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Lloyd Geering

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Lloyd Geering is a famous New Zealand theologian. Actually, that isn’t necessarily much of a claim because my country isn’t exactly famous for its religious belief or its theologians, but Geering is still a pretty interesting character. He is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and recently turned 100.

Maybe the most famous aspect of his life was an incident where he faced charges of heresy (or, more accurately, disturbing the peace of the Church, and doctrinal error) in 1967 for his controversial views. He is the only person to have faced that charge, and it was withdrawn after an agreement was reached.

The Church might have decided it would be best to avoid the whole issue after Geering addressed the Presbyterian General Assembly for 90 minutes, disputing the belief that God created the Earth and is still watching over it, and claiming that Jesus’ remains are still somewhere in Palestine.

It’s pretty moderate stuff, really, and shows just how far we have come since then. Today we would think very little of that sort of claim. In fact it might be more worthwhile to discuss whether Jesus even really existed, making the claims of what happened after his death somewhat irrelevant.

But now I should move on from that incident to some of the opinions he presented in a recent interview I listened to. I have to say that the majority of what he said made perfect sense, but there were a few things I disagreed with. So let’s look at some of his thoughts…

He initially became interested in religion when he joined a student Christian group at Otago University. He did this primarily for the social benefits, rather than any true religious interest, but that grew later.

I have often said that churches are a great place to meet people and establish social connections. This has nothing to do with the existence of any supernatural entities, of course.

He initially saw god as a mystery beyond human understanding, but later realized that god is not a supernatural being, but an important word or concept created by humans.

I guess there is a lot of truth in this. Obviously, as an atheist, I think god is a human invention, but the idea that the concept of god is important, even if it has no real physical existence, seems fair. The word “god” is often used by completely non-religious people, including myself. And it features in 8 of the quotes I have from Stephen Hawking (also an atheist) including stuff like “God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.” Clearly god is a useful metaphor.

He thinks faith is an attitude of hope or trust in the future, and in friends. He tries not to undermine the faith of others, but has said that “god is over” in his books.

If people choose to read his books they should be prepared to have their faith challenged as well, I guess. But I think defining faith in the way he does just avoids the real issue. The sort of faith people have in religious teachings is far beyond simple hope or confidence. It is an often unshakeable belief in something, even though that belief would be absurd in any other context. I think he over-rates faith in this way, but so do most other people.

After the heresy trial he realised that the church is really just another human organisation, and primarily intent on maintaining itself. He thinks the church hasn’t kept up with theology.

I have discussed theology with several people and this seems to be true. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised about this because in most fields the academic, theoretical branch (like theology) is generally ahead of the more mundane, day-to-day implementation of that field (the church).

But it seems apparent that churches are less driven by theory and by new information than other organisations, and change happens very slowly, so I guess the practice of religion is likely to be more behind the theory that in other areas. And it seems that the practice is changing so slowly that the whole idea of religion is being rejected. Good thing too!

He thinks people have realised that the secular world is OK, but use Christian tradition to draw upon. He goes to a church called St. Andrews on the Terrrace. When asked, what is the point he says it is to join other people, who are more tolerant of gays, etc. He says that churches were opposed initially to all the great forward steps, and were regressive, but they didn’t use to be like that, before the 18th century. The church is opposed to the secular world, but the secular world is a natural extension to Christianity.

So, where do I start? It is true that our modern science-based, secular societies did originate from Christianity dominated societies, but I don’t think that implies that we should thank Christianity in many ways for what we have today. It is more like we progressed to where we are despite Christianity, not because of it. And he is right that churches, in general, are opposed to progress, but (again in general, because there are exceptions) I cannot see how it has been any better in the past.

He says the central doctrine of Christianity is that god became human, but god is just people’s highest ideas or values, such as love, justice, honesty, and purity. There is only one world, the physical world. The world of thought allows us to interpret reality, through the concept of god, which has no real existence.

I always feel like this tactic of defining god as some sort of immaterial human trait or other poorly defined concept, is a bit disingenuous. God has a specific meaning for most people: a supernatural, conscious entity. If Geering thinks there is some sort of conceptual idea common to humans which is an important force in our progress then he should use a different word to describe it, to avoid confusion.

He was asked: in the past god stopped us being too hubristic. What stops us now? He says use the example of Jesus. He was a great teacher of wisdom, lived life to full, and accepted others. God is in us as a set of values. In the past the notion of bad people getting their comeuppance in the next world provided some comfort for many, but that is not Christian. It is Biblical. The Bible is an important set of human writings, but shows prejudice, is fallible, and parts of it are wrong. We should also recognise that it contains a lot very valuable content too, and is of huge cultural importance.

It is true that Christianity does prevent hubris in many, but I think the price is far too great, because the message that everyone is a sinner and barely worthy of God’s forgiveness is a particularly damaging one, I think. I do agree about the Bible though: it is an important source of cultural detail, it is hugely compromised (especially in the Old Testament), and also has some fairly good positive philosophy. But in the end, it is just another work of mythology and should be treated as such.

When asked about his attitude to “new atheism” he says he agrees with a lot of what Richard Dawkins says, but thinks he is too extreme and doesn’t realize how important the concept of god is. He thinks that concept has caused a lot of trouble, but has done more good.

I always find Richard Dawkins extremely reasonable, except when severely tested by great ignorance, but I guess the fact that he dares to clearly say what he really thinks can be challenging to some people. Dawkins actually gives Christianity too much credit, in my opinion, because he concentrates far too much on the positivity of the New Testament without acknowledging the bad aspects.

And whether Christianity has done more good or more bad is very much open to question. I don’t think there is a clear case either way. I would tend towards saying the bad outweighs the good – especially because of its contribution to the Dark Ages, and the numerous atrocities carried out on its name – but I am open to alternative views on this.

Geering calls himself a non-theist. There are many definitions of god. The idea of a single god occurred 2500 years ago, and the opening lines of Genesis represent a dividing line in culture, because it was the first example of monotheism. The idea also lead to modern science.

It does seem that early Judaism was the first definitive example of monotheism, although there were many religions before that which had similar ideas. I’m not sure why that is so significant though, because supernatural belief in one or many deities still has the same negative consequences. And I always have problems with the idea that science came from Christianity when clearly it came from Greek philosophy and was actually repressed by Christianity.

He has faith in the human species, more so now than in past. He thinks things are getting better, and thinks we should have more confidence now than at the start of the 20th century. He says nationalism is weaker now, we have a global community, there was no World War 3 (and nukes helped prevent that), and that we are now more accepting of differences in cultures, gender roles, etc.

I tend to agree that things are gradually improving, apart from a few rather obvious issues we have today. This is mainly due to religion being abandoned I would have thought, so I’m not sure how this fits in with his other hypotheses.

Finally, prayer. He never prays – it is not even an option – but he does meditate. On the other hand, he thinks prayer is a form of meditation, that confession is self-reflective, and that we answer our own prayers.

Sure, there are positive benefits to prayer, but there a lot of negatives as well. While prayer can give people subconscious motivation to get things done, it can also give them a reason not to do anything, because “God will handle it for them”. And if he doesn’t? Well, God works in mysterious ways!

So I think Geeing has some interesting ideas, and a lot of them are quite rational. But he still has that underlying predisposition towards seeing Christianity as a source of positive influence. If he approached his ideas of how the world works from a more neutral starting point I think he would give religion a lot less consideration.

Still, he is just a theologian, so I think I can be generous to give him a pass mark!

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No More -isms

February 10, 2018 Leave a comment

I am often challenged about why I reject various beliefs, such as liberalism, theism, libertarianism, or feminism. My thoughts on this are, that if you identify with a particular doctrine with is described with a word ending in -ism then you are probably being needlessly dogmatic. But then I remembered that I often identify with two (and maybe more) of those myself: atheism and skepticism.

So why would I ridicule one person’s belief (like the belief in libertarianism or feminism) while I give myself a free pass to pursue beliefs of my own? Well, maybe I’m just a hypocrite – that’s certainly possible – but I would like to use a slightly more generous interpretation of the situation and say that my beliefs are more a lack of a commitment to a particular idea than a close allegiance to one.

So atheism isn’t really a dogma of any kind, in fact it’s the antithesis of that, because it specifically precludes acceptance of any dogmatic, religious belief. I do agree that skepticism is in a slightly more debatable category. It could be seen as a belief system in some ways – in fact one meaning of the word refers to a specific philosophical system. But that’s not the meaning I’m using here. In this context skepticism refers to the preference for treating new truth claims with a level of suspicion until good, objective evidence for them is demonstrated.

So I think I can defend my -isms fairly well, but what objection to I have to the others? Well, the main one is that they are just unnecessary. Not only do they provide no positive benefit, but undue adherence to them is potentially dangerous. People who take their beliefs too seriously might follow the belief’s dictates instead of looking at the facts of specific incidents in the real world.

For example, there might be a need to decide whether a new industry – let’s choose self-driving cars as an example – should be regulated to ensure safety standards. A libertarian (that is, someone who follows libertarianism) might be tempted to say that more regulation is always bad and that the market should decide.

But not only do we see numerous examples of market failures (in fact the phrase “market failure” has become a common one in these sorts of discussions) but it can be shown through pure logic that markets often don’t work.

That’s not to say that markets don’t work quite well in some situations, but they certainly cannot be relied on in every possible place they might be used. But a true follower of libertarianism will think they do work everywhere, or at least will think they work in a far wider range of situations than a careful examination of the facts would support.

So there’s really no need for libertarianism at all, because anyone looking at the facts and at the outcomes required in a particular situation could just use common sense, and logic, and examination of the consequences in the real world to see whether a market or a regulation is a better choice.

So let’s look at another -ism now, let’s really jump out of the frying pan and into the fire and look at feminism. Is feminism necessary? Well, as you could probably guess from the general tone of this post, I don’t think so.

I know many people claim feminism is just wanting equality for women, but of course that is often not true, just like libertarianism isn’t usually simply about the fair and appropriate use of markets. Feminism in many cases goes far beyond that and demands special privileges for women, equality where it already exists, and is generally biased towards a female-centric worldview.

I’m not saying that there have been no good outcomes from feminism, but I am saying that the usual realisation of it can easily produce many bad outcomes too. There are many situations where females are now enjoying benefits because the bias is now in the opposite direction to what many feminists imagine. For example girls seem to be getting more benefit from our education system, women enrol in universities at a greater rate than men, women live longer lives, and they get less punishment under the law, etc. Hell, maybe I should be a masculinist!

And the issues where feminism might be useful – such as equal pay, equal participation in society, etc – don’t require feminism, they just require fairness. And most people have an inherent sense of fairness. I want women to have equal rights, but I am certainly not a feminist!

I see the down-side of -isms all the time. I see people react to an event which is actually quite nuanced in simple-minded, thoughtless ways, simply because of a knee-jerk reaction they have caused by their favourite -ism.

Note that I have picked on that particular suffix because it is catchy, but other worldviews which end in a different suffix, like Christianity, should also be included in my argument for completeness.

I know they are not doing this deliberately – and that’s what makes the whole phenomenon even more scary and dangerous – but the sort of thought that is going on is like this: there’s an event I want to comment on; I am a (insert your favourite -ism here) so I should think this; I will write some tedious, biased crap on the appropriate discussion forum.

And when a more nuanced person, like myself (well OK, sometimes I take a hard line to make a particular point, but I do make an effort to see both sides of most stories) comes along and points out any deficiencies in these arguments there is rarely a reasoned rebuttal to those points, because the person makes that comment just because that’s the way things are always portrayed according to their -ism.

If I suggest we need a new regulation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions to reduce climate change the libertarians will usually disagree, saying government regulation never works and we need less government involvement, not more. But they could admit that the market is the cause of climate change, not the solution, while still maintaining that markets are a useful tool in society overall. But if you follow libertarianism you really cannot say that.

And if I dare to suggest that females are already doing well in our education system and they really don’t need any further assistance, then the feminists will attack me with allegations of sexism and mansplaining. If they just admitted that there are situations where women are given an unfair advantage as well as other situations where the opposite is true, then they would be easier to take more seriously. But if you follow feminism almost everything looks like an attack on women and sensible discussion is difficult.

So I say abandon your -isms. That doesn’t mean to switch to another, even worse, belief system which just doesn’t happen to end in -ism, of course. So those who libertarianism shouldn’t switch to anarchy, and if you currently follow feminism, please don’t become a feminazi!

Good or Bad

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

While I’m in the middle of a phase of religion bashing I thought it might be a good time to resurrect (an ironic choice of word) the old subject of religion in schools. This has appeared as an issue in the media here a few weeks back, so the subject is topical.

In the past, I have sort of shrugged off the issue saying something like, the young people nowadays are too smart to be taken in by some blatantly transparent myths and are likely to consign religion to the same category of fiction as the Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

This is no doubt true in most cases. Because, there is certainly reason to think that our civilisation’s childhood, where it relied on ancient traditional stories as a basis for cultural identity, is now starting to reach a conclusion, and we are growing up and abandoning the imaginary invisible man in the sky.

Here in New Zealand the “no religion” group is about to reach 50% of the population. Additionally, as I have said in the past, most people who indicate Christian as their religion on the census don’t really have any commitment to that belief and never attend church, read the Bible, or even really know much about it.

But it’s when previously powerful belief systems are threatened that they can become most dangerous. It’s a bit like a wild animal’s attack reflex when it’s cornered. So we should be especially careful now that churches don’t make a last ditch stand before they are consigned to the rubbish heap of bad ideas like all their predecessors. And maybe even more worryingly, we need to be careful that even worse religions, like Islam, don’t fill the void left by Christianity.

As I said above, most kids will not be taken in by the silly stuff they are taught in Bible in schools. But it is not the well-balanced, sensible, practical majority we need to worry about. It is the out of touch, emotionally and intellectually immature minority which are most at risk.

As I write this I realise that perhaps I have “shot myself in the foot” to a certain extent, because you might make a case to say that it is those who are not coping well who might have most to gain from joining a church and getting extra support and friendship.

I’m sure that there are some people who actually are better off joining a religion, and I have never argued for complete eradication of religion – at least I can’t recall an occasion, although I might have done during one of my more extreme rants! On the other hand, there might be more appropriate groups than a church those people could gain even more from, without the need to resort to superstition.

At this stage it is apparent that I am still conflicted on this subject. Don’t misunderstand, I am totally committed to the idea that religions are fake and have little purpose beyond that which can be provided far better by other knowledge systems (science for facts, philosophy for values), but fake stuff can still have value for certain people.

In the final analysis, this subject is just like every other: it is not a matter of black and white, or good and bad, just like I have so often said in past blog posts. I think that if kids were taught positive philosophical beliefs or given instruction in comparative religion in schools that would be of far more value than simple indoctrination in the dominant religion of the time, but maybe traditional Christian instruction – as along as it is controlled and doesn’t turn into aggressive proselytising – is OK.

Unfortunately the temptation to regress to aggressive conversion – with the threats of torture in Hell for unbelievers, etc – is just too likely according to many reports in the media. So maybe it would be be best just to expel religions from schools because of current bad behaviour.

Well, this blog post has certainly turned out to be one of my most indecisive ever! So, in summary, religion in schools. Good or bad? Well, yes… yes, definitely good or bad.

Revolting and Primitive

November 1, 2017 Leave a comment

I like to get involved with controversial topics when I debate people on-line. This sort of makes sense because what sort of interesting debate are you going to have over something that isn’t controversial? When it comes to controversy two topics tend to come to the fore: politics and religion. And if you read this blog you will see these are two of my favourite subjects!

The “discussion” I want to consider here was about who is to blame for the anti-immigrant sentiment which is giving right-oriented politics traction in various parts of the world (the US and Europe in particular).

My hypothesis was that moderate governments have been too lenient – largely through a propensity towards political correctness, and a wish to implement a quick and easy boost to their economies – regarding Muslim immigration into countries like Germany, the UK, and France.

So I made the following somewhat inflammatory remark on the subject: “I’m sure many Muslims are nice people but Islam is a revolting, primitive religion, and you can’t blame people for being worried about it. If moderate parties won’t control the power of Islam then people have to vote for more extreme parties. It’s unfortunate but you can only blame the moderates.”

Notice that, while this could be seen as controversial, I am sticking to my standards of criticising ideas rather than people. I genuinely believe the bit about many Muslims being nice people, because I know some, and they are. But that doesn’t detract from the second idea that the Islamic religious/political belief system itself is not so nice, although “primitive” and “revolting” is possibly a bit on the extreme end of the potential range of criticisms!

Of course, the SJWs immediately jumped on their band-wagon (do they ever leave it?) and criticised me by saying something like “it is you who is revolting and primitive”.

And that’s exactly what I wanted, because I replied with “yes, I often blow myself up and kill innocent children, I don’t let women participate as equals in society, I use stoning and amputation of limbs as a punishment, and I support the death penalty for apostasy”.

Strangely, the SJWs seemed to shut-up after that, although I did get a couple of messages of support!

Often in that situation I would get some reasonably fair counters to my point. People might say I am choosing the worst aspects of Islam and ignoring the best. Or they might say someone who supports those ideas is not a true Muslim. Or they might say other religions and belief systems are just as bad.

I don’t believe any of those ideas hold up to much scrutiny, but at least they are orders of magnitude better than the simple-minded ad hominem I got.

But enough of that indignation at being castigated in such insulting terms, because, as I said, that was exactly what I wanted. What about my response to the possible reasonable responses I listed above?

What about the criticism that I am concentrating on the worst aspects of Islam? Well yes, I am in a way, because those are the aspects which affect me, and the culture I most identify with. If there were a lot of positive aspects which I felt an affinity for I would have mentioned those, but quite honestly I cannot think of anything, except for the very general wish for more diversity to make life more interesting.

Remember that I am criticising Islam here. If I was asked to give my opinion on an individual Muslim I would very likely say that I liked them, because there is so much more to most people than their religion. But for some people there actually isn’t much more. The people who are prepared to kill themselves and others for their religion are very much defined by it. This gets back to my oft-repeated idea that “religion is OK, as long as you don’t take it too seriously”!

But what about the second point, that the people committing atrocities around the world are not motivated by religion, or aren’t true Muslims? This is probably the most pernicious lie that the PC left tell themsleves. We know these people are directly motivated by their religion because they tell us they are. And there aren’t many ideologies, apart from religion and it’s promise of entry into paradise after death, which people are prepared to die for.

And then there’s the idea that other religions (and other “belief systems” such as political ideologies and even atheism) are just as bad as Islam. But are they?

Look at a list of who is responsible for most of the revolting and primitive (there are those words again) acts around the world. In almost every case these are directly motivated by a belief in Islamic religious and political doctrine, including the idea that those who sacrifice themselves for the cause will be admitted to paradise in the after-life, the idea that non-Muslims can be killed or enslaved, and the wish to initiate a final battle where Islam will emerge dominant.

Do we see that from Christians? No, not any more at least, because Christianity has been tamed by modern secular politics. What about Buddhists? Well disappointingly we do to some extent, but not in such a wide-ranging way. Do we see it from atheists? Of course not, because how can having no belief in a religion lead to acting on the associated dogma, because there is none! Do we see it from neo-Marxists or neo-Nazis or any other extreme political group? Again, no, not much.

So it seems to me that my criticism is fair and that none of the responses to it really make much sense, unless you are really desperate to find a way to defend an idea that you think you must defend, irrespective of it’s true harm to the world.

So I don’t regret my comment. As I said, it was on the extreme end of what I really think, but I think I made my point effectively, and that was my intention.

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.

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.