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Facts, Logic, Morality

September 18, 2017 2 comments

I recently spent some time with a colleague discussing how to deal with a fundamentalist Christian’s irrational ideas that he had recently become aware of. I have to say that this fundy keeps his crazy ideas pretty much to himself and is otherwise a perfectly pleasant and reasonable person, so there was no real need to try to “convert” him, but sometimes the need to try arises – such as in a debate situation – so I thought I might describe my technique here.

I have had varying degrees of success with this in the past, from complete rejection (because some people are never going to change their views) to moderate success (for example, a person admitting to changing his opinions, or one who was on the road to enlightenment: that is, believing the same thing as me, and I am fully aware of how arrogant that sounds).

But where I have had some successes it has never been using just one technique. In addition, it is never easy to tell which method of persuasion is likely to be effective for a particular individual, so I have created a three step process which formalises by debating technique…

Step 1. Use facts.

My first instinct when debating controversial issues is to use facts. In general the issues I support can be easily supported with good evidence. But most people who believe in irrational ideas didn’t get to that point by following the facts, because there never are many supporting them. So it often follows that they can’t be moved by using facts either.

In addition there are always facts on both sides. Sometimes the “facts” on one side are barely facts at all (hence the quotes) but many people will believe an extremely doubtful or weak fact if it supports what they want to believe, even if there are a hundred which are much more certain against them.

Step 2. Use logic.

When step 1 fails it is often useful to try a process of logic. A complex idea can be broken down into a series of steps which logically follow and are difficult to deny. There doesn’t necessarily have to be any facts involved in this because logic usually transcends facts.

Step 3. Use morality.

If both facts and logic fail a good backup strategy, depending on the actual subject under discussion, is to use a moral or ethical argument. While morals vary from one person to another to some extent, there are common concepts shared by most people, including fairness, non-violence, and freedom.

So now I should give an example. Obviously I’m not going into details because half my readers won’t have even got this far and are unlikely to want to read 20 pages on the subject, but I will use a very condensed version of how I would handle the issue. So here’s an imaginary debate between me and a fundamentalist Christian…

Fundy: The Bible says that God created humans, so evolution cannot be true, and following events described there it makes it obvious the world is only 6000 years old. The Bible also says that it is the inerrant word of God and that the devil is always trying to find ways to deceive us with false truths. Without the Bible to guide us we will have no moral compass and there will be increased violence and evil around the world.

Me: You say that evolution cannot be true yet almost every expert in the world has concluded it is. Also there are many lines of evidence which anyone can understand which show evolution is an accurate theory to describe the variety of life on Earth. The age of the world cannot possibly be that short and I can show you evidence from geology, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and many other areas of science to show it is almost 14 billion years. The time light has spent travelling from distance galaxies shows this, for example. Let’s get these fact-based claims out of the way before we move on to the other stuff.

Fundy: But the Bible has been shown to be accurate, so how can it be wrong? Also there are many scientists who don’t believe in evolution or an old Earth. Here is a list of URLs for you to look at. Not following the Bible leads to you rejecting God’s offer of salvation and you just don’t want to admit his authority.

Me: The Bible is full of errors if you are prepared to accept scientific and historical evidence. For example, there is no evidence at all of major stories like Genesis, the Flood, Exodus, etc. These so-called scientists you cite are not publishing in scientific journals so I would say they are not practicing scientists. In fact most of them work at Answers in Genesis. If they are only looking in one place they will never be able to look at all the evidence. Let’s keep to facts and forget about God’s salvation for now.

Fundy: You have your facts and I have mine. Many serious researchers are religious and you cannot reject their research so easily. Also science changes all the time. Who can tell when a new theory might come along and contradict the Big Bang or evolution? You say yourself that science can never prove anything with 100% certainty, so why are you so sure that science is right and religion is wrong?

Me: Instead of just offering an opinion on who is doing science and who isn’t, we should look at a standard which is widely accepted. People who are engaged in science publish in reputable journals. Anyone who isn’t doing that isn’t really doing science. They might still be right, but based on past experience the scientific consensus is far more reliable than anything else. And you are right, we can never be 100% certain of anything, but it is still reasonable to accept a theory which is 99% likely to be at least a good approximation to the truth (like evolution), instead of one we can be 99% certain is wrong (like creation).

Fundy: You may say that but because you have no moral basis for your views they are really arbitrary. Without God to guide you and tell right from wrong, how can your views be taken seriously?

Me: Well this gets back to an old question in philosophy regarding the goodness of god. But first, let me say that using a god who probably doesn’t even exist as the basis of your morality seems worse than admitting that we really don’t even have a basis. And even if we pretend that your god does exist, how do we know he is good? Is it because he says so? And if your god is good, is he good because he’s god, or is he god because he’s good? In other words if we know he’s good then there must be some external criterion to judge that against, in which case why do we need a god anyway? And if whatever he does is good because he’s god then that seems a dangerous view to take because any dictator could make that claim.

Fundy: Wait, what? We know God is good because that’s one of the reasons we know he’s the one true God. Can you not see the logic in this?

Me: All I can see is a circular argument: God is good because he’s God. How do we know he’s God? Because he’s good. How do we know he’s good? Because he’s God.

Fundy: You know, that is a ridiculous simplification of a position that theologians have been debating for centuries. Do you really believe you have the answer to such a deep and meaningful problem?

Me: Well, yes. I think it really is that simple. The only reason it becomes complex is because many people want to reach a conclusion that supports the existence of a god. If they just followed the evidence they would see that it’s really quite simple: that there is no good reason to believe a god exists.

Fundy: The Bible talks about people like you who use false logic to try to lead believers away from the truth. You do realise that you are risking eternal damnation for your excessive pride and inability to accept the authority of God, don’t you?

Me: I know that according to the narrative of the New Testament your god prefers to inflict people who refuse to accept his dominance with eternal torture. This is the same god who is advertised as being the “God of love” and who has a prophet (Jesus) who preaches understanding and acceptance. This seems somewhat contradictory to me.

Fundy: God gives you the choice of believing in him or not. If you don’t accept his offer you deserve all you get. He sacrificed his son so that you could have this hope of salvation, yet you refuse to take it.

Me: It’s not a choice I make. I simply cannot believe your god exists. Should I pretend to believe when I really don’t? Would God not know that I’m not being honest with him? And if your god wants me to believe in him why doesn’t he make his presence more obvious? Why do I have to rely on faith which I cannot force myself to do that?

Fundy: His presence is obvious to most of us. Why do you think that most people in the world are Christians?

Me: Actually, they’re not. Only a third of the population identify as Christians and even then that is purely a matter of their societal norms. You are a Christian because that is the history of the country you were born in. If you were born in India you would almost certainly be a Hindu. If you were born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. It seems that the god you follow depends on your culture, not on which (if any) god really exists.

Fundy: Well you seem to have convinced yourself that these false beliefs are true. I have tried to show you the truth but your pride prevents you from accepting it. Don’t complain when you end up in Hell.

Me: Am I a bad person? Have I been guilty of any terrible crimes? I donate to charities, I am a productive member of my society, I don’t harm any other people. Why do I deserve eternal damnation from this “loving God” of yours?

Fundy: God is just, and he is only doing what you deserve. It is not for me or you to judge whether he is right or wrong – he is God and can do whatever he likes.

Me: So a person who spends his whole life torturing, killing, etc and then accepts Jesus as his saviour shortly before dying goes to heaven, but a person who spends his life doing good, but cannot accept the teaching of your religion because there is no evidence, suffers forever. If that is how your god works then, even if he did exist, I would not accept him.

Fundy: And there’s the proof that you are evil.

Me: OK, let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

As you can see, in the fictitious example above (but one based on real experience) the fundy isn’t converted on the spot, but I would hope that amongst the points I made: that the evidence is against him, that logic is against him, and that an understanding of basic fairness and morality is against him; there might be something to make him a little bit less certain than he was.

Or, maybe, he might exhibit the backfire effect and just “double-down” on his beliefs because they are shown to be probably untrue. But the three pronged attack makes that less likely because I have found that the final argument (the unfairness of God’s punishment) often gets through to people when the more rational points don’t.

Whatever the end effect is, debating this way is fun, and any progress – no matter how small – is OK with me.

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Don’t Fool Yourself

July 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.

The Opium of the People

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

The Power of Anecdotes

November 1, 2016 1 comment

I recently discussed a range of subjects with a quite intelligent and thoughtful religious person (yes, they do exist). These included topics such as whether “god did it” is a useful answer to questions we might have about the real world, what limitations science should have on the questions it attempts to answer, and the nature of morality.

Since I don’t have any particular religious view to defend I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.

I would have to spend a lot of time carefully examining claims with little physical, objective evidence supporting them. I would have to reverse direction after taking a wrong turn because I followed misleading anecdotal evidence. I would spend so much time trying to collate all the various claims that I would have no time left to evaluate them.

That’s why anecdotes don’t count. In fact, everyone knows that anecdotes don’t count because they only look at a tiny proportion of them, specifically the ones which support the worldview the person favours. So a Christian will take a lot of notice of people who say they have been healed by Jesus but ignore claims of the power of crystals, or how a disease was cured after a person was abducted by aliens, or how the Asvins (Hindu gods of healing) helped a person who couldn’t be cured by conventional medicine.

I’m not saying all of these anecdotes are untrue, or that in a perfect world they shouldn’t be investigated. What I am saying is that an anecdote by itself has very little value. If we gave equal weight to all anecdotes in a fair way we would have to believe in a huge number of mutually incompatible ideas. We would have to believe dozens of gods were performing healings. We would have to believe in the power of crystals, of herbal remedies, of homeopathy, of alien interventions, and of hundreds of other things as well.

Just saying that (for example) Christian healing through the power of prayer is true but all the other stuff isn’t is classic cherry picking. If you believe in using anecdotes as evidence then you should believe all the anecdotes, not just the ones which agree with your preferred religion or new-age belief.

Or, you could believe none of them. And that is the far more rational approach that I take.

But we shouldn’t just totally dismiss anecdotes. If there is sufficient reason to think that a consistent pattern is emerging then the idea should be tested using more objective, systematic methodologies. I would suggest two approaches to testing whether the anecdotes have merit: first have an unbiased expert look at the evidence objectively; or second, set up a scientific experiment or trial of some sort.

For example, if a lot of people report that their health improves after friends and family pray to Jesus to help them (and remember that the Christian God will answer prayers according to numerous Bible verses such as John 15:7) then let’s test that claim. We know that people sometimes get better spontaneously, that they sometimes feel better because they think they should, and that there are many other confounding factors, so let’s test the claim using a double-blind trial.

And when we do we get very conflicting results. Most show no effect. Some show that the people prayed for get worse. Some show they get better. These are exactly the results we get when we test other ideas which have doubtful prior probability, such as homeopathy. Therefore, whatever the anecdotes tell us, we can say that our interim conclusion is that prayer offers no consistent solution to health problems. In other words faith healing and prayer don’t work.

Or, if we hear of an apparently miraculous cure of some sort, such as that attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, then let’s have a closer look at the claims. It turns out in that case, that almost all the claims were untrue and that the conclusion that a miracle occurred is embarrassingly absurd (see my blog post “Sinner or Saint?” from 2016-09-07 for details). So we can reject that anecdote based on better evidence.

Remember, that these are interim results, but all results in science are interim so we shouldn’t treat them as any less certain than other conclusions reached in the same general area of human knowledge.

You might object and say that by dismissing anecdotes as evidence in themsleves that I potentially miss out on new discoveries. Well that is a risk I must take because if only one in a million anecdotes genuinely represent something new and real then I really can’t take any of them seriously and risk being mislead by the other 999,999. It’s that simple.

God Did It

June 17, 2016 33 comments

One of the most common tricks that religious people use to escape the fact that their beliefs have been refuted by scientific knowledge is to try to assimilate the new ideas into their own, but add the element of divine intervention.

Here’s an example: Traditionally Christians have believed that life was created by God in a few days and that nothing much has changed since then. But since the Theory of Evolution was developed and since the extraordinary amount of evidence supporting it has been discovered that original myth is no longer viable. So now a common response (apart from just denying the facts as many fundamentalists do) is to say “Sure, evolution is true. That’s how God works with life”.

Another example might be the origin of the Universe. The Bible gives an account of this in Genesis and that’s exactly what people believed until science uncovered the real facts regarding the Big Bang event about 13.7 billion years ago. So the Christians (again, those who don’t simply deny the overwhelming evidence) now say “But who started the Big Bang? Of course, it was God”.

In reality, this brand of believer (it’s not just Christians) could summarise their ideas in three simple words: “God did it”.

I recently heard an interesting analogy. When I walk into a room and turn on the light most people would accept that closing the light switch simply allows the electricity to flow to the bulb which then emits light. But using the “God did it” gambit I could say instead that the “Light Fairy” did it. Flicking the switch is simply a signal for the fairy to do her magical work and provide me with light.

What I’m saying is that God and the fairy aren’t necessary. Adding that extra element provides no extra level of knowledge we didn’t already have. It just makes things unnecessarily complex.

In addition to this it is entirely arbitrary. If we were going to add an extra layer of control to evolution (or any other phenomenon) why should it be God? Why not advanced aliens? Or psychic powers? And if it is a god, then which one? What’s so special about the Christian God? Could it be Thor or Zeus instead?

Some people say there are particular aspects of these processes which indicate a supernatural power must be involved. After all, how could a “blind” process like the naturalistic form of evolution lead to advanced life? Wouldn’t a “guided” form be more likely?

Well no. Let’s look at how evolution has worked. Over 99% of species which have existed in the past have gone extinct. Does that sound like how a god would operate? It seems very inefficient to me. But let’s just say that is a viable process for a god to use. What would have happened if we found the exact opposite: that every species was successful? That would have sounded even more like a god, wouldn’t it? And, no doubt, the religious people would be pointing out how their god was responsible.

So it doesn’t matter what the facts are, the “God did it” hypothesis can be invoked and it can never be proved wrong. It can’t be wrong, because it isn’t something that can be tested. But because of that, it can’t be right either. It’s actually worse than something that is wrong.

If we test evolution instead we can find many ways it might be wrong. If every species was successful evolution would immediately be disproved because elimination of some species while others survive is its main mechanism. If one type of life didn’t lead to another through gradual change evolution would also be disproved because small mutations being selected and eventually dominating is an evolutionary mechanism.

And what about the Big Bang? Well for it to be true there has to be some precise observations which agree with theory. The universe has to be expanding, there has to be certain abundances of elements, there has to be background radiation left over from the initial expansion, and several other more minor points. So what do we find? Well all of those requirements are satisfied, including a cosmic microwave background exactly as expected if the Big Bang is true.

But God could still be involved, right? Maybe the cosmic microwave background is just a remnant of the process he used. Sure, maybe. And if there was none then God could still be involved. And if the temperature had been 1 or 5 or 100 or 500 instead of 2.72548 then maybe that was the sign of God. Again, anything is possible because “God did it” is just not a theory.

Not only is it not a theory, but it is nothing. It’s a childish, meaningless inanity which isn’t even worthy of discussion – yes, I understand the irony in the fact that I have just used a blog post to do just that!

If anyone wants to use this in a serious discussion then we need a few details. You know, the sort of details which science gives us, like when, how, or where God did it. Then we can do some serious testing and see whether there really is any merit in the idea. Until then, these religious types should just keep the silly fairy tales where they belong and let the adults get on with the real discussions of reality.