Entries in "New atheism"

September 24, 2010

The accommodationists' best case (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 and Part 2)

Continuing with the case for accommodationism as made by the NAS, on page 37 they describe the other group of believers, those who think that science should conform to revealed religion and their holy books. This group is hostile to science but people who believe these things are politically powerful in the US and need to be placated in some way.

Advocates of the ideas collectively known as "creationism" and, recently, "intelligent design creationism" hold a wide variety of views. Most broadly, a "creationist" is someone who rejects natural scientific explanations of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity. Creationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because, as was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution. Nor is creationism necessarily tied to Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Some non-Christian religious believers also want to replace scientific explanations with their own religion's supernatural accounts of physical phenomena.

On page 39 of the NAS statement, they do not come out and flatly say that these people are wrong. What is done is to say that their claims are outside the realm that science can investigate and thus they can believe them if they want to. The NAS statement even finds ways to treat the claim that the Earth is 6,000 years or so old with deference!

Creationists reject such scientific facts in part because they do not accept evidence drawn from natural processes that they consider to be at odds with the Bible. But science cannot test supernatural possibilities. To young Earth creationists, no amount of empirical evidence that the Earth is billions of years old is likely to refute their claim that the world is actually young but that God simply made it appear to be old. Because such appeals to the supernatural are not testable using the rules and processes of scientific inquiry, they cannot be a part of science.

On page 49, they address the key question of whether evolution and religion are opposing ideas. And of course, their answer is 'no'. They repeat the non-argument that since many scientists are religious and many theologians accept evolution, they must be compatible. They throw in the obligatory criticisms of 'extremists' on both sides, i.e., people who disagree with the accommodationist case.

Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. At the same time, many religious people accept the reality of evolution, and many religious denominations have issued emphatic statements reflecting this acceptance. (For more information, see

To be sure, disagreements do exist. Some people reject any science that contains the word "evolution"; others reject all forms of religion. The range of beliefs about science and about religion is very broad. Regrettably, those who occupy the extremes of this range often have set the tone of public discussions. Evolution is science, however, and only science should be taught and learned in science classes.

On page 54, they address the question of whether science disproves religion. Again, their answer is 'no'. They try to support this answer by trying to carve out areas of knowledge that they claim are outside the realm of science, though tellingly, they do not specify what those areas are. They have to leave that vague because as soon as they specify any area of knowledge (say consciousness or the origin of the universe) as being outside the bounds of science, there would be howls of protest from within their own body from scientists who are working on those very questions. (See Carl Zimmer's article in the New York Times on what they are learning about consciousness as integrated information that can be described in terms of bits.)

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings.

As science continues to advance, it will produce more complete and more accurate explanations for natural phenomena, including a deeper understanding of biological evolution. Both science and religion are weakened by claims that something not yet explained scientifically must be attributed to a supernatural deity. Theologians have pointed out that as scientific knowledge about phenomena that had been previously attributed to supernatural causes increases, a "god of the gaps" approach can undermine faith. Furthermore, it confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of the other.

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator… The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.

To summarize, the NAS's accommodationist argument is as follows:

  1. Divide up religious believers into two groups, those who adapt their religious beliefs to conform to established science and those who try to adapt science to conform to their religious beliefs and texts.
  2. Claim that there is clearly no conflict between the first group and science, since the assumption is that the first group's beliefs are infinitely malleable and able to accommodate all present established science all and future scientific discoveries.
  3. Assert that there is no way to refute any of the claims of the second group either since those beliefs can always be reformulated in ways that involve the actions of 'supernatural' agencies and are thus declared, by fiat, to be outside the realm of scientific investigation which deals with the purely material.

Hence science and religion are supposedly compatible. The problem is, of course, that there are limits to the malleability of the first group. They cannot allow everything to be explained by science since that would make god totally useless. This group is, as we have seen, already balking at the idea that the creation of the universe itself does not require god or that consciousness (and particularly the idea of the soul) has a purely material basis in the brain.

With regards to accommodating the interests of the second group, the NAS has taken a somewhat condescending approach, essentially telling them, "We cannot prove the non-existence of god or any supernatural entity, so you can go ahead and believe in it." It is like allowing little children to believe in Santa Claus, thinking that no harm will come of it. The catch is that these religious beliefs are not harmless. They are anti-science and anti-reason and when such thinking is allowed to propagate unchallenged, they infect everything and result in policies and actions that are harmful.

So the NAS case for accommodationism, which I believe is the best there is, boils down to saying that there are some things science cannot talk about (but does not say what those things are) or that if you bring in god or the supernatural as an explanation for anything, science cannot say you are wrong. That's it.

September 23, 2010

The accommodationists' best case (Part 2 of 3)

(See part 1 here.)

The problem with the attempts by theologians to argue that understanding the 'mystery' of human experience lies outside the realm of science is that tools to better understand how the brain works are already at hand, with ambitious plans to map out all the brain synapses. (Thanks to Machines Like Us for the link.) Since the brain is what creates consciousness, understanding how the brain works is the precursor to understanding how we think and experience. (Those who think that consciousness or the 'soul' exist independently of the brain are of course resorting to Cartesian dualism, that there is a mind-body split, an idea which no serious scientist takes seriously and which even Descartes found difficult to justify.)

Harvard scientists have embarked upon an ambitious program to create a circuit diagram of the human brain, with the help of new machines that automatically turn brain tissue into high-resolution neural maps.

By mapping every synapse in the brain, researchers hope to create a "connectome" -- a diagram that would elucidate the brain's activity at a level of detail far outstripping today's most advanced brain-monitoring tools like fMRI.

"You're going to see things you didn't expect," said Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology. "It gives us an opportunity to witness this vast complicated universe that has been largely inaccessible until now."

A map of the mind's circuitry would allow researchers to see the wiring problems that might underpin disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

"The 'wiring diagram' of the brain could help us understand how the brain computes, how it wires itself up during development and rewires itself in adulthood," said Sebastian Seung, a computational-neuroscience professor at MIT.

Because the scientists of the NAS are well aware of what science is capable of, even the most accommodationist among them are likely to roll their eyes at the kind of arguments that popes and theologians roll out because they know that this is nothing but shameless special pleading. This is why I think the NAS statement is probably the best argument you are likely to get for accommodationism. You can read the full statement here but I will highlight the main excerpts that lays out the case, along with brief commentary on my part.

On page 10, they first explain how science works, highlight its successes, and why it progresses so well:

Scientific knowledge and understanding accumulate from the interplay of observation and explanation. Scientists gather information by observing the natural world and conducting experiments. They then propose how the systems being studied behave in general, basing their explanations on the data provided through their experiments and other observations. They test their explanations by conducting additional observations and experiments under different conditions. Other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies that may lead to more sophisticated explanations and predictions about future observations and experiments. In these ways, scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature…. In this way, the sophistication and scope of scientific explanations improve over time, as subsequent generations of scientists, often using technological innovations, work to correct, refine, and extend the work done by their predecessors.

On page 12, they begin the delicate, but necessary, task for accommodationists, of separating religious believers into two groups: those sophisticated believers who try and make their religious beliefs conform to established science (especially evolution) and those so-called 'fundamentalists' who try to make science conform to their religious beliefs and texts. The first group is seen as important political allies for science. They also bring in the idea that there exist scientists and theologians who believe there is no conflict between science and religion which, although true, is not really an argument for the compatibility of the two worldviews.

Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth's history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

In order to accommodate the interests of this group, the NAS needs to find some space for religion to maneuver while not interfering with science. So they resurrect the tired and untenable 'two worlds' model in which science and religion are supposed to provide answers to different questions.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

On page 15 they trot out a quote by Francis Collins, head of the NIH and former director of the Human Genome Project and perhaps the most high-profile scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, who says in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 6): "In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul."

You can see immediately the kind of wooly language and thinking that occurs when religious people enter the discussion. What exactly does Collins mean when he says that some things must be 'examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul'? What I think he means is that you should leave out reason and stop using your brain, because he knows that reason is incompatible with religious belief. (I provided a detailed critique of Collins's truly awful book some time ago.)

Next in this series: Continuing the examination of the NAS's case.

September 22, 2010

The accommodationists' best case (Part 1 of 3)

I have written quite a lot about the conflict between those who say that science and religion are incompatible worldviews (referred to as unapologetic or new atheists) and those who say they are compatible (known as accommodationists).

I definitely belong to the first group. On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite body of scientists in the US, that has gone out of its way to make the accommodationist case. This is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that a whopping 93% of NAS members express "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God." The NAS lays out its accommodationist case most clearly in a 2008 publication called Science, Evolution, and Creationism that is free and online.

Why would people whose own deep study of science has clearly resulted in disbelief go out of their way to assure religious believers that science does not exclude god? I suspect that they fear that if the public concludes that science is inherently atheistic, this will result in reduced financial support for science. Science in the US is heavily dependent on public financing allocated by the Congress and the White House, both or which are fearful of religious voters. He who pays the piper calls the tune and some scientists do not want to alienate those upon whom they depend for support of research.

That does not mean that I think these scientists are cynically saying things they don't believe. There are many skeptics and unbelievers in both the scientific community and the general public who genuinely do believe that the case for some form of compatibility between science and religion can be made, and the NAS has them too. I think they are mistaken in this belief but the case they make for accommodationism is as good as anything you are likely to get anywhere. My point is that there was no imperative for the NAS to take a stand on either side of this issue. It could have simply advocated for good science and left this particular debate to its individual members to participate in. The fact that they felt obliged, as an organization, to weigh in on the accommodationist side is what I think reflects a political calculation.

I believe that the best case for accommodationism is that made by the NAS, because it consists purely of scientists. What you don't want to do in these discussions is include theologians and other religious believers because they end up saying absurd things like 'god exists outside of space and time' or that 'god works through the uncertainty principle' or that 'god must exist in order to produce something out of nothing' or to 'god is necessary to provide meaning to the universe and our existence'. Scientists generally cringe at such arguments, rightly seeing them as relics of outdated philosophical thinking that have no relevance in the light of modern science.

As examples of the woolly thinking that emerges when theologians get into the discussion, consider these statements by current Pope Ratzinger and his predecessor Pope John Paul II on the science-religion conflict. Popes don't usually issue formal statements on such controversial topics until they have been thoroughly vetted by their top theologians, so these usually represent their most sophisticated thinking.

Pope Ratzinger, at a meeting on Monday, January 28, 2008 of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences tried to put limits to science by saying that it cannot address the 'mystery' of human existence.

Pope Benedict warned Monday of the "seductive" powers of science that overpower man's spirituality, reviving the science-versus-religion debate which recently forced him to cancel a speech after student protests.

"In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it's more important than ever to educate our contemporaries' consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness," he told scientists.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by "research into anthropology, philosophy and theology" to give insight into "man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going", the Pope said.

"Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions," he told a meeting of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Even earlier Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, titled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, also tried to put on limits to science by saying pretty much the same thing, invoking the mystery of human consciousness.

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.

The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is "the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake"… It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God… Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator's plans. (my emphasis)

What these popes and other religious apologists are trying to do is shift the discussion away from empirical evidence and back to philosophy, where they think they have a chance of holding their own. They do not realize that while philosophy is undoubtedly invaluable in helping us think clearly and use language more precisely, it has become marginal to the study of scientific and empirical questions, even big ones such as the origin of the universe.

Next: What does the NAS actually say?

January 01, 2010

A wish for the New Year: A world without religion

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

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

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

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

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

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion is based on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we believe true knowledge is to be preferred to false knowledge. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc. All of them claim to provide a benefit (perhaps just emotional and psychological) to their followers, just like religion does, but few observers would argue that that reason alone is sufficient to shield them from criticism.

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

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

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do family, friends, 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?)

There is not a single good moral principle that modern civilized societies can be proud of that an atheist cannot subscribe to. But there are many despicable practices that religions espouse and practice as part of their doctrines (such as discrimination against women, homosexuals, and people of other religions) and that being a believer in good standing requires one to subscribe to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 05, 2009

Introducing the 'Unapologetic Atheist'

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

The term 'new atheists' has been used to describe those people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens who have called for an end to the undue deference paid to religious beliefs and have a leveled a broadside attack on all religious beliefs, not just those of so-called fundamentalists. They (and I) argue that statements of religious beliefs should be treated like any other propositions and subject to the same level of scrutiny. The fact that such beliefs are deeply held by many people is no reason for giving them a pass, any more than we would give a pass to beliefs about astrology or homeopathy or crystal-ball gazing or any other evidence-free superstition.

But the label 'new atheism' does not sit well with some 'new atheists' because it is seen as inaccurate. After all, there is nothing really new in the arguments of the new atheism, except in so far as new science is making the god hypothesis increasingly superfluous. And many of the 'new atheists' have been atheists for almost all their adult lives and are not recent disbelievers.

In a previous post titled Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry, I said that what really distinguishes the so-called 'new atheists' from other atheists (such as those who are labeled accommodationists) is that the new atheists do not feel the need to feel sorry about their unbelief, as if it were something they should not have or would prefer not to have. The expected behavior of atheists seems to be that they should go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize." This is an absurd expectation.

In a comment to that post, 'Wonderist' made the excellent suggestion that instead of the term 'new atheist', we should use the term 'unapologetic atheist', and that what we advocate is 'unapologetics' to counter the 'apologetics' of religious believers. In further comments to that same post, he says that looking around the web, the term 'new atheist' originally had a somewhat neutral meaning but later began to be applied by accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse in a negative way by implying that it carried with it all the old stereotypes of atheists being arrogant, rude, uncivil, etc.

Wonderist's idea makes a lot of logical sense but I am not certain that this term will catch on. For starters, it will have to be picked up by more prominent people and repeated in more prominent media to gain traction. Wonderist says in his comments that he has made a start in this direction by triggering discussions elsewhere on various sites and the feedback seems to have been positive so far.

Simply from a marketing standpoint, there is some advantage to staying with the word 'new'. The word new has very positive connotations, despite its vagueness and inaccuracy. It is short and snappy. 'Unapologetic' is undoubtedly more accurate but it has two major disadvantages: it is six syllables long, and is defined negatively, as not something else or opposite to something else. These may or may not be fatal flaws to its final adoption. As I value accuracy more than marketing, I am going to start using the label 'unapologetic atheist' unless 'new atheist' is required by the context.

There are many ways that this could go. Control over the meaning of the term 'new atheists' may be taken over by those to whom the term is applied and branded positively, the way that the gay community took the formerly pejorative word 'queer' and are starting to make it their own. The word 'feminist' is currently undergoing a similar struggle for meaning with feminists trying to retain the positive meaning of the word from those who are trying to make it into a negative stereotype.

The ownership of 'new atheist' is up for grabs. While advocating for the label of 'unapologetic', I think we should not cede control of the term 'new atheist' to those who want to use it pejoratively. We should use it positively and proudly and make people realize that it in this context, new is just a synonym for unapologetic.

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September 16, 2009

Atheism has won the debate

I think it should be clear to any thinking person that atheism has won. Not in terms of numbers, of course. People who call themselves religious still heavily outnumber those who say they are atheists, though the gap is closing. In a future post I will argue that the gap is closer than the raw numbers indicate but this post is about how atheists have clearly won the debate over whether it makes sense to believe that god exists.

The evidence for this is that religious intellectuals have pretty much given up on a god that has even a remote resemblance to what the word usually conjures up, and have instead created a faux god that merely provides them with a metaphor of transcendence to cling on to.

One can see this in the problem faced by religious intellectuals like H. E. Baber and Robert Wright. They are forced to agree with the atheist position that a god who intervenes in any way in the working of the universe is incompatible with a scientific worldview, since they realize that abandoning methodological naturalism puts them in bed with the religious crazies. But for whatever reason they are reluctant to call themselves atheists, so they are forced to invent the Slacker God to whom they can pledge allegiance and thus retain their religious credentials.

More evidence of the intellectual rout of religion can be seen in the September 11, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to contribute a pair of articles on the topic Man vs. God. Each person apparently knew the other was writing but did not see their essay.

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun and a religious apologist who has written a huge number of books on comparative religion. Dawkins, of course, needs no introduction.

One should really read Armstrong's entire essay to fully appreciate the smokescreen of language that tries to hide modern theology's retreat in the face of science. I will quote just a small piece of it that captures the unenviable position that people like her and Baber and Wright find themselves in as a result of their need to simultaneously cling on to scientific respectability while not abandoning religion entirely.

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.

All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

So there we are. As far as Armstrong I concerned, the god that most people can recognize has disappeared, to be replaced by a Zen-like aesthetic, an art form that provides an experience similar to the appreciation of poetry or music or painting. She goes so far as to equate god with nirvana, the Buddhists' belief in a state of nonbeing that one supposedly enters if one manages to break free of the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

Dawkins, of course, has heard all this mush before and ruthlessly demolishes it. Being 'rude' and 'uncivil' as he is, he does not try to pretend that the position of Armstrong and others like her makes any sense but instead clinically dissects her argument to reveal that at its core is – nothing.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.

This is why I say that atheists have won. The sophisticated religious apologists have essentially conceded the argument and retreated to a small corner of the religious world that is cut off from that of the vast majority of religious believers. They are atheists in all but name.

POST SCRIPT: What happens when theology gets too sophisticated for its own good

Jesus and Mo weigh in on Karen Armstrong's view of god.

September 15, 2009

Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry

The main complaint against new atheists made by accommodationists is not with what they say but with how they say it, their supposedly hostile 'tone'. They are accused of being rude, uncivil, arrogant, extreme, militant, shrill, strident, etc. but it is important to note that they are rarely accused of being wrong. This is undoubtedly because evidence and logic is on the side of those who claim that there is no god and that to believe in one is incompatible with a scientific worldview. Believers in god have to go through all manner of tortuous apologetics to argue in favor of even a Slacker God, let alone the super-powered miracle worker believed in by most religious people.

It is undoubtedly true that in the public sphere some atheists (including me) have made fun of some of the more preposterous claims of religion. In fact, in some situations laughing is the most appropriate response, as recognized by Thomas Jefferson when he said, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." For example, what can you do about the 'nutters' other than laugh at them? The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo makes much the same point.

But pointing out the ridiculous implications of an opponent's argument is part of the polemical nature of public debate on any issue. It is no different than religious people confidently asserting that there is a god and that we atheists are going to hell or at least are 'not saved', whatever that means. As an atheist my feelings are not at all hurt and neither am I offended by such assertions. Why should I be since I don't believe in god or hell? From my point of view, such claims are merely laughable. Similarly, religious friends and relatives sometimes send me jokes that make fun of atheism and atheists. If the jokes are funny, I am amused. If not, it is just a few moments of time wasted. But there is nothing to be offended about.

New atheists are urged by fellow atheists like Massimo Pigliucci to be 'measured and humble' (in the manner of Carl Sagan) and not use the 'angry and inflated rhetoric' of Richard Dawkins. A new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton supposedly attacks the new atheists. In a review of it, James Wood (a self-described atheist) suggests that "What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief."

I think the terms 'humble' and 'disappointed belief' used by Pigliucci and Wood are important clues to what complaints about 'tone' are all about. The problem is that new atheists treat the statements "religion and science are compatible" and "if we get rid of their fundamentalist elements, religion is worth preserving" as merely propositions that can be examined dispassionately and analytically, using evidence and arguments for and against, similar to other propositions like "increasing the minimum wage will reduce poverty" or "increased carbon dioxide levels will increase the risk of global warming."

The new atheists conclude that both propositions about religion are untenable. Hence they say that religion and science are incompatible and that so-called 'good' religion encourages irrationality and also serves as a cover and enabler of bad religion and thus that we would be better off without religion altogether. They report their conclusions in the same matter-of-fact way that they would their conclusions about the minimum wage or global warming or any other proposition.

Wood, however, sees this as displaying "overweening rationalism" instead of "disappointed belief". It seems as if in order to be a 'good' atheist one has to feel bad about not believing in god. We are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize."

The absurdity of this expectation can be seen by looking at comparable situations that do not involve religion. Einstein, for example, was not accused of "overweening rationalism" and being arrogant when he introduced his theory of relativity that overturned centuries of belief in the validity of Newtonian physics. It would have been absurd to expect Einstein to have prefaced his papers with statements like, "I know that almost all people sincerely believe in Newtonian physics and may be really upset when I say that it is not valid. This makes me sad. However, the theory of relativity is just my personal belief and I think it is compatible with Newtonian physics and so people can choose to believe in both theories."

Instead, Einstein simply laid out his arguments and evidence as strongly as possible in order to convince people that he was right, which is exactly as it should be. Whether it would be accepted or not by the community at large depended on whether it was supported by the evidence or not. The level of emotional attachment that people had for Newtonian physics undoubtedly influenced how readily they adopted the new physics but Einstein was under no obligation whatsoever to soften his arguments to accommodate those emotions.

New atheists treat propositions about religion in the same dispassionate way. They are no more displaying 'overweening rationalism' and lack of humility than Einstein was. Why should the emotional attachment of religious people to the idea of god be accorded any more solicitousness that those of Newtonians to their theory?

What really seems to irk some people is that new atheists are not at all apologetic or regretful about their atheism. New atheists are cheerful about the nonexistence of god and do not hesitate to say so because they would like others to experience the same exhilarating sense of intellectual liberation.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on Jonah and the whale

God explains all the careful preparatory work that had to be done to pull off that stunt, and the unfortunate aftermath that the Bible neglected to report.

September 04, 2009

Why Carl Sagan is considered a 'good' atheist

There is no doubt that the new atheists have ruffled the feathers of both religious believers and the accommodationists. But since the new atheists are on solid ground in their rejection of god, with science and logic undeniably supporting their position, the opposition to them often takes the form of chiding them for being supposedly belligerent in expressing their views. They sometimes get asked, in effect, why can't you be more like that nice Mr. Carl Sagan and speak more softly about your skepticism and not offend believers?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer at Cornell University, a prolific author, host of TV shows, and a well-known popularizer of science who in his day was easily the most publicly recognizable face of science. He had an easy and engaging manner and the ability to explain science in laymen's terms.

While he was clearly not a religious person, his views on religion and the way he expressed them are frequently brought up in discussions on the best way to deal with religious people. He is frequently held up as the model for a 'good' disbeliever, someone who can speak of his non-belief without antagonizing religious believers, in contrast to the supposedly unruly and uncivil 'new atheists'.

Consider what Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and also an atheist, said recently when reviewing Sagan's book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist, which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Sagan’s tone is always measured and humble, and yet he delivers (metaphorically) mortal blow after mortal blow to the religious in his audience.

Carl Sagan made the same strong arguments against god and religion the new atheists do, something that Pigliucci also concedes. And yet, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other new atheists are invariably described as bad atheists, while Sagan is classified as a good atheist. What is the difference? What is it exactly that makes him 'measured and humble'?

Picking up on my earlier post about the good atheist/bad atheist split, there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a 'good' atheist.

Pigliucci suggests that a 'measured and humble' tone is one quality. But what makes an atheist 'measured and humble'? Is it a willingness to concede that science and religion are compatible? This means a good atheist is one who is also an accommodationist. A bad atheist is one who isn't willing to make this concession. But as one who cheerfully wears the mantle of a bad atheist, I don't see why we should concede this point, since we think that at the heart of religious beliefs lies a deeply anti-scientific core. We don't disagree with accommodationism in order to be unpleasant. We do so because we think accommodationism is wrong.

Another way to be classified as a 'good atheist' is to declare yourself to be an agnostic, the way that Charles Darwin did. Sagan has similarly said, "My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic." Sagan seems to have bought into the notion that atheists are certain that there is no god, saying in an interview, "An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God."

But as I have written before, that attitude reveals a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes atheism. What is true is that an atheist realizes that one cannot be logically certain there is no god. But at the same time he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They see no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason.

As far as I can tell, Sagan (and Darwin before him) was as functionally certain that no god exists as I or any other atheist, whatever he might have chosen to call himself. But religious people are more comfortable with people who call themselves agnostics because it is assumed that agnostics think that belief in god is plausible, thus making them accommodationists too. Thus a claim of agnosticism does not pose a direct challenge to their religious beliefs.

Is that all that distinguishes a 'good' atheist from a bad one? I think that there is a deeper reason that I will explore in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified

Mr. Deity explains why Jesus rode a donkey for his big entrance into Jerusalem.

September 03, 2009

The Church of the Slacker God

In the previous two posts that dealt with what accommodationists believe (here and here), I examined Robert Wright's attempt to resurrect a theology that will likely only appeal to that minuscule group of intellectuals who want to preserve their scientific credibility (which belief in an interventionist deity absolutely destroys) while at the same time satisfy their inexplicable need to think that there is some powerful supernatural entity out there, even if that entity does absolutely nothing. Biologist Jerry Coyne, in response to a similar attempt at accommodationism by philosopher H. E. Baber, has accurately dubbed this entity a 'slacker God', akin to someone who has immense talent and abilities and resources, yet chooses to live the life of a bum.

So we should really think of 'accommodationists' as 'worshippers in The Church of the Slacker God.'

But this raises the question of why intellectuals like Wright and Baber so desperately want to belong to such a church, which frankly does not seem to offer much to its parishioners. After all, it rules out answers to prayers, miracles, heaven, and all the other goodies that entice believers to join the more mainstream churches, even though those goodies never actually materialize. How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests. Is it likely that Catholics would have shelled out the billions of dollars that enables the Pope to live in luxury if the Catholic Church had merely promised in return little more than a Zen-like experience?

Why do religious intellectuals like Baber and Wright feel the need to find reasons to believe in the existence of such a slacker god? Cynics have suggested that the lucrative Templeton prize that is given to those who try to reconcile science and religion is a powerful incentive to gloss over the unbridgeable chasm that separates the two worldsviews. At least that is what Jesus and Mo think.

But obviously only a very, very few are in the running for such a prize. While the total membership in the Church of the Slacker God cannot be that large (after all, how many religious people would find such a noninterventionist god appealing?) it is not vanishingly small either. But since the members are usually high-level intellectuals with access to a mass media sympathetic to their point of view, they can command a high public profile out of proportion to their numbers.

But the Church of the Slacker God, like all churches, has to deal with heretics. In this case the heretics are those who think that their god is not quite the slacker that people like Wright and Baber envisage. Some heretics like biologist Kenneth Miller, author of the book Finding Darwin's God, try to find ways for the Slacker God to intervene in the world without being detected. The favorite vehicle for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Such heretics share the strange belief that god needs and wants to act in the world and yet does not want to be detected doing so, and thus has to go to extraordinary lengths to hide his actions by creating laws that enable him to surreptitiously intervene.

Why does god go to all that trouble, you ask? Pose that question to believers and you will receive the favorite cop-out answer given whenever believers are posed the question of why their god behaves in such weird ways: God acts this way for reasons that our puny human minds cannot comprehend at least at this stage in time and so the reasons must remain mysterious until he thinks we are ready to receive this knowledge. There is no real answer that can be given to this except to point out that they seem to have extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the reasons for god's behavior even while they claim that god wants us to remain ignorant.

But there are even greater heretics like mathematician John Lennox, physicist John Polkinghorne, biologist Francis Collins, and author C. S. Lewis, all of whom start out by claiming fidelity to the doctrines of The Church of the Slacker God, but then abruptly switch and say they believe, among other things, that god resurrected Jesus from the dead, thus destroying his slacker cred.

What is interesting is that all the Western followers of the Slacker God seem to get their beliefs about god ultimately from the Bible, a book that unquestionably was written by people a long time ago who had their own agenda and were not at all followers of the Slacker God. What these intellectuals have done, following theologian Rudolf Bultmann, is de-mythologize the Bible, steadily stripping away every magical element that makes their god a god. But once that process is complete, instead of conceding that there is nothing left, they give the remaining emptiness the name of god and claim existence for it, a classic reification error.

William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes in the famous 'Monkey Trial' of 1925, was much more tough-minded than modern day accommodationists. He knew where this process of demythologizing would end and he was having none of it.

If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible…If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural - the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man. (God and Evolution, New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84, emphasis added)

His conclusion? "Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism."

It is fashionable now to reject Bryan as a fundamentalist anti-science zealot, even a stupid buffoon. But Bryan was smart enough to realize that once one accepted the theory of evolution, one ought to follow its implications through to their logical end. Since he did not like the atheistic conclusion he arrived at, his solution was to reject the premise, which was the theory of evolution itself.

By contrast, the members of The Church of the Slacker God, and even its heretics, say they embrace the theory of evolution by natural selection and all that that follows from it, but shrink from accepting the ultimate conclusion they arrive at that god is superfluous and thus can be rejected with no loss. Seeing no other way out of this impasse, they tack on an ad hoc ending, simply asserting that they believe in god anyway. They lack the logical consistency of Bryan.

But why bother to do all this? Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.


POST SCRIPT: Who are you calling a slacker?

In this Mr. Deity clip that I have shown earlier, God and Jesus explain to their assistant Larry the real reason they stopped intervening in the world.

September 02, 2009

The irrational core of accommodationism

In the previous post, I said that Robert Wright's attempt at a compromise between accommodationists and new atheists is likely to be rejected by most religious believers because it requires them to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god, such as that he has magical powers.

Meanwhile what are atheists supposed to do as part of his grand bargain? His early hint that we should accept some notions of "higher purpose" pretty much gives the game away. According to the gospel of Wright later in his article, we are supposed to "acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection's intrinsic creative power — something they've been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god."

Wright's compromise is going to be a nonstarter with new atheists also. Although he has phrased it as if it were a tiny concession, what he wants atheists to do is give up atheism and accept god's existence. Even though he has just said that god is not necessary to understand how the world works, he want us to concede that god exists just because it is logically possible to reconcile some rarefied, noninterventionist form of god with science. This is what all accommodationists invariably end up saying. And as usual with accommodationists, he resorts to calling 'militant' and 'strident' those of us who don't see the point in accepting the existence of some thing merely because it is allowed logically. (Steven Pinker, by contrast, is described by Wright as a 'contented' atheist' because he says some things about the origins of the moral sense that might be construed as supporting Wright's views.)

Wright makes the same logical error, made by so many apologists for god, of not distinguishing how to judge the validity of existence claims from those of universal claims, a flaw I have pointed out before. An existence claim (which is what Wright is making about god) requires positive evidence in its favor in order to be taken seriously, not merely protection from logical disqualification.

Another attempt at accommodationism is that of H. E. Baber, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and author of an article in the London Guardian newspaper. As usual with religious intellectuals, she begins by distancing herself from the wacky religious fundamentalists who believe in a god who is a peripatetic busybody who interferes everywhere all the time.

[L]ike most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live. (emphasis added)

Sound's good to me. I agree with her 100% so far. So why does she call herself a Christian and not an atheist? As she herself says, "Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values." Biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution is True, gives the right answer to her question of "What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?" by saying that, if you had any brains, you'd answer "none." (His post has a terrific title that says it all: What good is a slacker God?)

But Baber, like all religious intellectuals, shrinks from the obvious conclusion that her reasoning powers have led her to, and tries to find reasons as to why she should still believe in any god at all, let alone the Christian god, in the process inevitably sinking slowly into the logical quicksand that engulfs theology whenever it has deal with modern science. Here's how she starts her descent into the logical morass.

Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent.

Really? A conscious being who is not corporeal? A god who is both omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all? Coyne's description of this as a 'slacker God' is becoming more and more apt. Mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out that believing that god is both omnipotent and omniscient leads to an immediate contradiction:

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He'd predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can't be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008, p. 41.)

But that's not all. Baber then digs herself in deeper. In explaining why she is still a believer, she shifts from a god who is a 'conscious being' (and you can't get more real than that) to a god who is nothing more than an idea, a kind of Platonic ideal, in people's minds.

God is an object of contemplation… I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

That’s what’s in it for me.

So in the same essay she says she believes in a god who is both (a) a conscious being who is omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all, and (b) an asymptotic idea to be contemplated by humans for his beauty, glory, and power, kind of like Donald Trump but with better hair.

Only a religious intellectual could say such things with a straight face and only because they have become so accustomed to the fact that as long as they say something that advocates the existence of god or puts god in a positive light, no one will point out that it either makes no sense or has no content. As Carl Sagan said in Broca's Brain:

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

That about sums it up.

(Next: The church of the accommodationists)

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Dara O'Brien on the prevalence of irrational ideas

September 01, 2009

The accommodationists try again

Robert Wright is a science writer and one of those accommodationists who is disturbed by the new atheists, people who say that science and religion are incompatible. He, like many accommodationists before him, wants to build a bridge between science and religion.

He has written a book The Evolution of God in which he argues that our image of god has evolved depending on the needs of society at any given time. For example, when times seemed to require that a tribe ruthlessly destroy its perceived enemies, the god that emerged was the jealous, vengeful, murderous, genocidal god so favored by Pat Robertson, John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and the assorted end-timers. When times required peaceful co-existence, god became the love-thy-neighbor type now propagated by mainstream religions. Hence religious texts like the Bible that are accumulations of texts written over various times contain all these contradictory views of god.

All that is fine and dandy and uncontroversial. Once you accept that god is a human creation, it makes sense that the nature of that creation will sway with the prevailing political and social currents.

But Wright, like all accommodationists, shrinks from going all the way with this idea of god as purely a human invention. He wants to retain an independent existence for some kind of god but also wants to retain his scientific credibility. So he adopts the usual accommodationist strategy of blaming 'extremists' on both sides for creating a split between science and religion: On the one hand are the religious fundamentalists who insert god into those areas that are supposedly the proper domain of science, and on the other are the new atheists who say that the idea of god is totally superfluous and can be dispensed with.

As he says in a New York Times op-ed published on August 22, 2009:

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

Oh, these silly extremists, always causing trouble by being so stubborn. But not to worry! Wright has the solution, which he announces with great fanfare: "I bring good news!" The problem, as he sees it, is that both sides make the common mistake of underestimating natural selection’s creative power. All it requires to reach a consensus solution is for the extremists on both sides to each make some teensy-weensy concessions. What are they?

Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of "higher purpose" are compatible with scientific materialism.

Let's see how Wright unpacks these two prescriptions for peaceful coexistence, starting with what he requires of religious believers:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever.

If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic. (emphasis added)

So as part of this grand bargain, he wants religious believers to give up the idea that god intervenes periodically in nature to create organisms or moral sensibilities or anything else, and instead accept that natural selection can do all that heavy lifting all by itself, and was designed to do so right from the beginning.

In other words, Wright is postulating a teleological (i.e. goal directed) view of evolution. He seems to be saying that this far-sighted god inserted into the natural selection algorithm itself everything that was necessary to eventually and inevitably produce some sort of sentient beings at least approximating humans that would have something like our moral sensibilities that gave us the ability to perceive what we now do about the existence of god. This is why the world seems to work perfectly well as if there is no god but god still exists.

This idea is not new. The lack of directionality and intentionality of natural selection was troubling back in Darwin's time and led to the theory of orthogenesis, which suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983). But that view has long been rejected by almost all biologists as being incompatible with what we know about how evolution works, which is by natural selection acting on random mutations as a result of selection pressures. One does not need to postulate a hidden greater purpose or a hidden mechanism to produce the results that evolution did, so Wright's requirement that god had to insert that mechanism is superfluous.

What Wright is postulating is something between strict deism (where god created the universe and its laws without any idea of what would happen subsequently, letting the chips fall where they may), and intelligent design creationism (where god has to directly intervene and nudge things along at critical intervals to get the results he wants). In other words, Wright creates 'intelligent design lite' that (to him, at least) tastes great and is less filling.

I suspect that most religious people will find that Wright's compromise, as far as they are concerned, tastes lousy and not at all satisfying because he requires religious believers to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god. As biologist Jerry Coyne says in the course of a detailed critique of Wright's article:

[T]his scenario doesn't offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there's nothing "mystical or immaterial going on, what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those "mystical phenomena"? As many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn't actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

But I'll leave those problems to the religious people to deal with. In the next post, I'll look at what he wants from us new atheists. (Sneak preview: Wright is wrong there too.)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why ignorance is bliss

God tries to persuade Lucy (Lucifer) that it is good that people take solace in believing in magic, and why knowledge is bad and curiosity about how things work is to be discouraged. Note at the beginning that Lucy is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

August 20, 2009

The crying game

On Tuesday, I wrote about my discussion with the Cleveland Freethinkers group. Today I want to spend some time on the issue of the Christian woman at the meeting who, right in the middle of a lively discussion on the relative merits of the accommodationist versus the new atheist positions, suddenly and tearfully interjected an extended statement about her strong belief in Jesus based on some unspecified personal experience.

While we were sympathetic with her and treated her outburst gently, it is precisely this kind of reaction that is used by religious believers to shut down criticisms of their beliefs. I am not suggesting that this was a devious plan of the woman in question. In fact, I think she was being genuine and spontaneous. But it is symptomatic of the problem of frankly discussing religion. Religious people have become so used to their views being given undue deference that they cannot deal with having them clinically analyzed and thus become upset.

When someone tearfully says in the midst of a rational discussion on science and religion that "I truly believe that Jesus is my savior" or gives as the basis of some crackpot belief (like the Earth is 6,000 years old) that this is what his faith tells him is true, and is clearly upset because the rest of us are not taking such beliefs seriously, what are we supposed to do? What has been expected of us in the past, and which is what I am afraid that the accommodationist position encourages, is to treat such outbursts as either a sensible contribution to the conversation and try and soothe the person's wounded feelings or change the subject to avoid having to contradict someone's sincerely held beliefs, thus effectively ending the discussion. This is precisely how religious beliefs have shielded themselves, by expecting us to accommodate the emotional beliefs and feelings of religious people, and treating them as things that cannot be directly challenged.

What we should really do when people say such things is say something like "Good for you! But what you sincerely believe in the absence of any credible evidence is not really pertinent to this discussion, so let's move on, shall we?" In essence that is what the Cleveland Freethinkers group eventually did, although they took some time to do so because initially it was taken aback and spent some time trying to cater to the feelings of the Christian and not hurt them

The philosopher Richard Rorty grappled with this same question in a 1994 essay titled Religion as Conversation-stopper that I wrote about earlier. Rorty says that the silence that usually accompanies someone's fervent statement about their religious beliefs "masks the group's inclination to say, 'So what? We weren't discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don't bother us with matters that are not our concern.' This would be my own inclination in such a situation."

I think that is precisely what happened at the Freethinker's meeting. The Christian's outburst hijacked the discussion away from general policy to solicitousness for her feelings. Most of us clearly felt that the Christian woman's testimony was not relevant but struggled to find ways to tell her so without making her cry even more, thus taking time away from the main focus.

What happened is the religious equivalent of what has been sarcastically referred to within the feminist movement as the 'white woman's tears' phenomenon, "the tendency of race and gender discussions among feminists to be derailed by white women into the pain the discussion is causing non-POC [person of color]." It is elaborated on in this poem by Native American poet Chrystos in the context of internal struggles within the feminist community.

That is precisely the response that we new atheists get when we criticize all forms of religion, moderate and fundamentalist. When we do so, the feelings of religionists are hurt and they start to cry. Not literally of course in the case of sophisticated religious moderates, because that would look obviously whiny and pathetic. Instead they cry in a metaphorical sense, by leveling the charge that the new atheists are 'contemptuous' of other people's beliefs or 'militant' or 'rude' or 'extreme' or 'shrill' or 'strident' or 'obnoxious' or similar epithets.

These charges are rarely backed up with concrete examples of such alleged bad behavior or language, or that it is any more common than the disdain with which atheists are routinely portrayed by religious people. Their function is once again to seek to shift the discussion away from the credibility of religion and to soothing the wounded feelings of the person claiming to be aggrieved by the allegedly harsh rhetoric against religion, and to make the new atheists apologetic and on the defensive. The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say about this.


Sorry, but new atheists have caught on to this crying game rhetorical gambit and it is not working any more. This does not mean that we will simply dismiss those who get upset but it is not going to mute us. The new atheists are here to stay and will continue to make their critiques of religion because the fact that science and religion are incompatible is backed by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence and logical arguments in its favor, while religious apologetics and theology is becoming increasingly desperate in its special pleading.

Religious moderates are just going to have to suck it up and deal with criticisms of their beliefs like adults.

POST SCRIPT: The Thinking Atheist gives us The Story of Suzie

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

August 18, 2009

Dealing with religious believers

Last Friday I was invited to speak to a group of Cleveland Freethinkers. I chose to speak about the new phase of the science-religion war. The old phase dealt with opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools and ended (more or less) with the drubbing that the intelligent design creationism forces received in the Dover trial in 2005. (Shameless plug coming up! My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom deals with this war and will appear in September.)

The new war is between two groups who were on the same pro-evolution side in the old war, the so-called 'accommodationists' (those who either believe that science and moderate forms of religion are compatible or that even if incompatible, the incompatibility should not be pointed out for fear of offending the sensibilities of moderate religionists) and the so-called 'new atheists' (those who think that science and religion are incompatible and have no hesitation in saying so).

The accommodationist position is nicely satirized by the cartoon below from the website Jesus and Mo, a terrific comic strip that features Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses as buddies and roommates conniving to foist their religions on their respective believers, and sometimes engaging with an unseen atheist barmaid. You really should visit the site regularly because it wittily captures much of the absurdity of religious apologetics.


After speaking for about 20 minutes or so explaining what this science-religion war entailed and advocating for the new atheist approach, I opened up the floor for discussion and a lively one ensued, debating the merits of the two approaches with arguments given in favor of both sides.

Then, in the middle of the discussion, a woman who had hitherto been quiet spoke up and said that she had listened to everyone and that it was clear that most (if not all) those present were skeptics of some sort but that she herself was a devout Christian who had been through much personal trouble (she implied that some of that involved recovery from a serious illness) and that she believed in Jesus and the Bible and had been blessed by him, and that all of us too should realize that we too had been blessed by him. She was clearly emotionally invested in what she said because she started to cry and had to wipe away tears several times.

The group was taken aback by this unexpected turn of the conversation and gave her the floor to let her fully have her say. They did not challenge or contradict or even interrupt her. When she was done with her extended comments, several people gently said that they could understand where she was coming from but that she should realize that the kinds of personal experiences that were meaningful to her may not be equally so to others who sought more empirical evidence for their beliefs.

After some time, the conversation returned to its original focus of which approach one should take, the accommodationist or the new atheist, and in the process we discussed what light, if any, might be shed on this topic by scientific theories such as quantum mechanics and the indeterminancy principle.

Although I claim to be a new atheist, I too did not directly challenge the devout Christian's beliefs, which might seem to make me an accommodationist in practice. But there is really no contradiction. As I have explained before, there is a difference in the way that one deals with people's religious beliefs in the private sphere and in the public sphere. I have no hesitation in the public sphere, which includes public talks like my initial remarks to the Cleveland Freethinkers group, of saying that I think that there is no rational basis for believing in god. I can be, and often am, quite uncompromising in my critiques of religion, not indulging in the polite fiction that some religious beliefs are credible or that the beliefs of religious people have some sort of immunity from criticism. But in the private sphere, which is what the discussion became when the Christian spoke to me and the rest of the group about her deeply held personal beliefs, one has to handle things differently.

In this particular case, the public/private line was not easy to draw because the group was about 30 people seated in a room in an informal setting. But I think the group as a whole was able to navigate that line, which speaks well for their sensibilities. I think the devout Christian was made to feel at ease and even welcome, even as it was clear that most of the people did not share her beliefs. But there is a disturbing undercurrent to such emotional outbursts by religious people that I will address in a fresh post later this week.

The Cleveland Freethinkers is a lively and friendly group that, as you can see, welcomes and accepts people with all kinds of beliefs. You can learn more about their meetings here.

POST SCRIPT: Why are there four conflicting gospels?

God tries to explain to Jesus how there came to be four different scripts for the part Jesus is to play on Earth.

June 30, 2009

More on the new atheist-accommodationist split

As I wrote last week, quite a scuffle has broken out between the so-called 'accommodationists' (who feel that we should not offend 'liberal' religious people by pointing out that science and religion are incompatible) and the so-called 'new atheists' (who feel that this accommodationist strategy has been pursued for a long time with no success and should be abandoned).

New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and others have argued that there is no justification for the belief that science and religion are compatible, and that professional science organizations like the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education should refrain from making statements to that effect and stick to simply advocating good science, avoiding all questions of religion altogether. The undoubted fact that there are many scientists who are religious and that there are many religious people who support science (and oppose fundamentalist versions of religion) only provides support for the uncontroversial idea that it is possible for people to simultaneously hold contradictory views in their minds, nothing more.

The 'new atheists' have been criticized by other nonbelievers like Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest who believe that the real danger to science comes from the 'bad religion' of religious fundamentalists, and that scientists should seek common cause with religious moderates who advocate 'good religion', and not alienate them by implying that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

As I wrote last year, what this argument reveals is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together to advance 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 science and religion are compatible.

For the 'good religion' group to ask the new atheists to not debunk the idea of compatibility (for the sake of political expediency) makes as little sense as the new atheists asking the 'good religion' group to stop talking about their religious beliefs 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. As veterans of coalition politics know, a united front always hides a divided rear. We just have to live with it.

The reason that this well-known aspect of coalition politics is not understood in this particular context is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated 'respect for religion' trope, 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 latter beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore.

H. L. Mencken deplored this practice of deference to religion way back in 1925, when he wrote in The Baltimore Evening Sun in the wake of the Scopes trial:

[E]ven a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

Salman Rushdie wrote something similar more recently:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Despite Mencken's protests, religion still retains, because of the strong pressure to not make criticisms of it, some of its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in. But what Mencken hoped for is now beginning to emerge. The new atheists are making a concerted effort to end the false notion that 'respect for religion' means freedom from criticism. It is a good sign that skeptics are getting more numerous and outspoken. Their voices are breaking through the protective veil that religious beliefs have shrouded themselves in for so long.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Jackson

Just after I heard the news of Michael Jackson's death, I realized that although he was a pop phenomenon who had an enormous number of fans, I was not even faintly familiar with even a single song of his. Somehow his entire music oeuvre has passed me by, showing just how out of touch I am with some elements of popular culture, which is a little odd since I know a lot of the music of his contemporaries, and grew up with the Motown sound.

Jackson was undoubtedly a tragic figure, and yet retained a curiously childlike innocence that was somehow appealing. Ishmael Reed describes the awful treatment Jackson received from the media, which seemed to delight in tearing him down just as they once built him up.

June 24, 2009

The new atheists vs. the accommodationists

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled 'accommodationists') who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

While this debate has been going on for some time, the latest resurgence was triggered by Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book Why Evolution is True (which is on my reading list), who wrote a scathing review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

In the accommodationist camp are people like biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Michael Ruse, journalist Andrew Brown, and chemist Francis Collins. (You can read my detailed nine-part review of Collins's appalling book The Language of God here.)

There have always been religious scientists who manage to find reasons to hold on to their faith in the face of the challenge posed by science. Michael Shermer puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." (Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), p. 283). More problematic is the accommodationist view taken by prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Science (NAS), which I will examine at a later date.

In the anti-accommodationist camp (sometimes referred to as the 'new atheists') are people like Richard Dawkins, biologist Jerry Coyne, biologist P. Z. Myers, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my sympathies lie entirely with this latter group. (Also see here and here.)

The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow's performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.

Andrew Brown, a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, sees an even greater danger:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.

In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna's ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism "superstitious nonsense" in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that:

the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion." School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.

But Brown and Ruse are wrong. The argument is not legally "fireproof" as I discuss at length in my book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, to appear later this year. It is not even a new argument. William Jennings Bryan was making it all the way back in 1922 in an essay published in The New York Times, where he said:

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

The First Amendment has long been interpreted as requiring neutrality between religion and nonreligion, even before the 1963 Schempp case. Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education (that expanded the Establishment Clause to cover the actions of state and local governments), said "[The First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them."

The first case involving evolution to reach the US Supreme Court was the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas where the court ruled unanimously that prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools is unconstitutional. But Justice Black, while agreeing with the ruling, said in his concurring opinion that he disagreed with the reasoning that it was an Establishment Clause violation, and resurrected the concerns that Bryan had in 1922 and that seem to worry Ruse and Brown now.

A second question that arises for me is whether this Court's decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an "anti-religious" doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible's story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines?

But while this concern did not sway the majority in the Epperson case, the issue raised by Black was well and truly settled in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman when the Court promulgated what is now called the "Lemon test" that says that for any law to pass Establishment Clause constitutional muster, it must satisfy a three-pronged test:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the purpose prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the effect prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion" (the entanglement' prong).

In other words, to satisfy the Establishment Clause, the intent of the law must have a secular basis. In addition, simply because some law had the incidental effect of advancing or inhibiting religion did not automatically disqualify it. It also added a third criterion, requiring that the law must not result in the government getting too mixed up in the affairs of religion. Failure to meet any one prong would imply a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The guidelines set out in Lemon implies that even if a scientific theory like evolution undermines a religious belief, teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief does not violate the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause because teaching science has a clearly secular purpose, since the goal of teaching science is to advance scientific knowledge and not to undermine religion. If religion happens to be undermined because of teaching a particular scientific theory, that is an incidental, not primary, effect. By contrast, it would be unconstitutional to teach a theory whose only purpose or primary effect was to undermine or foster religion.

Since 1971, the 'Lemon test' has been the bedrock standard for measuring constitutionality under the Establishment Clause, with a few wrinkles added later. Teaching any theory that is well established scientifically would easily pass muster under its provisions, whatever its implications for religion.

The reason why creationists have not advanced this argument is not because they are not as smart as Ruse and Brown to have discovered this potent weapon. After all, the founder, godfather, and leading tactician of the intelligent design movement (Phillip Johnson) is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the whole intelligent design concept was invented to try and get around the Establishment Clause restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and other courts. Their lawyers must have told them that the Ruse/Brown argument is a sure loser.

POST SCRIPT: Biblical marriage

Those who oppose gay marriage like to say that it is against the Bible but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what a Biblically appropriate marriage consists of. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, makes it all clear.

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 11, 2007

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these 'new atheists' are now so 'militant'. I do not think 'militant' is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to 'respect' that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like "Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?" So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes ("I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.").

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that 'respect' can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new 'new atheists' are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the 'respect for religion' trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don't believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don't believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of 'lack of respect' comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some 'moderates' fear is that people's attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

May 10, 2007

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty's essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion -- keeping it out of what Carter calls "the public square," making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson's compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience -- a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation -- or to start an argument -- is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God's will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, "I would never have an abortion" or, "Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days." In these examples, as in Carter's, the ensuing silence masks the group's inclination to say, "So what? We weren't discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don't bother us with matters that are not our concern."

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don't think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we'll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let's see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, "Gee! I'm impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith"? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the 'respect for religion' trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced 'to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented' in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like "But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….") when discussing public policy, and that "this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty." He goes on that this requirement "is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience."

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: "Carter seems to think that religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity's role giving meaning to his own life."

So when atheists (of the 'new' variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that "a speaker's depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color."

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

May 09, 2007

Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion

It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called 'fringe' beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called 'shrill' or having 'no respect for religion.'

The way the word respect is used in this context is curious. I am a believer in respect for people. I also have respect for ideas that have merit in the sense that they are backed by evidence and reason. But the phrase 'respect for religion' seems to be demanding something more: that everyone must collude in maintaining the idea that god and an afterlife is a reasonable thing for adults to believe in and that to point out the flaws in those beliefs is to be somehow gauche.

I have written before about author Salman Rushdie who said:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie admires this approach but it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. But I do agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. In fact it is essential that people's ideas be challenged if they are ever to learn. But how one scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation.

While Rushdie is perfectly right in saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism, in the private sphere there is no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration for their sensibilities, even while not avoiding saying what one believes.

But in the public world of ideas, there should be no sacred cows and no idea should be immune from close scrutiny. But the common idea of 'respect for religion' seems to expect more. It seems to demand an acceptance of the following premise: that religious beliefs, at least of mainstream religions, be seen as fundamentally good and reasonable, and that any evil committed in its name be characterized as aberrations. Anyone who challenges this and asserts that the problem may not be that between good and bad religion, but that religious beliefs themselves are a problem is seen as stepping over some line that should not be crossed. So when Sam Harris author of The End of Faith says: "We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man," he is seen as being disrespectful to religion, because he is not distinguishing between 'good' and 'bad' religion.

'Respect for religion' is sometimes taken to suggest that if someone says that they oppose equal rights for gays because their religious doctrines assert that homosexuality is immoral, we are supposed to take that as a serious argument. If someone says that he opposes giving equal rights to gays, we would ask them to provide some justification. But if he says that his religion opposes homosexuality, then that is supposed to be a serious argument, exempt from challenge. Recently I was on a panel that discussed religion and sexuality. The Muslim panel member said that his religion required him to oppose granting homosexuals the same rights as enjoyed by heterosexuals. I said that while I understood his motives for opposing the gay lifestyle, a motive is not an argument. Saying that Islam or Christianity thought homosexuality wrong is as irrelevant to a discussion of public policy as the views of Satanists or any other religious group.

The basic point is that when discussing issues of public policy, there is no reason to provide beliefs based on religion with any special standing. The basic premise of the new atheists is that religious people, when engaged in the public sphere, should conform to the same rules of evidence, logic, and reason that all arguments must follow. If we use that yardstick, then we see that there is no reason to listen to people like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell because they rarely have any arguments, and simply quote Biblical verses to support their prejudices.

It is not an insignificant detail that the idea of 'respect for religion' also plays an important role in shielding religious beliefs from public skepticism. This is partly why people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger, are causing such a stir. They are challenging the idea that religious beliefs have some kind of special status in the public sphere that exempts them from scrutiny using the normal requirements of evidence and reason that we accept as applying to everything else.

POST SCRIPT: The power of tornados

I have never lived through a tornado but this video gives a glimpse of their terrifying power.

May 08, 2007

Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called 'hate crimes' legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."

Some Christian groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the list because they feared that this would prevent them from speaking out against homosexuals, cross dressers, and transgendered people.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole problematic issue of hate crimes, what is relevant to this post is that these Christian groups took particular offense that this vote was scheduled (and passed) on the same day as the 'National Day of Prayer.' They said that it was a 'slap in the face' to Christians, that it was disrespectful to bring up the inclusion of hate crimes against gays on their day of prayer.

Follow me closely here. The first step in the argument seems to be that some Christians feel that they have the right to oppose homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. Fair enough. In a free country people should be able to believe what they want as long as they do not obstruct the rights of others. The next step seems to be that the National Day of Prayer is a day that privileges their particular interpretation of Christianity and thus a discouraging word should never be heard on that day and passing any legislation that offends the sensibilities of those groups on that day is being 'rude' to them.

On one level, this argument is problematic because there are also many religious groups who oppose discrimination against gays and might see this as a perfectly appropriate day to pass such legislation.

The real problem lies in the whole idea of privileging religious beliefs in the public sphere at all. Even designating such a thing as a National Day of Prayer is questionable. Passed in 1952, it resulted from pandering to religious groups in general, not to any particular sect, and it dangerously treads on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Not to mention that it seems a little silly for the government to be getting into the business of exhorting people to pray on a particular day.

I bring up this somewhat trivial blip on the political landscape to illustrate what happens when we let the trope of 'respect for religion' become a rule that is raised to a higher level than others. Why should religious beliefs be granted any special privileges denied to other beliefs?

This is not to say that we should go out of our way to offend religious people by throwing the cold water of reason on their beliefs whenever the topic of religion arises. For example, a close friend of mine, who is very religious, had an adult daughter who died a few years ago. My friend is still grief-stricken and even now will burst into tears when talking about her loss. She consoles herself by saying that she looks forward to the day when she joins her daughter in heaven. I never dispute this when I am with her because we all need some means of coping with life's tragedies and this is hers. The reason for my silence is because of my respect for her as a person and the desire to help her deal with her sorrow.

It is for the same reason that I bow my head when at some function someone starts to pray for something, or why I take off my shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple or a Mosque or wear a yarmulke when attending a synagogue that requires it. It is out of respect for the people there, not for their beliefs. The idea that I am entering a 'holy' space that requires this level of deference makes no sense to me, but I go along with these practices out of a sense of social obligation to not needlessly offend. It means nothing to me either way, so why not accommodate others when entering places that are special to them?

In a non-religious context, it is exactly the same reasoning for why I dress up formally (or as formally as will be acceptable) when I attend a wedding or observe the social niceties expected of me when I am the guest of someone else, such as not putting my feet up on their coffee table or lying down on their living room couch, even though I do these things in my own home.

But when we are discussing public ideas in a public forum, there is no reason to privilege religious beliefs in any way or to cushion religious believers from any arguments against their beliefs. I think Henry Louis "H.L." Mencken, American editor and critic got it right when he said: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

But respect for religion has been extended well beyond this reasonable accommodation that acts as a social lubricant, and seems to seek exemption from public criticism of the beliefs themselves. And it is this applecart that the new atheists are upsetting.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Rowan Atkinson on Jesus's miracles

May 07, 2007

Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the 'new atheists'. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that 'respect for religion' means that one must not point this out.

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

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

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

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

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a 'respectable' religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don't pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world's only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn't? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush's home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.


May 04, 2007

The new atheism-6: The biological origins of religion and morality

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

You would think that natural selection would work against religion because those individuals who spent their time in prayer and other rituals, and used precious energy and resources in building temples and offering sacrifices, would be at a survival disadvantage when compared to those who used their time more productively. In the previous post, I outlined the basic framework of natural selection and summarized the arguments of those who explain the survival value of religion by saying that religious ideas are passed on and evolve as a byproduct of the survival advantage that accrues from young children being predisposed to believe their parents and other adult authority figures.

But while that may explain how religions propagate once they come into being, it is harder to understand how religious ideas arose in the first place. If the outbreak of religion were an occasional event occurring here or there at random, then we could just dismiss it as an anomaly, like the way that random genetic mutations cause rare diseases. But religion is not like that. As David P. Barash says in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 200.): "On the one hand, religious belief of one sort or another seems ubiquitous, suggesting that it might well have emerged, somehow, from universal human nature, the common evolutionary background shared by all humans. On the other hand, it often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing — and, if so, that genetically mediated tendencies toward religion should have been selected against."

Barash summarizes the various suggestions that have been put forth to overcome this problem of how religion could have originated.

Other, related hypotheses of religion include the anthropologist Pascal Boyer's grandly titled Religion Explained, which argues that natural selection would have favored a mechanism for detecting "agency" in nature, enabling its possessor to predict who is about to do what (and, often, to whom). Since false positives would be much less fitness-reducing than false negatives (i.e., better to attribute malign intent to a tornado and take cover than to assume it is benign and suffer as a result), selection would promote hypersensitivity, or "overdetection," essentially a hair-trigger system whereby motive is attributed not only to other people and mastodons, but also to trees, hurricanes, or the sun. Add, next, the benefit of "decoupling" such predictions from the actual presence of the being in question ("What might my rival be planning right now?"), and the stage is set for attributing causation to "agents" whose agency might well be entirely imagined.

Boyer's work, in turn, converges on that of Stewart Guthrie, whose 1993 book, Faces in the Clouds, made a powerful case for the potency of anthropomorphism, the human tendency to see human (or humanlike) images in natural phenomena. This inclination has morphed into a more specific, named phenomenon: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none exist (some recent, "real" examples: Jesus' face in a tortilla, the Virgin Mary's outline in a semimelted hunk of chocolate, Mother Teresa's profile in a cinnamon bun).

The same kinds of ideas are invoked to explain the origins of morality but here the work has advanced a lot more. The idea that morality comes only from religion has no validity, given that natural selection provides alternative explanations. As Barash says: "Taken together or in various combinations, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination, provide biologists with more than enough for the conclusion: God is no longer needed to explain "Moral Law.""

This is not to say that the question of the biological origins of morality has been completely solved.

In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson explored the possibility that religious belief is advantageous for its practitioners because it contributes to solidarity — including but not limited to moral codes — that benefits the group and wouldn't otherwise be within reach. That notion, appealing as it might be, is actually a logical and mathematical stretch for most biologists, relying as it does upon group selection. The problem is that even if groups displaying a particular trait do better than groups lacking it, selection acting within such groups should favor individuals who "cheat." Mathematical models have shown that group selection can work in theory, but only if the differential survival of religious groups more than compensates for any disadvantage suffered by individuals within each group. It is at least possible that human beings meet this requirement, especially when it comes to religion, since within-group self-policing could maintain religiosity; it certainly did during the Inquisition.

So where do things stand? The status of the game is that while there have been major advances in understanding the biological origins (based on natural selection) in the propagation and evolution of religious ideas, and the origins of morality, there still needs a lot more work to be done, especially on the question of the origin of religion. As Barash says:

We must conclude, sadly, that a convincing evolutionary explanation for the origin of religion has yet to be formulated. In any event, such an account, were it to arise, would doubtless be unconvincing to believers because, whatever it postulated, it would not conclude that religious belief arose because (1) it simply represents an accurate perception of God, comparable to identifying food, a predator, or a prospective mate; or (2) it was installed in the human mind and/or genome by God, presumably for his glory and our counterevidentiary enlightenment.

But the goal can never be to change the minds of people about the lack of necessity of god by direct arguments. That rarely succeeds for reasons to be discussed in a future posting. In fact, although I have written many posts on why belief in god is irrational, I basically agree with Charles Darwin's approach when he said "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science."

The reasons for my posts are not to persuade the determined believers to change their minds but to add to the universe of ideas, so that people who are not particularly committed to religion will find that their musings are not the dangerous thoughts of an apostate that will be punished by an angry god, but the perfectly rational doubts that arise in the minds of anyone who values the role of evidence and the pursuit of scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the recent developments is that questions of religion and morality are now being investigated using scientific tools and methods, and those are bound to result in greater detailed understanding of those phenomena.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Apparently ABC News has decided to stage a science-religion debate. Who suggested this idea and offered to represent religion? None other than Ray "Banana Man" Comfort and his sidekick, Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron.

Apparently Comfort requested the debate in order to counter The Blasphemy Challenge. Comfort says: "I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists."

Right. Frankly, if I was a religious person, I would be really worried about letting Comfort be my standard bearer. But who knows, maybe he has found a proof more powerful than the banana. (Scroll down to see the video if you don't know what I'm talking about.) Perhaps he has managed to find god's designing hand in the avocado also. Maybe he will bring along Peanut Butter Man to clinch the case.

The debate will occur on May 5, 2007 and apparently will be streamed live on the ABC website and later be shown on Nightline.

Of course, what Comfort and people like him really yearn for is media exposure and he probably doesn't care if people hoot with laughter at his "proofs" of god.

May 03, 2007

The new atheism-5: The scientific approach to philosophical questions

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.

To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher's The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:

1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.

In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.

2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.

If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn't is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.

3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.

The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.

4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.

Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.

From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:

5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.

So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.

This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.

Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.

It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person's religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don't even think of their own beliefs as 'beliefs' because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents' beliefs than subsequent children.)

Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one's parents.

To see how believing what one's parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don't touch the fire, don't walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.

But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. "The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience."

So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.

Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are 'memes' (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of 'memeplexes', a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):

• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal's Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don't even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.

I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.

I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots

I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.

Amazing - Watch today’s top amazing videos here

May 01, 2007

The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don't, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: "If we pray for anything that is impossible -- for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ -- it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability."

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god's presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god's presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn't just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the 'pieces' in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.

April 30, 2007

The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: "At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral."

The new atheists make the claim that we should not uncritically accept the NAS statement's implication that god could exist in an undetectable supernatural world about which science can say nothing. For god to have any meaning at all, a universe in which god exists has to be observably different from one in which he or she or it does not exist. Thus Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that if god exists, then that is an empirically testable proposition. He argues that it is the obligation of believers in a god to provide evidence, in the form of testable propositions, for this difference, and have those predictions confirmed by experiment or observation. Otherwise, god is merely a name and an idea conjured up out of nothing and that can do nothing. As it stands, no such evidence of the kind he seeks has ever been provided.

Dawkins also argues that the god that most people envisage has to be a complex being, since it is capable of doing complex things. If so, he argues, how could god have existed in that form at the beginning of time, since everything else in the universe (both matter and life) started from very simple forms and evolved into complexity slowly? How could god come into being as a complex entity right from the start?

It is clear that these kinds of arguments have struck a nerve. They have not only caused a split between elite religion and elite science, they have also caused a split within elite science, between those (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to continue to maintain the political alliance between the two groups, and other scientists who say that a political alliance is too high a price to pay for not speaking out against what they truly believe, that belief in a god not only has no evidentiary basis, it does not even make coherent sense as a philosophical construct. Again, it is Dawkins who states this position most forcefully, stating that the 'two worlds' model is a "cowardly cop out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable." (quoted by Larson and Witham, Nature, vol. 386, April 3, 1997, p. 435-436)

What is happening now is that atheist scientists are no longer silent or discreet about their atheism. More and more secular scientists are not shying away from the explicit implications of how the science in their fields is steadily eroding the remaining niches in which belief in god has taken refuge. Physicists like Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis takes on religion from the physics perspective, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works examines how and why natural selection might have worked to create an advantage for modules to exist in the brain that have a propensity to believe in god and the afterlife, thus making people think it is natural. Neuroscientist Marc Hauser in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong does the same thing for morality, seeking to understand how natural selection may have worked to select for the moral values that we see in people. And Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained takes on the task of seeing how consciousness can arise without any need for any supernatural explanation.

All these works are somewhat speculative since the kinds of investigations being done are quite new. I am not claiming that these major problems have been solved or that these particular authors have even got it right. In fact, although I am broadly familiar with the thrusts of the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have not read them all as yet but will report on them in more detail when I do read them, which should be fairly soon. (A good general review of what these books and others in the same vein say can be found in the essay The DNA of Religious Faith by David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 2007.)

The suggestion that there is nothing metaphysical and non-material about the mind and morality and consciousness has been advanced in the past. The significant new feature is that while in the past questions of mind and morality and consciousness were largely the province of philosophers and theologians and social scientists, it is now scientists, armed with the latest research tools, who are taking direct aim at these areas of knowledge that were once set aside as part of the 'spiritual world' and thus outside the real of scientific investigation.

What has made this shift possible is that scientific knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that we have the ability to construct and test theories and collect actual data that can shed light on these questions. As a parallel, ideas of evolution and common descent existed even before Darwin and Wallace but it was their collection of huge amounts of data in support of those ideas that put the theory of natural selection on a solid empirical footing. The same kind of progression is now happening for the areas of mind, morality, religion and consciousness. And when scientists start to make concerted efforts to solve problems, advances in knowledge tend to occur. If history is any guide, the net result is usually a retreat for religious explanations.

These new atheist scientist authors are in the vanguard of presenting to the general public new scientific research into these areas of knowledge and religious people need to brace themselves for fresh challenges to their beliefs. The theoretical paradigms that emerge from this research will change and improve with time but like previous advances in science that have undermined the credibility of miracles and similar obvious interventions by god in the physical world, it seems inevitable that these new areas of research will proceed in the direction of making religious explanations unnecessary.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Ricky Gervais tackles the book of Genesis

April 27, 2007

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."

Most of the people who subscribe to this kind of statement see no conflict between scientific and religious belief structures because each one deals with one of two distinct worlds that do not overlap. So scientists are supposed to deal with the physical world while religion deals with the spiritual world. Such people tend to view the periodic legal and political skirmishes between the creationist and scientific camps as the work of overzealous extremists, both religious and atheist, who are attempting to mix together things that should properly stay separate. They feel that their own point of view is very reasonable and find it hard to understand why everyone does not accept it.

Stephen Jay Gould, who was himself not religious, was a key advocate of this model of peaceful coexistence between the two worlds (or as he called them 'magisteria') of science and religion, going to the extent of even writing a book Rocks of Ages advocating it. He gave this model a somewhat pretentious name of Non-Overlapping MAgisteria or NOMA.

What this model successfully did was to allow elite religion and elite science to work together against those Christianists who sought to base public policy on religious beliefs. Thus in the periodic skirmishes over teaching intelligent design, prayer in schools, and other church-state separation issues, scientists and elite religionists tended to be on the same side, jointly opposing the attempts of people who sought to replace secular society with one based on a fundamentalist Christian foundation.

But this model peaceful coexistence model has some fatal flaws (that I have discussed before) and can only be sustaine by people strictly compartmentalizing their beliefs to avoid having to come to grips with the problems. Others are aware of the lack of viability of this model but have sought to downplay the problems in order to preserve the political alliance between the elite science and religion camps. But this is where things are changing.

The initial challenges to this peaceful co-existence model came from intelligent design creationism theorists like Berkeley emeritus law professor Phillip Johnson, who sought to drive a wedge between elite science and elite religion by arguing that one could not simultaneously be a methodological naturalist and a believer in god, since the former excluded the latter. His aim was to force elite religionists to make a choice: are you with god or with atheistic science?

In doing so, he was conflating the two different concepts of methodological and philosophical naturalism to serve his rhetorical purposes. As I have written before, one is not forced to be a philosophical naturalist (which essentially means atheist) in order to be a scientist, but there is little doubt that elite scientists are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic.

But more recently, the attack on the peaceful coexistence model has come from a visible and vocal group of atheists who have also argued that this 'two worlds' model that allows elite religion to coexist with elite science is essentially a sham, and that intellectual honesty demands that this be pointed out. This new rise in vocal atheism can be seen everywhere in a flurry of books and films and blogs. There has been a rise in organizations seeking to bring the views of atheists to the public's attention and a new lobbying group has been created called the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) that includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists, and seeks to increase the visibility of non-theistic viewpoints in the United States.

As intelligent design creationism seems to be a spent force these days, receiving one setback after another since the Dover verdict, and reduced to a traveling road show that exhorts the true believers, this new attitude by atheists challenging the two-worlds model comes too late to help the cause of Johnson and his allies to advance the teaching of intelligent design creationism in schools by creating a split between elite science and elite religion. But this new outspokenness amongst atheists has caused some ripples in the fabric of elite opinion, and is sometimes referred to as the 'new atheism'.

Some key voices in this new attitude are Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith), Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained and Breaking the Spell), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis) and Brian Flemming (creator of the film The God Who Wasn't There).

The soothing view of advocates of peaceful coexistence that religion is a neutral ideology that some followers take in an evil direction while others take in a good one is being challenged. The new tack taken by the new atheists is that even though individual religious people are often very good, that is largely irrelevant. The problem with religion is that, at the very least, believing in a god requires one to suspend rational and critical thinking, and that is never a good thing. As Voltaire said: "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

Thus they have taken on the task of highlighting the fact that belief in a god has no credible objective evidence to support it and thus should not be believed by any person who supports reason and science. As Dawkins, one of the most forceful and vociferous among them, says: "I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

It is this new front between elite science and elite religion in the science-religion wars that has caused some turbulence.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Cricket World Cup final

The final of the World Cup is being played between Australia and Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 28, 2007. The game starts at 9:30 am (US Eastern time) and will probably last around six hours, barring a complete rout by one side.

I have been told that people can see a live telecast of it in DeGrace 312 (Biology building). If you want to see what cricket is like as played by two good teams, you should drop by. There is a charge which I think is $10.00 but am not sure since I just heard about it.

In the semi-finals, Sri Lanka beat New Zealand and Australia beat South Africa. South Africa came into the tournament as the favorites but gave several lack-luster performances and barely made it into the final four. Australia has been the dominant team, crushing their opponents, and are undefeated, so they are now the heavy favorites for the title. Sri Lanka has been playing well too, but they will have to be absolutely at the top of their game to defeat the powerful Aussies.

It should be a good game.

April 26, 2007

The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words 'science' and 'religion' are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular 'science'.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular 'science' does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, "Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.")

I hate to assign the label 'science' to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey's terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular 'science' and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular 'science', which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular 'science' and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is 'evil', the product of a 'bad' supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular 'science'. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular 'science' because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular 'science' and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at) if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group's advisor and have accepted.

The CFA's mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:

-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.