Tuesday 29 May 2007

Redefining faith

You thought faith was defined as 'belief without evidence'? Think again...

According to JP Holding in a recent interview with Jason Rennie of The Sci Phi Show podcast, faith is actually more like 'loyalty':


Audio here: http://thesciphishow.com/audio/tspsoc41.mp3 (about 19 minutes)

It's easy to counter arguments if you simply redefine the terms...

Jason interviewed PZ Myers recently as well, and they talked briefly about The God Delusion. I wouldn't recommend it as the audio quality is abysmal (poor phone line?). But if you're still curious, have a good pair of ears and a quiet place to listen, the audio is here:


Sunday 27 May 2007

My problem with God

Since my rejection of the God Hypothesis -- at age 14 or 15 -- I had, and still have, one major problem with the whole business of religion (and Christianity in particular, but that's probably because I was brought up Anglican).

My mother wanted me to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I had in previous years shown signs of a religious turn of mind, though I don't think her insistence that I went to Sunday School had much to do with that. Mum has herself been a Sunday School teacher, and so I was sent to the Sunday School at our local Methodist church, which took place after the church service. We were an Anglican family, but my parents didn't like the local Anglican church as it was too 'high'. It was also farther away.

I don't think Sunday School had any effect on me whatever. I can remember only three things about it. The first, and most lasting, is that there was an older boy in the group whose presence there seemed quite incongruous, as he was an obnoxious bully.

The second thing I remember was a temporary teacher we had one Sunday who, after the 'lesson' (of which, naturally, I remember not a thing) he attempted to be 'matey' with us by asking if we'd been watching anything good on 'telly' -- a slang word for TV that my parents abhorred. I remember being quite shocked (yes, I was that prissy back then).

The third memory is of an actual lesson. Maybe because it was in the form of allegory the lesson has stuck with me. It was a story about some crabs, who went to special classes every Sunday to learn how to walk forwards instead of sideways. With practice these crabs became quite good at walking forwards. But their teacher discovered that during the rest of each week they continued to walk sideways, only walking forwards during their Sunday lessons, and she admonished them for not taking their new expertise into their everyday lives.

And that's it. With some suitable prodding I could perhaps remember something else about my Sunday School classes (which seemed to go on for years and years), but for now that's all I can recall. Eventually I stopped going. I don't remember what prompted the end of my attendance.

It was much later that my mother suggested I be confirmed, which caused me to voice the doubts that had surfaced gradually since I stopped going to Sunday School. Nevertheless I agreed to attend 'catechism class' one-on-one with our local vicar.

It became fairly clear to me during my confirmation classes that my doubts about the existence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, invisible supreme being who could hear my thoughts were not going to be refuted by anything the vicar was likely to say to me. The clincher was his woolly-minded agreement to confirm me even after I told him that nothing he had said to me or given me to read had lessened my doubts. I politely declined his offer.

But I wanted to believe. The vicar's inability to provide a sound reason (such as, for instance, evidence) for belief in God left me with the conviction that clerics were not best placed to provide rational arguments and I should look to philosophy. So I read Descartes. He seemed to be promising a reasoned proof of the existence of God, and I was quite impressed by his methodology. His argument, however, stank. And so I moved on. But every 'proof' I encountered from then on was no such thing, only making me surer than ever that the whole God-thing was a man-made artefact conjured out of an understandable fear of the unknown.

I'd thought about the question a great deal. I'd done some research. I considered that I'd given the God Hypothesis a fair hearing, and it had failed to deliver. That, I thought, was the end of it.

But it wasn't. There remained this one problem. I don't pretend to be a great philosophical thinker. My research wasn't exhaustive. So I don't consider that I've covered every aspect of whether or not God exists. But I do consider that I investigated the question sufficiently enough to come to a conclusion, a conclusion with sufficient probability of being correct -- of being true.

The problem that remains is this. With moderate thinking and rudimentary research I came to a conclusion that I think anyone would come to if they had done the same. Yet millions continue to believe (or at least say they believe) in the existence of God. Not only that, but they also subscribe to some very specific and often idiotic notions about this supposed deity. Just look at scripture and you'll find some very weird things. Which scripture you look at doesn't really matter, but that brings me to the next absurdity. Which particular set of idiotic notions do you subscribe to if you're of a religious bent? They can't all be right, because they patently contradict each other.

It's not just the millions of believers that cause me concern, it's also the smaller number among my family, acquaintances and colleagues. They appear to hold beliefs about the nature of existence, the nature of the universe, the nature of physical reality, that are fundamental to how one conducts oneself in life. How can you expect to have a rational conversation -- about anything -- with someone who believes things that are so obviously irrational?

I do wonder how many professed Anglicans actually believe in the personal God of the Bible. I even wonder if Archbishop Rowan Williams believes in the personal God of the Bible. As the established church, the Church of England seems to me such a watered-down version of faith -- as if those who write 'C of E' on their census forms have less conviction than those who write 'Jedi Knight'.

There's not much chance of finding out, either. 'Faith' in England is seen as a personal matter, not to be discussed in polite society (except maybe on Sunday, at church, and then only on special dispensation, with a kind of hesitant apology). And yet the established church pervades UK society, nonetheless. Tune in to the BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 every weekday and you'll hear Thought For The Day, which more often than not is an irrelevant collection of platitudes laced with the arrant nonsense of some kind of professed faith.

I'm glad we're at last seeing some attempt to expose the irrational aspects of faith. The publication of Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion has brought media attention to those who do not believe in God, and it has given discussion of atheism much-needed perceived legitimacy. Such discussion in the UK has generally been fairly mild, in comparison to some truly awful TV discussions in the US that you can find on YouTube -- especially those broadcast on Fox. Cringe-making for other reasons is this brief interview of Richard Dawkins by Bill O'Reilly of Fox News:

Direct link to YouTube video:

Professor Dawkins does well not to grab his interviewer warmly by the throat in an attempt to throttle some sense into him.

(One of the things I find particularly annoying about debates between atheists and theists -- especially the evangelical Christian kind of theists -- is the evangelists' fall-back position. After unsuccessfully attempting to debate atheists using various invalid arguments, such as the Argument from Personal Experience, or the Argument from Design, the evangelist will say something like this: "All you need to do is accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Saviour -- then you will be given all the proof you need." It's a sort of trap. Accept something without evidence. Believe it. Then you will be given proof. But of course at that stage you're already a believer. What need have you of proof? That is the very definition of faith. It's also a delusion.)

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Theological truth is too deep for the likes of us

From a week ago (this is a bit of 'catch up' to help initiate the new blog):

Thought for the Day for 17 May on BBC Radio 4 was another example of 'theology being too intellectually demanding for popular criticism.' The Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, starts off with a self-deprecating anecdote, but by the end of this abstruse three minutes and fifteen seconds it's clear that he reveres theology as the ultimate intellectual endeavour.

(Thought for the Day starts about 16'50" in.)

Download RealPlayer here, or read the transcript, from which the following is excerpted:
What about the sort of truth that's less about accuracy and more about the call to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more. Faith, for me at least, is so much more about this order of truth, than the question of whether my opinions are merely correct.
He seems to be saying, "What about the sort of truth that...isn't true?"
Which is why I think the best theology is always pausing and stuttering, always not quite able to express itself, always mounting unsuccessful raids on the unspeakable.
Quite. I think I get it now: theology is about the kind of truth that transcends 'mere' correctness -- the kind of truth that doesn't actually have to be true. Fine, just don't expect to have a rational discussion about it any time soon. (I've got this pinhead here, and according to what I can see through my magnifying glass I'm an angel short....)

Repost: "Another Out" (from the RD.net forum)

It's been a few months since I discovered RichardDawkins.net, but it didn't take me long to add the site to my newsreader, and not much longer to register for the discussion forum (though to be honest I haven't been very active there). But I did make a 'new visitor' post, and was delighted with the welcome I found. For anyone reading the posts here at Evil Burnee who is curious how I came to my present position on the issue of faith, I can do no better than repost my first message (from 17 December 2006) on the RD.net forum.

Reposted from: http://richarddawkins.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=52516#52516

After years of silent scepticism (mostly out of 'respect' for close family members who profess religious belief in varying degrees) I've become more and more appalled by what is perpetrated throughout the world in the name of faith.

Though I was brought up as 'Anglican' I harboured doubts about the whole business of God and faith, until it became time for me to be 'confirmed'. For me this was rather late, at age 14 or 15 (I don't remember exactly when), but I was doing physics and chemistry at school, and was aware of some incompatibility with what I was being asked to believe. But I dutifully went each week to our local vicar for one-on-one 'catechism classes' -- with the result that each week I became more and more confirmed in my belief that it was all bunk. Our vicar was patient with me, and attempted to answer my queries and counter my doubts. But it was clear to me by then that I could not in all honesty declare a belief I didn't have.

So I consider my confirmation classes a success -- in convincing me that my doubts were legitimate, and freeing me from the skygod's oppression. From then on I was happy to apply reason and logic to any of life's problems, without recourse to a supernatural overseer. But it was a private matter; I saw no reason to declare my rejection of unquestioning faith. Those who know me are aware of my thinking on this, but I don't tout it around.

I wonder just how many of us -- closet atheists -- there are.

I watched Jonathan Miller's TV series A Brief History of Unbelief when it was first broadcast, but only recently have I been able to see the second part of Richard Dawkins' Root of All Evil? I was aware of Dawkins' views (I remember seeing the broadcast of his Richard Dimbleby lecture, and cringing as he talked of spoon-benders while the camera cut to another Dimbleby in the audience), and I shared the unease others have expressed at his 'militancy'.

I'm now about two thirds through The God Delusion, and I now see that what I thought of as militancy is actually a healthy disrespect for blind faith, and I agree that from holy wars to religious schools, it's time to make our views known, to counter the tacit assumptions about the 'sanctity' of religious belief.

My awareness that there was any kind of organised collection of like-minded people in this sphere came when I discovered Derek & Swoopy's Skepticality podcast. Now I also listen each week to the Point of Inquiry podcast, and have recently subscribed to Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines.

Coming across The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has been the latest discovery in a refreshingly eye-opening journey.

A theory with the intelligence designed out

Reposted from: http://witteringon.blogspot.com/2007/02/theory-with-intelligence-designed-out.html

While many of us in Britain have looked on in horrified fascination at the Intelligent Design debate currently in full swing in America, we may have become a little complacent that something like it is unlikely to happen here. But slowly, insidiously, it is happening here. Supporters of Intelligent Design are attempting to have Intelligent Design taught in UK school science classes. Search around a bit and you'll find plenty of evidence for this (though none for the theory itself).

I maintain that Intelligent Design -- as promulgated by such organisations as the dishonestly-named Truth in Science -- isn't actually a theory. Any argument that attempts to 'explain' observed phenomena by invoking a supernatural entity, about which we can know nothing, isn't explaining anything.

The ID-ists' arguments, when challenged by those who back evolution as a science-based or evidence-based theory, seem to be a combination of the following:
  1. "You say ID is based on faith, but so is evolution. Evolution is based on assumptions about 'the unobservable past', and is therefore not scientific -- not susceptible to observation and experiment."
  2. "You say that ID cannot admit of evidence because a theory that is faith-based springs from the pre-supposition that there is a creator/designer. But evolution is based on the pre-supposition that there isn't a designer."
These arguments appear to be attempts to place ID on an equal footing with evolutionary theory. But is seems to me that in order to assess the equality of these views one must look at the reasons for the respective pre-suppositions (if you accept that they are pre-suppositions).

On what basis can one 'pre-suppose' that
  1. there is a creator, or
  2. there is no creator?
(Note that these are mutually exclusive.)

Even if you find no evidence for a creator, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But as Richard Dawkins lucidly demonstrates in The God Delusion, the existence of a creator is extremely improbable.

The ID-ists' tactics more often than not are to try to turn the evolutionist argument back on the evolutionists, without actually answering any of the evolutionists' criticisms. It's a tactic that can be effective -- until recognised, when it becomes obviously transparent.

This table-turning is likely to happen to the argument about 'Middle World' perceptions, which explains why so much of modern scientific thinking seems to go against common sense. An ID-ist's attempt at refutation might go something like this: "Just as our middle world perception cannot comprehend the very large or the very small, it also cannot comprehend the very transcendence of the other-worldly -- such as God. A rational approach to theism, therefore, is simply not valid."

The very large and the very small, however, are susceptible to rational analysis, whatever our common-sense perceptions tell us, whereas the transcendence of a creator is not, remaining an assertion of faith, without evidence.

Intelligent Design isn't a theory -- it's an intellectual cop-out.

Time to stand up and be counted

Okay. I appreciate that some people don't care to read about politics and/or religion, especially if they're expecting some geeky tech-rant. So that's why I've split off my posts about belief, or the lack thereof. You can still find my opinions on technology and other stuff over at witteringon.blogspot.com, but anything to do with crazee fundees, creationism, secular humanism, scepticism (British English will pervade here, note) and rationality will appear on this new blog, to be known as Evil Burnee (because, you know, I'll surely roast in hell).

I shan't remove any of my previous posts on these subjects from witteringon, but I will repost them here.

Saturday 12 May 2007

Never thought I'd see the day... (repost from other blog)

I've read the UK edition of Computer Shopper from the very first issue, when it came on saddle-stapled newsprint and cost only 50p. Since the passing of all those fondly remembered home computers such as the ubiquitous BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum, and the not-so-ubiquitous Oric, Memotech and (one for the uber-geeks) Jupiter Ace, Shopper became -- and has remained -- PC-centric.

So it was with surprise bordering on disbelief that I spied this page of buying advice in the latest (July 2007) issue:

Look at that recommended PC in the bottom right-hand corner. If you think your eyes are deceiving you, here's a blow-up:

Yes, it's a Mac.