms that the world was created by God from nothing, through a free act of His will. With regard to the manner in which creation was effected by God, Augustine is inclined to admit that the creation of the world was instantaneous, but not entirely as it exists at present.

In the beginning there were created a few species of beings which, by virtue of intrinsic principles of reproduction, gave origin to the other species down to the present state of the existing world. Thus it seems that Augustine is not contrary to a moderate evolution, but that such a moderate evolution has nothing in common with modern materialistic evolutionist teaching.
. . .
For Augustine, God is immutable, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, absolutely devoid of potentiality or composition, a pure spirit, a personal, intelligent being.

But Augustine provides no evidence in support of his belief. He is merely guessing, based on what the Bible says. As Dawkins points out in response to Lennox and which applies equally well to D'Souza, there are only two possible options: either the universe had a definite beginning or it did not and thus anyone has a fifty-fifty chance of guessing it right, which hardly makes it a daring prediction.

Furthermore this kind of retrospective elevation of people like Augustine is hardly proof of the validity of religion and clearly demonstrates how desperate religious apologists are. If the scientific evidence that emerged in the mid twentieth century had provided support for an alternative model of the origin of the universe as one that had no beginning (say a static universe or the steady state theory), then Augustine's guess would have been ignored and some other medieval cleric who happened to make the opposite guess would have been hailed as their champion prophet, and the Genesis story would have been reinterpreted in some way to be consistent with that model.

The chances are that one can always find some cleric from ancient times who has said something that could be vaguely interpreted as being in favor of some modern scientific theory. To argue that this should count as proof of prophecy and thus of evidence for the existence of god is a real stretch.

POST SCRIPT: Equal rights for gays gets a boost

The California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. California thus joins Massachusetts in legalizing such marriages. But this decision has greater implications since opponents of gay marriages in Massachusetts were able to invoke an old law that restricted the practice only to residents. California has no such restriction which means that people from all over the country can go to California and get married.

Of course, anti-gay groups are angry and are planning to try and overturn this by putting a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage on the November ballot. If this challenge can be beaten back and the amendment defeated, this might mark a sea change in attitudes towards gays.

I find the opposition to gay marriage really baffling. Why would anyone care if other people get married? It seems to based on nothing more than religion-based prejudice.

May 15, 2008

The end of god-12: God and natural disasters

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

In the previous post, we saw how religious believer try to absolve god for his failure to stop wars and genocide by arguing that god gives us free will and that it is therefore our fault when things like that happens. This is a weak argument at best but it does not address another problem of theodicy: how to explain away the massive suffering caused by natural disasters and disease, where no human agency is involved.

Just this week we have immense death and destruction due to the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. A few years ago we had the Asian tsunami. And we have had hundreds of millions of deaths over the centuries due to diseases like the plague, malaria, and typhoid. We have horrible diseases even now, afflicting all kinds of people down to the youngest children.

Why does an all-powerful and loving god allow such cruel things to happen? No convincing answer has ever been given for this, though some radical clerics like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are quick to say that these calamities are deliberate punishments by god for people's sins. Of course they mean the sins of people they disapprove of (like gays) and not their own.

But such weird attitudes do not come just from well-known crackpots like Robertson. Even high dignitaries of so-called mainstream liberal churches like the Church of England are not immune from this kind of childish thinking. Take for example the remarks of some Church of England bishops after floods devastated large parts of England a little over a year ago.

The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God's judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.

One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless.
. . .
The bishop [of Carlisle], who is a leading evangelical, said that people should heed the stories of the Bible, which described the downfall of the Roman empire as a result of its immorality.

"We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate," he said.

"In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as 'the beast', which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want," he said, adding that the introduction of recent pro-gay laws highlighted its determination to undermine marriage.

"The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance."

In some sense, radical clerics like Robertson and Falwell and the bishop of Carlisle are only following to their logical conclusion where a belief in an all-powerful god leads them. If god is omnipotent, then he can prevent any natural disaster and if he does not do so, he must have a reason. The only reason they can think of is that this must be an act of retributive justice. Of course, earthquake, tsunamis, and floods that kill vast numbers of people indiscriminately do not look like the acts of a loving god, but these people tend to favor 'tough love' doctrines, as long as that tough love is applied to other people and not to them. Jerry Falwell died suddenly while in his office last year but I did not hear his good buddy Robertson suggesting that god had killed him because he thought Falwell was a major sinner in addition to being an annoying pest.

While one can think of many possible social and economic reasons why god might get mad, for some reason radical clerics tend to get really worked up by the thought of sexual (particularly homosexual) activities, and this is usually the reason they bring forward to explain any natural disaster.

Those people for whom the god-is-love idea is more important than the god-is-just idea have a harder time explaining natural catastrophes. They tend to have to resort to saying that god must be having some plan that we mere mortals cannot comprehend. When confronted with the problem of explaining massive numbers of deaths of even infants, believers shrug their shoulders and say the equivalent of "Well, stuff happens, and we don't know why. We have to just assume god has a good reason for letting it happen even though he could prevent it."

Some resort to saying that god created the universe and its laws and has simply decided to allow events to unfold according to those laws whatever the consequences (i.e., they invoke the God of the Ultimate Gaps when it is convenient to do so), and that the reasons for his leave-alone policy are inscrutable. This is the infamous 'mysterious ways clause', the get-out-jail-free card that religious people play when they are faced with something they cannot explain away.

They do not seem to realize that such a statement of ignorance of god's intent is in direct contrast to their assured statements at other times: that they know that god is loving and just, cares for each one of us, wants us to be good and join him in heaven, and that it pains him when we stray from the path of righteousness. How could they know all that about the mind of god and yet not know why he allows droughts and floods and earthquakes?

In other words, popular religious apologists try to sidestep the theodicy problem by shifting between the contradictory beliefs of saying they know and understand the mind of god and god's intentions and nature, while at the same time saying that the reasons for his actions are utterly inscrutable.

One cannot avoid the conclusion that these are the justifications of people who desperately want to believe. Some people have a deep emotional need to believe that there is a mysterious, invisible, father figure looking out for just them, and they will make up any story that allows them to cling to that, however irrational it may be.

Although the model of god-as-loving-father may look superficially more sophisticated than the god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer believed by the woman in Kansas, they both ultimately spring from the same source. First you decide what you want or need to believe, and then you make up some story that allows you to believe just that.

The only way that such people will abandon their beliefs is if they realize for themselves that their beliefs are divorced from reality and that a reality-based belief structure can be far more satisfying.

Next: What the more sophisticated apologists are saying.

POST SCRIPT: Colbert and O'Reilly

Blog junkies have probably seen the clip of Bill O'Reilly (on his former show) letting loose a profanity-laced tirade at his off-camera show producers. Stephen Colbert comes to his defense and reveals a dark secret from his own past.


May 14, 2008

The end of god-11: Trying to find reasons to believe in god

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

In response to the powerful new evidence and arguments against the existence of god brought forward by the new atheists, the defenders of religion have had to regroup and respond. The next series of posts will look at some of these developments on the pro-religion side.

Today I will look at the popular arguments in favor of god, those advanced by regular people who are not professional theologians or academics. These people are simply trying to figure out for themselves why it is reasonable to still believe in god while living in a world that seems to be functioning as if there is no god at all.

Such people must yearn to return to the days when god would routinely demonstrate his existence and power by burning bushes without them being reduced to ashes, turning water into wine, stopping the sun in its tracks, raising people from the dead, and so on. Alas, those days seem to be permanently gone. The only miracles that seem to occur these days are the occasional reports of a crying statue or an image of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, hardly the kinds of things to fire the imagination of the devotee. God even passed up the chance to provide evidence for his existence by winning a NASCAR race.

At one extreme of the popular arguments are the religious fundamentalists. Their approach is illustrated by what happened to me after I debated the intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates in Kansas in 2002. A very earnest woman came to talk to me after the session. She was clearly disturbed by my challenge to the IDC members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that since they had failed to do so, IDC did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have god as part of science, so she had carefully written out on a piece of paper what she felt was a definition of science that would not contradict the existence of god. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur in the future was directly due to god and so everything in the world was due to god's actions and thus science could never refute god's existence.

She had made god's actions synonymous with everything that happens. And she was absolutely right that science cannot provide evidence against such a definition of god. How could it?

But more sophisticated people shy away from such an extreme, and one might even say childish, view of god as it seems to deny the existence of any form of human agency. According to that model of god, we are all just puppets following a rigid script written long ago by an authoritarian puppeteer. The idea of good and evil and free will are casualties of such a model and it is not very flattering to the human self-image as thinking persons.

In order to preserve the concept of morality and that we are agents who can choose how we act, other religious believers replace the model of god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer with that of a god who has given us free will to choose how we act. People also like to think of their god as a loving god who is also all-powerful.

The catch is that with this new model, you immediately run up against the problem of theodicy: why a loving and all-powerful god allows awful things to happen.

When I was growing up as a Christian and struggling with this particularly difficult question, the answer that was offered and that satisfied me at that time (and coincidentally was repeated just this week in a private communication from a reader of this blog) was that while god wants us to do good, he has given us free will and allows us to exercise it to choose whether we do good or evil and some people pick the latter. The lesson we learn from our bad decisions is that we must do better in future.

This model of god is that of a parent who can if he wishes dictate to his child what to do but does not do so because that would be stifling to the child's growth to adulthood. Instead god lets people learn for themselves from their own actions and mistakes, even if the short-term consequences are appalling. In such a model, the evil acts caused by humans (like the genocides of Native Americans, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans, etc.) are not the will of god but due to people making bad choices.

In other words, gods don't kill people, people kill people.

The model of god-as-loving-parent is not without its own serious problems. It assumes that while god has the power to stop this kind of slaughter at any time, he allows massive acts of evil to occur because he views them as learning experiences. Is this argument really credible to anyone except those who want to believe at any cost? If a parent let his child slaughter the neighborhood children in a playground with a machine gun, we would hardly accept his explanation that he was allowing his child to exercise his free will so that he could grow and learn from his mistakes that guns are dangerous and that it is wrong to kill, and thus become a better person in the future.

An interesting feature of this model of god is how such religious apologists are quite confident that they know what god's intentions are, and they seem sure that he is loving, cares for each one of us personally, that he wants us to use our free will wisely and in good ways, and that it pains him when we stray and do bad things. This is quite an extraordinary level of knowledge of the mind of an omnipotent deity. Of course, they have no evidence for any of these assertions. All the awful events named above can be explained as well (or even better) by saying that god is a vindictive and cruel entity who enjoys pitting one group against another, and seeing the suffering that ensues.

Next: Explaining away natural disasters

POST SCRIPT: Einstein's views on religion

Given his well-deserved reputation as a deep thinker and thoughtful and humane person, Einstein's views on religion have always been a source of great interest and his varying statements have been interpreted as being both supportive and dismissive of a belief in god.

In a little known letter written in 1954, he seems quite unequivocal in his contempt for religion:

In the letter, he states: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

Einstein, who was Jewish and who declined an offer to be the state of Israel's second president, also rejected the idea that the Jews are God's favoured people.

"For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

May 13, 2008

The end of god-10: When vinegar is better than honey

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

The previous post in this series raised the question of, given a conviction that religion is a negative influence in almost every area of life, what is the best strategy to persuade people to abandon their religious beliefs? Should we suggest that their religious beliefs are reasonable but that atheism is better (the honey approach)? Or should we come right out and say that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and should be abandoned by any thinking person (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)? Or should we just do nothing at all and let events take their natural course?

The last option (doing nothing at all) is probably the most appealing to atheists on an intellectual level and has been suggested by some commenters to the previous post. After all, if you think that belief in god is silly and without any foundation, then why be concerned if others believe it? But doing nothing has resulted in religion continuing to be pervasive and if, as I have argued before, religion leads to bad results, then surely we should try and change things, just as we would for any other belief structure that has negative social consequences, such as racism or sexism or homophobia.

I think that in the private sphere, in a face-to-face encounter with a religious believer, directly telling them that their beliefs are silly is not a good thing to do. People tend to respond to direct challenges to their beliefs by finding reasons, however irrational, to support those beliefs. In other words, they dig themselves in even deeper, commit themselves even more strongly, merely in order to save face in an argument. So a honey approach is called for here. One should try to gently point out why atheism provides a far more satisfying approach to life than belief in a god.

But the situation is quite different in the public sphere. Then most people are merely third-party observers, watching other people argue, and thus they themselves are not being personally confronted, although their views are.

When the new atheists in public discourse, in a debate or in the media, demonstrate that the views of their religious opponents are silly and irrational, this will likely not cause their immediate opponent to back down for all the reasons given above. But the debate opponent is not the real audience for their remarks. It is the viewing or listening or reading audience that is the target. Religious believers who watch the debate, when they see that the views of the person representing their own religious views being subject to withering criticism and unable to respond adequately, may come to realize that such beliefs are truly irrational. But since they are not being directly challenged, they do not have to immediately and publicly acknowledge this and can quietly think it over and slowly change their minds on their own without suffering a loss of face.

In some cases, ridicule may be the most effective weapon in countering preposterous claims, since it may persuade the observer that holding such views is embarrassing. In fact, some religious propositions cannot be countered without appearing to ridicule them, and this may not be an altogether bad thing. Take for example the widely held belief in the US that the world is just 6,000 years old. If someone asserts this, the honey approach would be to give them all the evidence from physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology that are all inextricably linked and point towards the conclusion that the world is billions of years old. This is hardly feasible in a limited time.

The vinegar approach is to say that to believe such a thing is to reject all of modern science and to regress to the Middle Ages. Richard Dawkins says in public that believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old and not 4.5 billion years old is not a minor disagreement about a factual detail. It is an error on the scale of asserting that the distance from New York to California is about 20 feet. That kind of argument can be seen as dismissive and ridiculing the beliefs of young Earth creationists, but I think it is more effective in cases like this. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions."

Just as no thinking person today will publicly acknowledge a belief in astrology or witchcraft because it reveals one to be positively medieval in one's thinking and puts one so beyond the pale of science and rationality that it is positively embarrassing, so the new atheists are making the case that to believe in god and religion is no better than holding on to those other beliefs that we now view as pure superstitions.

Even if people realize that it embarrassing to hold on their beliefs in god and religion because of the strong criticisms made in the public sphere by the new atheists, and decide to abandon them, there is still some difficulty in having to explain to the people they know personally why they switched. For some time, these people will likely still pay lip service to their prior religious beliefs while slowly distancing themselves from them. But at some point, they will feel confident in repudiating their former beliefs and this is made easier because they worked it out for themselves on their own, in their own minds.

I suspect that this process is happening right now in the minds of many people. As a result of the strong arguments put out by the new atheists, many people are probably coming to the private realization that the religious beliefs they have been subscribing to for so long are really rather ridiculous and embarrassing for any rational, scientifically-minded person to hold on to. They may stay silent now, or try to find some intermediate position that is not a total renunciation, but at some point they will repudiate religion altogether and do so publicly.

Their path will be made easier the more people adopt the new atheists' approach.

Next: But enough about the new atheism, what's new on the pro-religion side?

POST SCRIPT: Batman and the Penguin discuss the American electorate

(Thanks to This Modern World)


May 12, 2008

The end of god-9: Honey and vinegar

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

An argument that is often made against the new atheists is that their strong rhetoric (such as labeling god a delusion) can alienate people and not win them over to the atheist side. Thus one finds even those who concede that the new atheists are right and that they have all the science and evidence and logic and rationality on their side, still suggesting that the atheists may be losing the bigger public relations war even as they win individual battles. Such people, retrieving the old saying that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, suggest that a softer approach may yield better results.

This is a very interesting argument (one that has been made by commenters here too) and is worth examining. The question of what exactly makes people change their minds on anything is an empirical question that, to my knowledge, has not been studied as much as it should. (I would be grateful to any readers who can point me to relevant studies.) What follows are some speculations on my part.

Here are my starting assumptions, which I think are reasonable: (1) People can and do change their minds about things. (2) They find it easier to change their minds about some things than others. (3) Beliefs about anything are held in place by emotions, reasons, authority, and evidence, but that the relative weight of the contributions of those four elements can differ widely depending on the nature of the belief. (4) Beliefs are harder to change the smaller the factual content they contain, the longer one has held on to the beliefs, the stronger the emotional attachment to them, the more widely held the beliefs, and the more publicly one has committed to them.

The last point is important. Once you can get people to commit publicly to a belief in anything, it is far harder to get them to change their minds. People have an emotional attachment to their stated beliefs and when those are challenged, tend to manufacture reasons to sustain the belief rather than concede that they were wrong. This is why religions are so resilient: they indoctrinate children in their belief structure at a very early age, while they are still under the strong influence of their parents, priests, teachers, and other elders. Religious parents do not wait for children to make their own informed choice about what to believe, sometimes even going to the extent of having public rituals that commit the children as infants by baptizing them (for Christians) and circumcising them (for Jewish and Muslim boys). Once children can be made to see themselves as adherents of a belief, which they do by labeling themselves as Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or whatever, and are then sustained in those beliefs through their adolescence and early adulthood by a community of like-minded believers, it is much harder emotionally and otherwise to persuade them later to concede that they were wrong.

Herbert Spencer pointed out this phenomenon in an essay dealing with evolution titled The Development Hypothesis published in his book Essays Scientific, Political & Speculative (1891):

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none. Here we find, scattered over the globe, vegetable and animal organisms numbering, of the one kind (according to Humboldt), some 320,000 species, and of the other, some 2,000,000 species (see Carpenter) and if to these we add the numbers of animal and vegetable species which have become extinct, we may safely estimate the number of species that have existed, and are existing, on the Earth, at not less than ten millions. Well, which is the most rational theory about these ten millions of species? Is it most likely that there have been ten millions of special creations? or is it most likely that, by continual modifications due to change of circumstances, ten millions of varieties have been produced, as varieties are being produced still?

Doubtless many will reply that they can more easily conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, than they can conceive that ten millions of varieties have arisen by successive modifications. All such, however, will find, on inquiry, that they are under an illusion. This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. (my italics)

I believe this last statement is true for religion. I think that most religious people do not really believe, they just want to believe they believe. How many Christians genuinely believe that Jesus was actually born of a virgin and physically rose from the dead? Where would he go? After all, since even many Christians do not believe that there is a physical heaven in the sky where the physical Jesus lives, that means that after going to all the trouble of resurrecting his physical body, Jesus then had to get rid of it again. Why bother?

Similarly, how many Catholics really believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus during the communion service? How many Muslims genuinely believe that god directly dictated the Koran to Mohammed and that the angel Gabriel really spoke to him? I suspect that it is only the fanatics who really believe and they are the dangerous ones who can be persuaded to do terrible acts in the name of their god. But all the others who simply believe they believe give the fanatics the license to think that their own delusions are quite reasonable.

Given this fact, what is the best strategy to persuade people to change their religious beliefs? Suggest that those beliefs are reasonable but that the atheist approach is better (the honey approach)? Or to argue that religious beliefs are irrational and even pernicious and that any thinking person should be embarrassed to hold on to them (the vinegar approach of the new atheists)?

That question will be explored in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: The power of prayer

Did you know that America has an official National Day of Prayer and that this year it was on May 1st? If you want to start planning your prayers now for 2009, that date is May 7.

And did you know that the group behind it sponsored a car at the NASCAR race held at the Talladega Speedway on April 27? So how did it do?

Not too well, I'm afraid. Their car ended up 25th. The next time they need to pray harder. Or maybe god was too absorbed watching the basketball playoffs and simply forgot to act in time. It can happen to anyone.

May 09, 2008

The end of god-8: Why even 'good' religion is not worth saving

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

When all else fails, religious people sometimes resort to utilitarian arguments in favor of god, such as that some people would act worse if they did not believe in a god who would punish them for doing bad things. Other alleged benefits of 'good' religion are that it helps people cope with the stresses of life and deal with the fear of death, that it encourages people to do good acts, and to summon up courage in the face of adversity.

While some of these things may be true, they seem rather a weak foundation on which to base one's support for religion. The basic problem is that every one of these benefits is not unique to religion. As I have written before, 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?)

So by getting rid of religion we can still have all the benefits claimed for it while getting rid of the evils that are unique to it. Some try to argue for retaining religion by pointing out, correctly, that science also has been used for massively evil ends so why not call for the end of science? But the fact is that if we get rid of science, there are no alternative ways to obtain all the social benefits it provides, so the only alternative is to try to learn how to use it wisely. This is not the case with religion. It provides no social benefits that cannot be duplicated by purely secular institutions.

Christopher Hitchens says something similar in his introduction to The Portable Atheist (2007), p. xiii-xiv):

One is continually told, as an unbeliever, that it is old-fashioned to rail against the primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion because after all, in these enlightened times, the old superstitions have died away. Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person . . . My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)

If the foundations of religion are false, then the alleged benefits it provides are merely placebos, devices to make people feel good in the short-run, to allay their fears about death, and to provide facile answers to deep questions of existence and meaning. It is not clear to me why making people feel good on the basis of a falsehood is better than them being able to see the truth clearly. Of course, this does not mean that one should go about destroying people's beliefs indiscriminately. I would not argue with someone in grief who finds consolation in some religious dogma. But that leave-well-alone policy does not extend to public discussions of religion, and the new atheists are perfectly justified and even to be commended in pointing out that religions are based on false foundations.

Religion also results in people being required to suspend rational thought and judgment and encourages passivity and tolerance for injustice since provides people with the dubious option of putting their faith in a higher power to redress injustices and looking towards justice in heaven rather than fighting for those goals here and now.

In the past I have shown clips of exorcists, mind readers, and people who claim the ability read the thoughts of animals. I argued that such charlatans (and others like faith healers) would not be able to ply their trade without the cover that religion gives them to persuade people that supernatural forces exist. For atheists to not attack religion in order to preserve some façade of coexistence with 'good' religion is to permanently leave ajar the door that enables those who use religion as weapons for evil ends or to exploit the gullible for profit to enter and ply their trade. As Christopher Hitchens says in God Is Not Great, (2007, p. 160):

It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity's great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.

I believe that it is futile to try and separate bad religion from good religion and to try and eliminate the former while preserving the latter. In my interview in Machines Like Us, I say:

[W]hen one decides to not criticize the thinking of 'moderates', one has shut off the most powerful critiques one can make of extremists, which is that the whole edifice of thinking they adhere to has no evidentiary foundation and simply makes no sense. Trying to counter extremists without hurting the feelings of the 'moderates' is like agreeing to play chess while giving up the right to capture the opponent's queen. You are bound to lose, except against the most incompetent player.

Good religion and bad religion are two sides of the same coin. The only way to end bad religion is to end religion altogether, and the way to do that is to advance as publicly as possible all the powerful arguments and evidence we now have that there is no reason whatsoever to assume that god exists in any form or that any of the supernatural doctrines of any religion have any validity.

This is the 'new atheism' and I am proud to be a part of that movement.

POST SCRIPT: Baxter again

Because you can never have too many photos of a terrific dog. . .

baxter2.JPG

May 08, 2008

The end of god-7: How 'good religion' corrupts people

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

One major problem with religion is that it tends to dull the moral sensibilities of otherwise decent people, causing them to justify acts by 'their' people that they would unhesitatingly condemn if done by anyone else. The process starts in childhood. Take for example the study of Israeli children done by George Tamarin. When told the Biblical story of how Joshua and the Israelites ruthlessly massacred every living thing (men, women, young, old, animals) in a battle against their enemies, the children justified this atrocity using appallingly racist reasoning. When the same story was modified to make the perpetrator of the outrages be an obscure ancient Chinese warlord, the children responded the way that one would hope they would do, saying that the massacre was wrong.

As Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p. 255) says:

[W]hen their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

Another example can be seen in the PBS Frontline documentary on the Mormons, available online. Episode #9 deals with the 1857 massacre by Mormons of 120 men, women and children from Arkansas who were passing through Mormon territory in southern Utah, at a place called Mountain Meadows, on their way to California.

Judith Freeman (who is a descendent of the Mormons) says that she is sympathetic to the 75 Mormon men who committed the massacre. "I think I became more sympathetic to their plight because of this idea, this Mormon principle of perfect obedience. These men were ordered to appear at Mountain Meadows, so in a way they were victims of their own devotion and obedience."

This highlights perfectly the danger of religion. It causes people to sympathize with and even excuse appalling actions simply because the people who committ them sincerely believe they are doing god's work. The idea that one should view the perpetrators of atrocities as somehow victims of their own upbringing and conditioning is not, in principle, an unreasonable proposition. The problem is that people tend to extend this charitable view only to people who share their own faith, and refuse to consider this for actions done by others against them, thus leading to an endless downward spiral of self-righteous justifications of actions done by one's own tribe and condemnations of the actions of the perceived enemy, even though both actions are objectively the same.

As Richard Dawkins says:

Religion changes, for people, the definition of good. Atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad deeds in terms of the welfare and suffering of others. Murder, torture, and cruelty are bad because they cause people to suffer. Most religious people think them bad, too, but some religions (for example the religion of the Taliban) sanction all of them under some circumstances. For non-religious people, the behavior of consenting adults in a private bedroom is the business of nobody else, and is not bad unless it causes suffering – for example by breaking up a happy family. But many religions arrogate to themselves the right to decide that certain kinds of sexual behavior, even if they do no harm to anyone, are wrong.

The actions of the Taliban, their vile bullying of women, their sanctimonious hatred of all that might lead to enjoyment, their violence, their ignorant bigotry, their hatred of education, their cruelty, seem to me to be as close to pure evil as anything I can imagine. Yet, by the lights of their own religion they are supremely righteous – really good people.
. . .
It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds. There is no logical path from atheism to evil deeds.

While Dawkins gives the example of Islam and the Taliban, the same kinds of examples can be multiplied many times over for any of the other religions. The problem is not any particular religion, or version of religion, it is belief in god that is the problem. The danger is, as Freeman says, "If you can get people to believe they are doing god's will, you can get them to do anything."

The sad truth that emerges from the rise of religious extremism is that once you have got people to accept the existence of god, it seems all too easy to convince them that they should do evil actions as part of god's mandate. Or as Voltaire put it, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

I think it is time for the so-called 'moderate' religious people to abandon their belief in god and join the atheists. That would be the best way to combat the negative effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Pat Condell on the curse of faith

He talks about the evil of indoctrinating children in religious faith when they are too young to realize what is going on.


May 07, 2008

The end of god-6: The biggest menace of religion: faith

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

The most basic problem with almost any religion is the fact that they raise 'faith', which is the irrational acceptance of things in the absence of, or even counter to, credible evidence and reason, to the level of a virtue. This is simply asking for trouble. Once you have said that you believe something just because some book says so or some inner voice tells you to do so, you have lost all standing to condemn others whose own inner voices (or the voices of their priests, rabbis, or imams) tell them to do unspeakable acts in the name of obeying god's will.

As Daniel Dennett says:

If religion isn't the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress, what is? Perhaps alcohol, or television, or addictive video games. But although each of these scourges - mixed blessings, in fact - has the power to overwhelm our best judgment and cloud our critical faculties, religion has a feature of that none of them can boast: it doesn't just disable, it honours the disability. People are revered for their capacity to live in a dream world, to shield their minds from factual knowledge and make the major decisions of their lives by consulting voices in their heads that they call forth by rituals designed to intoxicate them.
. . .
Not just rationality and scientific progress, but just about everything else we hold dear could be laid waste by a single massively deluded "sacramental" act. True, you don't have to be religious to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are religious, you don't have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things. And - this is the worst of it - religious faith can give people a sort of hyperbolic confidence, an utter unconcern about whether they might be making a mistake, that enables acts of inhumanity that would otherwise be unthinkable.

This imperviousness to reason is, I think, the property that we should most fear in religion. Other institutions or traditions may encourage a certain amount of irrationality - think of the wild abandon that is often appreciated in sports or art - but only religion demands it as a sacred duty.

In his Letter to A Christian Nation (p. 66-68) Sam Harris says:

The conflict between science and religion is reducible to simple fact of human cognition and discourse; either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still has immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.

As a footnote, Poseidon-worshippers (yes, they exist!) were incensed at Harris's apparent slight towards them. Harris adds that "Truth be told, I now receive e-mails of protest from people who claim, in all apparent earnestness, to believe that Poseidon and the other gods from Greek mythology are real." Poseidon worshippers have a point. Why should their belief be accorded any less respect than belief in Jesus or Yahweh or Allah, just because their numbers are smaller? Once you have opened the gates of such irrationality, all bets are off.

The idea that religions are fundamentally good and that those who do evil in its name are misguided and have misinterpreted their respective religious texts simply cannot be sustained. The new atheists might concede that while certain versions of religion might inspire people to do good things, the overall influence of religion is so bad that it is not worth salvaging.

Even 'good' religion is bad in that it allows the enabling of bad religion. Once you have allowed irrationality to go unchallenged, you have lost the main argument against fanatics who think that murdering and otherwise acting against commonly accepted human values is doing the work of their god. In many ways, those whom we label as 'religious fanatics' are those who have taken their religious texts and doctrines seriously, at their face value, and have obediently sought to follow them.

For example, people whose children die because they prayed for them instead of taking them to the doctor are those who took seriously their religion's claim that if they had faith, god would heal them. After all, it was Jesus who gave this promise (Mark 16:17-18):

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."

Most mainstream religious people cynically hedge their bets by seeking medical treatment when they fall ill, in addition to praying. But according to Jesus, it is those whom we would consider to be religious fanatics, the exorcists, the hallucinators, the snake handlers, the poison drinkers, and the faith healers who should be considered truly religious.

It is precisely because religious people bring up children to believe unquestioningly in absurd religious dogmas that some of those children grow up taking such things more seriously than their parents might like. It is then disingenuous to argue that they have gone too far. The people who do evil things in the name of religion are presumably convinced that they are doing god's work. Bin Laden holds himself up as a true Muslim, upholding his religion's highest traditions. John Hagee and Pat Robertson are similarly convinced that they are the true Christians. And one can find similar examples in other religions.

The best way to counter them is to argue that there is no god and that their holy books are merely the work of human minds that carry no more intrinsic authority than today's newspaper. At least that is a position that can be backed up overwhelmingly by evidence, science, and reason.

To argue instead, as 'good' religionists try to do, that your idea of god is better than their idea of god is a proposition that is purely religious-text based and can be easily countered by pointing to different sections of the same religious texts. As such, it can never be conclusive and can be easily dismissed by those whom we usually label as 'fanatics' but are better described as 'true believers'.

Next: How 'good religion' corrupts people.

POST SCRIPT: Those weird Arabs

As Matthew Yglesias points out:

It's really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it's not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don't like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.

It takes the Onion to really parody this way of thinking.

May 06, 2008

The end of god-5: The politics of 'good' and 'bad' religion

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

Perhaps the biggest storm raised by the new atheists, and which has even caused a split within the atheist community about strategy, is that they have decided to ignore the polite fiction that there is 'good' religion and there is 'bad' religion. Supporters of this split (which includes even many non-religious people) believe that what should be done is to support the good religionists by aligning with them to combat the bad.

This has to be understood as being essentially a political strategy, designed to marginalize the so-called religious extremists and fundamentalists, the people whose religious beliefs lead them to reject all of modern science and to harbor repugnant views on issues of morality and social justice.

But while this strategy may generate some political benefits in the short term, its adoption has also resulted in religious beliefs as a whole being treated with kid gloves, by not subjecting them to the same close and withering scrutiny that is applied to other evidence-defying beliefs such as astrology and witchcraft. Although religious beliefs are as irrational as any of those things, this political strategy required that this inconvenient truth not be pointed out, and to maintain the façade that there is a 'true' religion which is essentially good, and that the evils committed in religion's name arise from distortions of the true religion by misguided or evil people.

This gentle treatment of mainstream religion was no doubt aided by the fact that many people that atheists were likely to know, even within their close circle of family and friends, are people who are otherwise rational and yet also believe in these religion-related absurdities. It is hard to criticize religion in a fundamental way without implicitly suggesting that belief in it is an irrational act. The desire not to ruffle feathers serves to muffle fundamental criticisms of religion as a whole and resulted in many atheists of previous generations carefully tailoring their arguments to only condemn those whose religion resulted in abhorrent views and actions. The views of such people were said to not represent 'true' religion, though why that is so is never made clear.

It is undoubtedly true that there are very many religious people who are decent and humane, even inspirational. It is also true that there are very many religious people who are bigoted, racist, and murderous. But the idea that the good that some religious people do is evidence of a loving god at work while the evil that other religious people do is not evidence of a vicious and hateful god is an argument that is highly self-serving and lacks coherence.

Take for example, evangelical (and John McCain supporter) John Hagee, who explains some of his beliefs below:

He quotes the Bible to justify his weird views and who has the standing to say he is wrong in his understanding? 'Good' religious believers have the unenviable task of trying to explain why their choice of Biblical passages and their interpretation should be given more weight than Hagee's. (For more of Hagee's ravings, courtesy of Matt Taibbi's new book The Great Derangement, see this excerpt (courtesy of Tbogg).)

The argument of mainstream religions that 'true' religion (i.e., the religious doctrines that they happen to subscribe to) is a force for good simply cannot be sustained. What the new atheists are saying is that rather than there being bad and good religion, there is only bad religion (that which makes people commit acts that go against accepted standards of morality and decency and justice) and the enabling of bad religion. After all, those religious extremists who commit appalling acts in the name of religion are as justified in arguing that they represent 'true' religion as anyone else. Religious texts and the history of religion are all over the place when it comes to prescriptions for behavior and one can pick and choose passages to justify almost anything.

The very fact that the 'good' religious people feel justified in dismissing or ignoring those parts of the Bible that support evil acts shows that they are not deriving their morality from the Bible but are instead imposing a morality derived elsewhere, from secular humanist values, onto the Bible.

The new atheists have a far more consistent argument. They say that it is far more coherent to argue that there is no god at all, that it is pointless to ascribe the actions of people to a god, and that we should reject the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text as authoritative documents in their entirety.

In their rejection of the concept of a 'good' religion worth saving or even promoting, the new atheists have split with some scientists who argue for an alliance with the followers of 'good' religion and seek to find an accommodation of science with that religion. I call this latter group of scientists 'Templeton scientists' because the Templeton Foundation has for a long time tried to woo scientists to try and find ways to make religion and belief in god compatible with science. This is, in my view, a hopeless task but by dangling huge rewards, (the annual Templeton prize is larger than the Nobel prize) the foundation has tried to lure some scientists into trying to find ways of doing so.

Those who assert that the new atheists are pursuing a bad strategy say that by taking a tack that will antagonize those people who believe in 'good' religion, they are harming the common struggle against those whose religion drives them to words and actions that are manifestly evil by almost any yardstick.

This argument reveals a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together on one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the 'good religion' group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the 'bad religion' group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether the concept of 'good religion' is valid at all.

Asking the new atheists to not debunk the concept of 'good religion' for the sake of political expediency makes as little sense as asking the members of the 'good religion' group to stop talking about their belief in god in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of 'bad' religion) while retaining the right to disagree on other issues.

The reason that this fairly obvious aspect of coalition politics is not understood is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated 'respect for religion', which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by 'good' people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore. But religion, which is no better, still retains its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in.

The new atheists have ended that tradition and it is a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: Silly Superstitions

Sri Lanka is a country that is riddled with superstitions with many people, including political leaders, not doing anything significant until they have consulted their astrological charts and gotten the green light. It always seemed bizarre to me.

Now it appears that Republican presidential candidate John McCain is also extremely superstitious.

The reason that superstitions flourish is because we tolerate, even venerate, the biggest superstition of all, the belief in supernatural powers like god.

May 05, 2008

The end of god-4: The death of god due to other causes

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

While developments in science have provided the most powerful arguments against the existence of god in any form, it is not only science that has led to the undermining of traditional religious beliefs. As far as Christianity and Judaism are concerned, other areas of scholarly work, such as modern textual scholarship in the form of the so-called 'higher criticism', coupled with careful archeological studies, have shown that the Bible is very much a human-created document and that there is little or no evidence for the validity of any of the knowledge contained in it.

It now seems clear that almost the entire history presented in the Bible (such as the stories of Abraham, Moses, the captivity and exodus from Egypt, David, Solomon, etc.), right up to the period when the Israelites were taken into exile by the Persians in about 650 BCE, is fiction. The present day Bible has been shown to be essentially a political document written in the centuries between 400 BCE and 100 CE, and consists of the codification of documents produced by priests beginning around 650 BCE, very long after almost all the events it purportedly claims to record. (See my earlier series of posts on this topic.)

Even for events reported in the New Testament, the evidence is very weak that some person named Jesus lived at the appropriate time claimed by Christians and, even if he did exist, there is no credible evidence for the claims of his followers about his virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, and other supposed clues to his divinity.

The idea that the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text is divinely inspired is hard to sustain. Religious people can and do cherry-pick passages from them to suggest that they contain information that could only have come from a divine entity but these arguments are laughably inadequate.

For example, at a recent science-religion program sponsored by the Campus Freethought Alliance held at Case, a religious panelist suggested that the Bible must be true since it predicted some things that came to pass later. But the examples he gave were weak, consisting mainly of things that Jesus said or did that were supposedly predicted by the Old Testament prophets. This is the kind of argument that will only satisfy the already devout because even the Bible itself says that Jesus had studied the scriptures and actively sought to satisfy the prophecies. Thus the Bible itself undermined the speaker's case but he seemed to be unaware of this implication.

This willingness of believers to suspend rational analysis when it comes to their own beliefs is widely prevalent. Recently two young Mormon missionaries came to my home to try and convert me. They told me the story of Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon based on the golden plates that he supposedly discovered and which subsequently disappeared again after he had translated them using the magic stones. When I asked them why I should believe the writings in their holy book, they told me that it made predictions that had come true. When I asked them to name one, they said that the book had predicted Columbus's voyage to America. When I pointed out that Joseph Smith lived in the 19th century, long after that voyage, and that this could hardly be considered a prediction, they said that Golden Plates had been created long before Columbus. When I asked them how they knew this, they said that Joseph Smith had said so!

These Mormon missionaries were young, articulate, and seemingly intelligent people. The fact that they did not seem to realize that they were arguing in a circle and basically claiming authority for a text on the basis of nothing other than the claims of that same text shows just how much religion subverts people's most basic reasoning skills. I see the same thing with Christians who try to convince me about the reality of Jesus and god by quoting passages from the Bible. It does not seem to strike them that this makes little sense.

Even on the most basic of facts, the Bible falls short. For example, 1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2-5 gives the value of pi (as the ratio of circumference to diameter) as 3. As Sam Harris points out in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 61), "But the Egyptians and Babylonians both approximated pi to a few decimal places several centuries before the oldest books of the Bible were written. The Bible offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world." In other words, even by the standards of knowledge available elsewhere at that time, the Bible got it hopelessly wrong.

As for making predictions, the Bible is simply terrible. It makes no predictions worthy of the name. As Harris says, "If the Bible were such a book [of prophecy], it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers – the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus – and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century." (Harris, p. 60, my italics)

The idea that the Bible (or the Koran) can form the basis of a moral life has also come under serious attack because the morality that is espoused in it can only be described as appalling. It is all too easy to find passages that indicate god's approval of slavery, prostitution, genocide, and rape, and to find punishment by death being advocated for such absurdities as working on the Sabbath, wearing garments made of different threads, planting different crops side by side, showing disrespect for parents, or for sundry sexual transgressions. As Richard Dawkins says in his narration in the British television documentary The Root of All Evil, "The god of the old testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser, urging his people on to acts of genocide."

Thus the Bible has an awful record when it comes to history, mathematics, science, morality, and predictions.

The problem for religious people of how to deal with theodicy (why a loving all-powerful god can allow evil to occur) is also one that will not go away, however much religious people might try to paper over its problems. How can anyone contemplate the unspeakable atrocities committed during the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda and of Native Americans, slavery, (the list can go on almost indefinitely) and still believe in a kind and loving and providential god?

All these problems are well known to religious scholars but are not raised so much among the general public. And for a long time, the dubious argument of showing 'respect for religion' prevented even non-religious people from pointing out forcefully all these obvious weaknesses of religion, and that religious texts had had no scientific or historical or moral validity and should be viewed as little more than fiction.

But that has changed. The new atheists have not hesitated to highlight all these weaknesses of religion that have come to the fore because of advances in science and other disciplines.

Next: The politics of 'good' and 'bad' religion

POST SCRIPT: Zinn on the American empire

Historian Howard Zinn has a new cartoon book A People's History of American Empire, with voiceover by Viggo Mortensen.

(Thanks to TomDispatch.com.)

You can read Zinn's views on the American empire here.

May 02, 2008

The end of god-3: The death of the Ultimate Creator God

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

In the previous post, we saw that the idea of the Personal God was dead on the grounds that believing in such a god required one to abandon rationality and the God of the Gaps was dead on the grounds that advances in science have successively closed so many of the gaps that believing in such a god has become somewhat of an embarrassing exercise, requiring one to find refuge in a new gap whenever an old one gets explained by science. The decreasing number of credible gaps has resulted in most religious apologists abandoning this god as unworkable.

This left only the Ultimate Creator God, with its underlying assumption that complex things required a more complex creator, as a viable hypothesis.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, arriving in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first major scientific theory that destroyed the need for both the God of the Gaps and an Ultimate Creator God when it came to life's complex systems. In its more modern form of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which incorporates genetics and molecular biology into natural selection, this theory shows that once a replicator that is capable of reproducing or copying itself with fairly high fidelity using the raw materials available to it in its environment comes into being, however simple and primitive it might be, it will be inexorably driven by the laws of natural selection to ever more complex forms of replicators (the DNA molecule being one example of a complex replicator), eventually resulting in the complexity and diversity of life that we now see all around us. (See Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for a clear explanation of how that happens.)

Thus with the arrival of Darwin's theory, it was possible to understand how life systems could evolve from simple forms to more complex forms under the dynamic of natural laws. This dealt a serious blow to the Ultimate Creator God.

This major advance in our ability to understand the existence of life's complexity and diversity without invoking a designer was followed by modern cosmological theories, developed in the mid-twentieth century, that have shown a similar process at work in the non-living world. We are now beginning to understand how a universe that began as a simple soup of quarks and gluons became, over time and under the influence of natural laws, the vast and complex universe of stars and galaxies that we now have. This growth from simplicity to complexity was again driven by purely natural laws acting on purely material elements without any need to invoke some kind of external intelligence supervising and managing the process.

I am by no means asserting that every question concerning life and the universe has been answered. What I am saying is that we now have powerful new theories that are evidence-based and provide a framework for investigating and ultimately answering the fundamental question of how complexity can arise.

Thus the modern twin theories of the neo-Darwinian synthesis and big-bang cosmology are now available to convincingly destroy the chief argument of religious apologists for the existence of the Ultimate Creator God, that there was no credible alternative to postulating that there needed to be an ultimate creator to bring about complexity

This is knowledge that earlier atheist philosophers did not have but could only hope to one day attain. As Richard Dawkins said, "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." (The Blind Watchmaker, page 6)

Hume's hope has now become reality. We now have very good scientific explanations for such questions and it is the scientists among the new atheists, such as Dawkins in the field of biology, Victor Stenger in the field of physics and cosmology, and Daniel Dennett in the fields of the mind and consciousness that have made the case for the death of the Ultimate Creator God most forcefully.

Of course, it has to be conceded that religious believers can still claim that since science has not as yet convincingly demonstrated how the big bang or how the very first primitive replicator came about (although some speculative solutions have been proposed for both those problems), that it is at least logically possible to attribute these two things to a god. So in a sense, scientific developments have forced religious apologists into a corner and required them to merge the God of the Gaps and the Ultimate Creator God into one, into a kind of God of the Ultimate Gaps, this god serving purely as a sterile answer to questions about the origin of the universe and the origin of life.

This God of the Ultimate Gaps is one who has acted only twice in the entire history of our universe, the first time to start the universe and the second and last time to create the first replicator, before handing in his retirement papers for good. While religious believers can claim, if they wish, that such a limited-action god is logically possible, such an austere and remote god is a far cry from the chummy Personal God favored by most religious believers. Trying to bridge the gap between the God of the Ultimate Gaps favored by sophisticated theologians and the Personal God favored by the general public has been a thorny problem for the religious community.

The plain fact is that science, while it cannot totally eliminate god as a logical possibility, has for all intents and purposes made god redundant.

Next: The end of god due to other causes

POST SCRIPT: Baxter, the Wonder Dog

Ok, so Baxter may not actually be a wonder dog, but he is still a terrific one. He is now two and a half years old.

baxter.JPG

May 01, 2008

The end of god-2: The death of the Personal God and the God of the Gaps

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

In the previous post, I discussed the three theories of god: Personal God, God of the Gaps, and Ultimate Creator God.

The arguments advanced in favor of the Personal God theory have little intellectual merit and are proffered as evidence only by those who already want to believe. People who believe in such a god are in the grip of powerful emotions and are not going to be swayed by rational arguments. People who argue in favor of such a god or believe in the literal truth of the Bible have essentially declared that they are rejecting science and logic and reason as the basis of their belief.

The Personal God causes all kinds of problems for rationality. It is not a serious theory and sophisticated theologians, who appreciate that the idea of an activist, interventionist god creates more theological problems than it solves, tend to dismiss it. Thus we can consider this god to be dead as a serious intellectual proposition, although it is still believed in by a large number of people. I am not going to spend much time arguing against the existence of the Personal God because people who believe in such a god are not doing so on the basis of any argument and hence arguments against this god will have no effect. For example, how can you argue with someone who says that she had a vision in which god spoke to her or a near death experience where she visited heaven?

What about the arguments for the Ultimate Creator God and the God of the Gaps?

The arguments in favor of these two gods (which I discussed in an earlier post) do have some intellectual merit and the more sophisticated religious apologists use them to underpin their faith. These arguments have been the foundation of religious apologists starting from ancient days, through Bishop Paley's watchmaker analogy, down to the current intelligent design creationism. While these arguments are by no means conclusive, for a long time there did not exist any credible alternative models or theories or conclusive arguments or evidence to refute them. Hence these arguments by religious apologists for the existence of god were tenable (at least in principle) and thus seemed plausible enough to be held on to without seeming to be irrational. Atheists always had the option of rejecting them as sterile explanations without any content and while many did so, they were not able to refute them.

That is no longer the case. There is no question that we now have powerful new arguments against the existence of the Ultimate Creator God and the God of the Gaps that were not available to the earlier generations of atheists. They arise from the rapid advance of modern science.

The most obvious casualty of these advances in science has been the God of the Gaps. Those things that were once thought to be so amazingly complex that they could not possibly have come about by natural causes (the eye, wings, the colors of butterflies, etc.) are now routinely explained by biological theories and their origins and workings are no longer deeply mysterious, though these things are still marvelous and awe-inspiring to behold. The gaps where this god resided have become increasingly narrow and is so threatened with extinction that more sophisticated theologians have abandoned this god because of the embarrassment it causes. In any high-level discussion involving the existence of god (see for example The God Delusion Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox), it is quite common for religious apologists (Lennox in this case) to start with a disclaimer that the god they believe in is not a God of the Gaps, since they know that advances in scientific understanding have made such a god an endangered species.

But although formally disclaiming such a god, some still try to sneak it in under a different name. Intelligent design creationism, by suggesting that certain microbiological phenomena are too unlikely to have occurred by the laws of biology and thus must have been created by a designer, is invoking a God of the Gaps, even if the gap it appeals to is so tiny.

But given that sophisticated religious apologists are shying away from admitting to a belief in a God of the Gaps, we can assume that that god, like the Personal God, is also dead, at least as a serious proposition worth debating, although it still has some believers.

The demise of the Personal God and the God of the Gaps as viable candidates leaves standing just the Ultimate Creator God. But as I shall show, here too significant new developments in the theories of evolution and cosmology have dealt devastating blows to its credibility and it is these developments that have laid the intellectual foundations for the powerful arguments of the new atheists, arguments that were not available to earlier generations of atheists.

Next: The death of the Ultimate Creator God

POST SCRIPT: True sporting behavior

As I have said before, I am well and truly disgusted with the lack of graciousness, the downright boorish behavior, that occurs in professional sports.

This heartwarming story shows how people should approach sports. (Thanks to Jesus's General.)

April 30, 2008

The end of god-1: The death of the three classical gods

God is still dead.

More than a hundred years after the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put those famous words "God is dead" into the mouth of one of his characters, implying that the Christian concept of god had become untenable, this statement has become even more true, the point driven home with new evidence from science and relentless logic by the advocates of the so-called 'new atheism'.

Much attention has been paid to the arguments made by the new atheists who have forcefully pointed out that not only are the evidentiary and intellectual foundations for the existence of god and the afterlife weak and shallow, but that religion is itself more of a force for evil than good in the world, either actively so or as an enabler. This group, whose public faces are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, have managed to bring these arguments to the forefront of the public debate.

The basic issue can be identified by the answers to two fundamental questions:

Is there any credible reason to think that god exists in any form? The answer is no.

Even if god is a fiction, does the concept have a net positive utilitarian value that makes it worth preserving? The answer is no.

The next series of posts will flesh out the developments since Nietzsche's time that have provided a more empirical basis for his conclusion.

To anticipate a common objection, it is perhaps necessary to first acknowledge that it is logically impossible to disprove the existence of a god whose properties are carefully defined so as to avoid detection, so believers can always seek refuge in the tiny loophole that logic provides them. But what has become increasingly clear is that to believe in god today is to make a willful decision to go against reason and evidence, and is clearly an irrational act.

The many powerful arguments against the existence of god and in favor of atheism have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. (See my series of posts on the history of western atheism). So what exactly is new about the new atheism that has given it so much force that has enabled it to achieve such prominence?

To answer that question we need to look at the kinds of arguments advanced in favor of the existence of god. There are three different kinds of arguments, each one implying the existence of a different kind of god. In discussing with religious people about the existence of god, it is important to first clarify which god they arguing in favor of because otherwise, as I will discuss later, religious apologists tend to slide from one god to another, making a coherent discussion difficult.

Most of the arguments put forward by most religious people are in favor of the 'Personal God' theory. By pointing to admirable people who happened to be religious and arguing that they were directly influenced by god, by giving personal testimonies of experiencing the presence of god in their lives, by suggesting that singular events (alleged miracles) show god's existence by violating natural laws, appealing to the historical validity of religious texts, arguing that without god there would be no basis for morality or no explanation for altruism, etc., such arguments advance the idea of a peripatetic god who is always active everywhere, listening to each and every person, and responding to some of their prayers. The Personal God is credited with many good things that occur and although allegedly omnipotent, is curiously and inexplicably passive about preventing the many evils that occur on a daily basis.

A subset of Christian believers in the Personal God also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old, that Adam and Eve were real people, that Noah's flood was a historical event, and so on.

The existence of another kind of god (the 'Ultimate Creator God') depends on the argument that it seems reasonable to suppose that for every complex thing in existence, one needs an even more complex thing to design it and bring it into being. Since many aspects of the world are complex, one could extend this argument up a ladder of ever increasingly complex designers and creators to assert that one needs an ultimate grand designer and creator, which is this particular god.

The third god (the 'God of the Gaps') is almost identical to the Ultimate Creator God conceptually, but instead of invoking a chain of causality ending up with god as a prime designer and creator, takes a more direct route by pointing to specific things in nature (such as the human eye, the wings of birds, etc.) that seem (to these believers at least) far too complex to have come about by natural laws and processes, these believers assert that these are exceptions to natural laws and required direct creation by god. In other words, god is not simply an ultimate explanation for all things but is instead an immediate and direct cause for the existence of many things, though far more selective in intervening in worldly affairs than the Personal God. The God of the Gaps is invoked to directly explain the existence of the hitherto otherwise unexplained.

The three kinds of god suggested by these arguments imply very different properties.

The Ultimate Creator God is one who is very hands-off. After initially carefully creating the universe and its laws with the goal of bringing the present form of life into being, he (for the sake of convenience I am going to treat god as being male) is assumed to leave things strictly alone. It is assumed that the Ultimate Creator God wanted, for some reason, to have humans in their present form eventually emerge from the initial cosmic soup, and thus had to carefully fine-tune the laws and initial conditions so that billions of years later conditions would be just right so that this is exactly what would happen. This is actually quite an incredible feat of planning and reverse engineering, but this is god we are talking about so this task is presumably a piece of cake for him.

The God of the Gaps has either inferior engineering skills to the Ultimate Creator God or is one of those perennial tinkerers who is never content with the original plans and ideas and keeps changing things as they go along. Either his initial plans had glitches that failed to produce important developments like the eye or the wings of birds and he had to step in and create them fresh, or such things were not in the initial plans at all and after observing his animal creations crashing into each other, this god suddenly had the brainwave that eyes would be a good eye and retrofitted them.

The Personal God seems to be the most inept of the three, a busybody who is constantly interfering in each and every person's life whether they want it or not. This god is the ultimate micromanager, never sticking to a plan but always stepping in to change things, violating his own rules if need be to achieve some immediate end, answering some prayers while ignoring others, preventing some bad things from happening while allowing colossal evils elsewhere, and creating such disorder and anarchy that it is hopeless to expect to find any pattern or reason in his behavior. As a result, many people just declare his intentions to be inscrutable, surrender their freedom and autonomy to him, and pray for him to tell them what to do about everything. Curiously, it is this seemingly most inept god of the three that most religious people seem to find appealing.

Next: The demise of each god

POST SCRIPT: The scandalous situation in Gaza

Juan Cole describes the inhumane sanctions imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza that is threatening over a million Palestinians with greater hunger.

The Israelis already have the Gaza Strip under military siege, carefully controlling what and who goes in and out of it. They have now cut off most fuel, and the United Nations has been forced to stop distributing food aid.

In addition, the Daily Telegraph reports that "The fuel blockade means pumps have already been turned off, causing water shortages and sewage problems, while the vaccination stocks at Gaza's main hospital were spoiled after it had to turn off its refrigerators."

As Cole comments, "This Israeli government action is an unvarnished war crime. It is known as collective punishment. There was already hunger and malnutrition among Palestinian children, which will now be worsened."