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Is Atheism Rational?

July 29, 2010 9 comments

Is atheism rational? That’s the question a religious friend asked me recently. He did it by emailing me a rather long and dreary document which purported to demonstrate that atheism actually isn’t rational. He asked me to post it here on my blog. My blog is intended for my own thoughts and commentary, not religious propaganda, but I will post it here (at least parts of it) but will also provide commentary on why most of it isn’t true or is at least misleading.

The document started with some quotes. The first one was this: “When a man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing, he believes almost in anything. – G.K. Chesterton”.

Many quotes are very clever and often even true, but a quote by itself is worthless when trying to establish the truth of anything. I cannot imagine any way that this one could be justified. There is a strong link between atheism and skepticism and in my experience atheists tend to have far less belief in controversial topics than religious people. So the truth is the exact opposite of what the quote implies.

So that wasn’t a good start and the other quotes included weren’t much better, but lets move on to the real content of the document.

It started with this: “If there is a God, why are there atheists? Why do people call themselves atheists? What makes atheism so fashionable these days? There was a time when the numbers of atheists were few and fleeting but today atheism is massively popular in terms of media attention and book sales.”

Is this the most blatant case of “begging the question” ever? This treatise claims to show atheism is irrational and it’s first statement is that god exists. Yeah sure, if god exists I guess atheism is irrational but that’s just the point: does god exist? The evidence indicates the answer is “no”.

So starting with such a ridiculously obvious case of a logical fallacy did not bode well for the rest of the document but I did persist (as much to see what other fallacies would be forthcoming as anything else).

The next significant point was made like this: “Atheism is an interesting subject for study. Why are the atheists so passionate and obsessed with the non-being of God? Why do many of them devote a lifetime of religious zeal and commitment to the ideals of atheism?”.

I agree that atheists have become far more prominent recently but many of the passionate arguments are simply as a result of attacks by believers. Look at what I am writing now as an example. I didn’t start the debate, I simply responded to an ill considered attack by my religious opponent. Another point is that religious belief causes a huge amount of trouble in the modern world so many people (me included) feel it’s our obligation to fight against it. When I see the evil and stupidity that religion causes I feel quite justified in becoming passionate about opposing it.

So moving on, the next point was this: “Atheism does not rest on a proven belief but rather on the unsupported assumption that there is no God…”

It seems to me that this is a straw man argument (I knew I’d see more logical fallacies). There may be some atheists who just assume there is no god but I don’t know any. All the atheists I know and all those I have read about don’t think that at all. Instead, they require objective evidence to believe anything and see insufficient evidence to support god. There’s no objection to the actual idea of god, just the rejection of his existence based on current evidence.

Just to reinforce the incorrect assumption there is this: “Who is an atheist? An atheist is one who rejects any belief in God.”

If you are going to get something wrong I guess you might as well get it wrong over and over. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times believers’ false ideas are corrected they continue to use them. One characteristic I have noted in believers is the failure to learn from their mistakes. That is very evident here.

Next there’s a quote from Robert Blatchford, a British atheist: “I claim that the heavenly Father is a myth; that in the face of a knowledge of life and the world, we cannot reasonably believe in Him. There is no heavenly Father watching tenderly over us, His children. He is the baseless shadow of a wistful human dream. I do not believe in a God. The belief in a God is still generally accepted. … But, in the light of scientific discoveries and demonstrations, such a belief is unfounded and utterly untenable today.”

I think that statement actually sums up many atheists’ thoughts quite well. But notice that it doesn’t say the idea of god is rejected a priori, it says that the evidence isn’t there so the god story should be rejected. Implied but not stated is the additional idea that, should the evidence change in future, then the conclusion that god doesn’t exist might also change.

The next statement is also interesting: “Atheism as we know it in the West is not merely lack of belief in, but rather an attack on God; only where God has been seen as real and personal can much energy be generated in the cause of rebellion against Him.” (attributed to an American theologian).

Notice the disingenuous trick here where lack of belief is used as evidence for the existence of god? I’m afraid this is the level of debate many theologians resort to. The fact is that atheists don’t believe in a god but their rebellion is against religion, not god. Religion exists whether god does or not so again this line of reasoning is totally bogus.

Next comes this: “Another way of putting it is: an atheist is someone who, after studying Philosophy, Theology, History, Religion, Psychology, Biology, Archaeology, Anthropology, Sociology, etc., and searching every space of the universe, thinks he has found conclusive evidence that God does not exist. He has inspected the heavenly throne and found it to be empty!”

I’m sorry to have to have to say it again but this is a straw man argument. Atheists don’t think they have conclusive proof there is no god, they think there is insufficient evidence to believe that one exists. If a religious person didn’t believe in the tooth fairy would we criticise them because haven’t looked for her in every possible location? No. It’s up to the person making the claim of the existence of something to show the evidence, not for non-believers to prove the negative.

While we are on the subject of straw man arguments, what about the next section which tries to present the “dogma” of atheism…

The first claimed point of dogma is that “There is no God.” This is no more a point of dogma than claiming that there is no Loch Ness monster is a point of dogma. If I was shown evidence for either a god or the monster I would then believe. It’s not dogma, it’s just common sense.

The next is more interesting. It’s that “There is no objective Truth.” At this point we get into philosophical musings about the nature of reality and (importantly) the meanings of the words used in the question. What exactly is an objective Truth? (note the upper case letter on that word, usually a sign they mean anything but the truth!). I’m not going to attempt to answer the question here but it’s a separate philosophical point from the existence of god anyway.

The same criticism applies to the next point: “There is no ground for Reason.” What this means would depend on individual interpretations of the question in a similar way to the question above so further discussion is rather pointless.

The next three are more interesting: “There is no absolute Morals.” and “There is no ultimate Value.” and “There is no ultimate Meaning.”

Obviously the author is implying that a supernatural entity is required to provide these absolutes. That depends partly on your definitions but it’s also possible for them to arise through natural means. Humans do have common moral beliefs because these naturally arise in a social species. They aren’t technically absolute but they are universal (except in exceptional, generally psychologically disturbed individuals). A similar argument can apply to value and meaning.

But even if you don’t accept the argument about absolute morals it still doesn’t affect the validity of atheism because the possible lack of absolute morals in atheism is a value judgement and cannot be used as an argument for or against it’s inherent truth. Also it should be noted that absolute morals arising from god can only be supported if you think god exists. So an argument which requires a god to exist can hardly be used as an argument that a god exists. That’s real circular logic!

I have a bit more acceptance of the next point: “There is no eternal Hope.” (again note the use of capitals implying a particular variant of the word “hope”).

Sure, I agree, there is no eternal hope. I assume here that eternal hope means the wish for a permanent state of life after death. Atheists think we die and that’s the end. They also think the Universe itself will eventually run out of energy. There is no eternal hope and that’s a fact which arises from modern physics. But should we believe in a myth which does provide eternal hope when it’s clearly untrue?

Unfortunately after agreeing on that point I disagree with the next. It’s that: “Every religion has its apostles and prophets, and atheism is no exception. Its high priests, preachers, and prophets are all actively preaching the faith of atheism in every country around the world.” It then goes on to talk about the person every religious fanatic loves to hate: Richard Dawkins!

Since a religion (by the most widely accepted definition) is belief in a supernatural entity and atheism is the lack of belief in that same thing it’s bizarre that atheism should be labelled a religion. Still, it doesn’t matter how often you point this out, they still keep making the claim. It’s also odd that, since these people are religious themselves, they should use the idea of atheism as being a religion as a point against it!

There’s pages of more irrelevant philosophical discussion which really adds nothing to the argument so I’ll skip it here. Maybe the next interesting point is criticism of Richard Dawkins (again) because he criticises religion without (allegedly) understanding the subject. I think there is some validity in this argument but why not say specifically what Dawkins has said which they disagree with? That rarely seems to happen, maybe because, despite his lack of formal expertise in the area, Dawkins makes some very good points which are hard to refute.

The next points I want to discuss are where the author picks out some arguments which he attributes to atheists in general…

First: “The existence of God is incompatible with the existence of evil”. I don’t think this is a commonly held belief. It’s true that it’s difficult to reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient, good god with the existence of evil but the argument probably shouldn’t be taken any further. If any atheist has stated that it should then I think he’s wrong, but that doesn’t make atheism wrong.

Next: “God is a projection of man’s imagination (Feuerbach).” I would tend to agree, except I would change it to “the concept of god” because god himself probably doesn’t exist.

Then: “Since God cannot be scientifically demonstrated, God cannot exist (Flew).” This is an interesting one. In many ways I would agree because there’s really nothing else we claim the existence of yet cannot demonstrate scientifically. But the word “cannot” is probably ill advised. Maybe I would re-word this as “if god cannot be proven scientifically then its reasonable to conclude that he doesn’t exist.”

And: “People believe in God because they are culturally conditioned (Freud).” There’s no doubt that this is part of the explanation. After all, people believe in specific gods depending on the country they were born in. But I dont think it’s the whole story because there does seem to be a more innate tendency to believe in supernatural entities.

And: “The idea of God is nonsensical like the idea of square-circles (Matson).” This seems like a rather weak argument and I don’t know anyone who currently believes it. As I have said many times: the objection is that there is no credible evidence supporting god, not that god can’t exist based on any logical or philosophical argument.

And: “If God made the world who made God? (Russell)”. This does seem like a good point to me. The usual excuse is that god has existed forever. If he did then what was he doing before he created the universe? Another excuse is that god exists “outside time” but no one seems to be able to explain exactly what this means and most theologies seem to involve god acting in a way where he is constrained by time (7 day creation, etc).

Finally: “Since there is no evidence of God’s existence, God does not exist (Kaufmann).” I don’t know anyone who would put it quite like that. What I (and every other atheist I know) would say is that there is no evidence for god’s existence therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exists unless further evidence becomes available. Note that there’s nothing absolute about that but it’s the way almost all atheists think. Saying that atheism involves absolute rejection of god is a straw man.

The final section claims that atheism is an unsatisfying or even a painful belief. For some people that’s possibly true but all indicators of happiness and other factors indicate little difference between believers and non-believers. So even this last objection can be consigned to the rubbish bin along with all the rest.

So there is no case against atheism. If believers want to discredit atheism all they need to do is find evidence that their god exists. But that evidence doesn’t exist yet and I suspect it never will.

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Apple and BP

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m often accused of being an Apple fanboy. Hey, let’s face it, by any reasonable definition I am an Apple fanboy. I do tend to defend Apple against attacks which are often based on ignorance and lack of understanding of the issues. Look at the latest attack against the iPhone 4 aerial as an example. Sure, there is a real issue there, but it only significantly affects a minority of users, it does affect other phones to a certain extent (maybe not as much as the iPhone because the case is also the aerial), and the iPhone still has an extremely high approval rating amongst users.

On the other hand Apple did handle the situation rather badly. But they aren’t the only ones to suffer from this modern problem of “corporate arrogance”. The best recent example of an even bigger PR disaster is, of course, BP.

I have seen reports that the CEO is about to resign and will receive a payout of something like NZ$25 million as he leaves. You can see why he gets paid the big dollars though: he did handle BP’s exploration and the resulting problems brilliantly, didn’t he? Yes, I’m being sarcastic there because he clearly revealed himself as a gross incompetent in every way imaginable. Maybe the company thought it was worth the millions just to get rid of him.

Of course there’s a very good chance that whoever replaces him will be just as bad, and possibly even worse. Why? Because to be a corporate leader you generally have to be immoral, incompetent, and lacking in imagination.

I’m not saying every business leader has these attributes, but it does seem to be a common personality profile. I don’t think Steve Jobs quite fits this profile, for example. Sure, he mismanaged the iPhone problem and you can’t exactly take everything he says at face value, but he certainly doesn’t lack imagination and I think he genuinely cares about producing beautiful and innovative devices (perhaps a bit too much some times).

Also on the subject of Apple: I don’t necessarily like it much as a company (their legal department and other corporate sections don’t inspire me to admiration) but I do love their products. I will be getting an iPhone 4 when my current plan expires because I know it has flaws (like every product) but it’s still the best phone available overall.

Maybe people have higher expectations of Apple than they do of other companies. I’m sure this is true in fact and I can’t imagination half the fuss being made of a similar flaw being found in any other company’s product. But that’s not necessarily unfair because Apple does rely on its prestigious reputation and I think it’s fair to expect more from them.

I’m sure Apple will continue to create great products in the future but they do need to avoid indulging in too much corporate arrogance.

Do the Science

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Many people treat the real world as if it was really simple. They think that what has been accepted as true in the past or is accepted by a large number of people must be true. They think that what seems obvious intuitively must be true. Or they think that something must be true simply because it’s taken seriously by people with the same beliefs as they have (sometimes referred to as people they can trust).

All of these factors are an obvious source of false beliefs in the area of politics and religion and I don’t think I really need to demonstrate this with examples. But what about more subtle things? One of the aspects of psychology which I found fascinating (I majored in psych – along with computer science – when I was at university) was the amazing subtlety required to allow for human biases and behaviours when designing experiments to study social phenomena.

Recently I have heard of a few examples where subtle behaviours have lead to interesting, counter-intuitive results in studies of human behaviours.

Here’s an example: which is safer, riding with a cycle helmet on or without one? It has been shown that, while many helmets don’t offer a huge amount of protection, they are still a lot better than nothing. So the answer would obviously be that it’s safer to ride with a helmet on, right? Wrong! According to at least one study you are more likely to be injured or killed when wearing a helmet. How can that be? Apparently it’s because people wearing helmets feel safer and take more risks. Also car drivers tend to treat cyclists with helmets with less care than those without. So if you do crash the helmet will help but without one you are less likely to crash. Isn’t that interesting!

Here’s a similar example: which season is the most dangerous for driving? Most people say winter because the roads are more slippery, visibility is reduced, and the general conditions are much more difficult. But the answer is summer. More people drive in summer, but more importantly, people take more risks because they feel safer. When the road is icy or visibility is reduced by a rain storm it’s actually safer because people are far more cautious.

So by now you are probably getting the hang of this. Often the obvious answer is wrong because many of these phenomena are controlled by people’s behaviours which depends on perception rather than reality. So let’s try one more. If you are going to spend time in the sun should you use sunblock?

Most people would say yes, although some would say no because they think sunblocks contain dangerous chemicals. I’ll provide another clue here: the chemicals haven’t been shown to be dangerous so that logic fails. But if you took notice of the previous examples you might reach another conclusion: that using sunblock is dangerous because it gives people a false sense of security and they therefore spend more time in the sun.

Combine this with two other factors. First, most people don’t use enough sunblock; and second, they misinterpret the SPF number. Doubling the number does not double the effectiveness.

So people who use sunblock get more skin problems because they don’t use enough, misinterpret the protection it would offer even if they did use enough, and spend more time in the sun as a result. Interestingly, there is no well established link between the most serious form of skin cancer (melanoma) and sun exposure anyway. In fact there are some indicators that some sun exposure might help prevent some cancer, possibly through vitamin D production!

So the real world is very complex. There is no easy way to establish truth through intuition. In real life many factors are at work and all of those need to be taken into account before a real conclusion can be formed. And even then that conclusion should be provisional. The best way to establish what’s really happening is to test the phenomena using a controlled experiment.

The whole mechanism sounds very much like something we already know about doesn’t it? It sounds like empiricism and the scientific method. So the next time someone tells you they believe in god because it says so in a book, or they think right wing politics works because a blogger says so, or that global warming is false because humans could never influence the climate of the whole planet, just remember they are being pathetically naive. To really understand what’s going on in the world you need to transcend simplistic notions like that and do the science!

Catholic Cult

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I read recently that Pope Benedict is creating a new Vatican office to combat secularisation and what he refers to as an “eclipse of the sense of God.” It’s specifically intended to counter the rise of secularism and, no doubt, the new atheists have had a lot to do with this effort.

There’s a well known quote – I can’t remember who by right now – that says “the best protection against Christianity is to read the Bible.” If that doesn’t show you what a pile of crap it is then nothing will! There’s another relevant quote too. That is that Christianity is a great thing, except for the Christians. I paraphrased both of those quotes but the essential meaning is unchanged.

So these two quotes are saying that Christianity is it’s own worst enemy and there does seem to be a lot of truth in that. Look at the history of the Catholic Church (I agree that other churches are almost as bad but because the story is about the Pope I will concentrate on Catholicism here) and it’s clear that many of the senior members of the church certainly haven’t demonstrated great moral leadership.

Sexual abuse of children and genocide in Rwanda are the two most prominent recent examples of their evil actions (yes, I think the word evil is OK to use here even though I deny the existence of an ultimate source of morality). The actions of these people should be enough to persuade anyone to abandon the church!

And read the Bible. I mean read what it actually says, not the silly fantasy that most Christians believe (that means both Testaments – even though they are contradictory – because Jesus said the old stuff still applies). It’s full of disgusting moral values, self-contradictory stories, clear fiction, and childish nonsense. Anyone who thinks that’s suitable as the basis for your whole world view really is living in a fantasy world!

So the poor old Pope is beginning to panic a bit now that people can see through the ridiculous facade which is the Catholic church. I suspect his actions will be counter-productive though. All he will do is draw more attention to the increasing opposition to his evil empire of ignorance and superstition. It’s hard to be too sympathetic to his plight though, especially when you read about the nuns (yes, I said nuns) who directly participated in mass murder in Rwanda. And let’s not even get started on the sexual abuse thing which just seems to get worse and worse.

Don’t think that I hate Catholics, or the Pope, or God, or even the church, based on my ranting above. I recognise that Catholicism has some good points. It does provide some charitable and social services, but we must look at the value of any institution in balance: does the good outweigh the bad? In this case I think it clearly doesn’t.

The Pope can try to regain the former power and glory of the church as much as he wants but he’s doomed. You can’t stop an idea whose time has come and you can’t save an idea whose time has run out. I think that in this century the church will become a distant memory and a fringe cult for the majority of the western world (it will take a bit longer for the poor suckers in the third world to escape from its tyranny).

The Catholic church is probably the most evil institution which has ever existed (if you don’t believe this then please leave a comment and I’ll give you a partial list of their atrocities). The sooner it’s consigned to the rubbish heap of silly and corrupt ideas the better. I can only hope that other, similar beliefs like Islam swiftly follow it into oblivion!

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One Day With the iPad

July 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I have used my new iPad (the top model with the 3G cell network and 64 G of storage) for one day now. So what are my conclusions so far? First, it’s too early to tell for sure. Of course when you get a new toy it seems great to start with but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be useful long term.

My initial impressions and the general feel are great. Operation is very fast and fluid. The visual effects are beautiful and the user interface is intuitive. It’s a real Apple device: carefully designed and with great attention to detail. This makes it more than just a “big iPod Touch”. It’s more like a totally new and different type of device.

One thing I tried to do on the iPhone was write blog entries and other text. But it just didn’t work because the screen was too small and the keyboard was too unreliable (or at least my typing on it was). I’m writing this on the iPad in Pages and it is a much better experience. I can type here almost as well as I can type on my laptop using both hands and multiple fingers instead of the single finger typing I use on the iPhone. I do have to say that after a while you can enter text quite well on the phone too but I could never use it for more than just short notes.

I mentioned I am using Pages. It isn’t included with the iPad so I had to buy it from the app store. In fact I have already “invested” quite a lot at the app store – including Keynote and Numbers as well as Pages. I also got the Time magazine app (which is free) and bought one issue of the magazine to test the experience reading that sort of material as well. If you buy an iPad you should set aside a budget for apps. I would suggest about 50 to 100 dollars (New Zealand).

I started by copying over all my apps for the iPhone but since then I decided to only install iPad apps. I did this for two reasons: first, because the iPhone apps don’t look very good scaled up to fit on the bigger screen; and second, because I want to try out different programs which are more suited to what the iPad can do.

Of course I’m not certain what the iPad will be used for yet. I thought it would be a book reader and a web browser but Its starting to look like it might be a useful substitute for my laptop for simpler tasks. I have used Numbers to look at existing spreadsheets and Keynote to view presentations and they have both worked well. But I’m not sure how well they would work for creating new content yet.

Some of the iPhone apps work the same on the iPad, except it’s not the same because the extra speed and extra screen size transforms them. One which is particularly impressive is the astronomy program “Sky Voyager”. I am looking forward to having iOS 4 on the iPad though because multitasking for viewing the sky maps and taking notes would be useful for astronomy.

I will use the iPad for another week and write another blog entry then. At that time I should be able to report about how usable the book reading experience is.

Atheist Dogma?

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Supporters of religion seem to be getting a bit desperate. If you take religion seriously you must already be accustomed to using half truths, biased information, and invalid arguments to support your cause so I guess using the same tactics against the new atheists should not be a surprise to anyone.

It’s difficult to say what’s the cause and what’s the effect in this phenomenon. Anyone who can’t think logically is much more likely to follow a religion but anyone who wants to continue to follow a religion can’t afford to think logically. So which comes first: the superstitious beliefs or the illogical way of reasoning? It’s impossible to say but I guess each reinforces the other.

Anyway, getting back to the argument against atheists. Often it comes down to the obviously silly accusation that atheism is just another religion. The degree of validity of this claim obviously depends on the definition you use for the word “religion” but the definition which best fits into this argument is the one which defines religion as a belief system involving a supernatural entity.

It should be obvious that atheism isn’t a religion by this definition because it specifically rejects the supernatural (or at least it rejects things which are unsupported by facts, the supernatural being the most prominent example).

But there are other definitions too. The other one I found in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”. I’m not sure how this would fit in with the argument against atheism because refusing to believe in something which has no supporting evidence could hardly be classified as of supreme importance.

Actually, now that I consider the point again I think maybe there is a certain amount of truth there. Many of the new atheists do take their opposition to religion very seriously and to some of them it does attain supreme importance, at least it seems that way if you look at their public activities.

But if a religion is just something that is taken extremely seriously then few people would have serious objections to it. The reason people do object to it is because real religion is based on unthinking dogma, superstition and ignorance, yet is still taken extremely seriously. I don’t think atheism can really be said to be based on dogma.

Or can it? At the recent Gods and Politics conference in Copenhagen the Atheist Alliance formulated an atheistic declaration on religion in public life which included statements such as “We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular” and “We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma”.

Is this atheist dogma? Atheism’s critics will no doubt suggest it is but I think they will be again guilty of being mislead by superficial similarities and failing to see the deeper truth. This “dogma” was formulated as a way of summarising the ideals which are the result of careful philosophical and scientific consideration. Religion does things the opposite way around: it takes the dogma found in its holy texts and that becomes its ideal. So again, really, there is little similarity between the two approaches.

I would also hope that the atheist declaration would be used for guidance only and failing to follow it would not be considered “heretical” as long as a reasonable justification could be provided. But if that’s the case I can see little point in having it at all.

Most atheists are “free thinkers”. They tend to have few assumed premises and fewer restrictions than other groups. That means that it’s harder for atheist to work as a group compared with the more tightly controlled organisations like most churches. For example, there is a split regarding whether overt criticism of religion is a better approach than the more traditional compromise which often resulted in a refusal to criticise religion at all. Organising atheists is often compared to herding cats!

Having a set of principles might remove one of atheism’s great strength’s (freedom from dogma) so I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. Looking through the full list (which is here) I can’t see anything much beyond common sense anyway, so what’s really the point?