Wednesday 24 March 2010

Burnee links for Wednesday

A nasty attempt to coerce Danish newspapers into apologizing for the cartoons of Mohammed. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
I share the Hitch's incredulity.

On Faith Panelists Blog: Catholics dictating terms - Paula Kirby
Paula states the obvious — which shouldn't be necessary, but it is.

Pop star-turned-physicist Brian Cox talks about his new TV series on the solar system | Interview | From the Observer | The Observer
I've watched the first episode of Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System (BBC2, Sundays, 9 pm) — it's excellent. He explains complicated stuff with uncompromising directness.

Chief exorcist says Devil is in Vatican - Telegraph

Claire Rayner on Doing Good Works | HumanistLife
This was a surprise.

Brian Cox on “the greatest age of discovery our civilization has known” | HumanistLife
Carl Sagan would be proud.

Why 'Everything Has a Cause' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence | Belief | AlterNet
More good, plain common sense from Greta Christina:
There have been countless times throughout history when we thought that Phenomenon (X) had a supernatural cause. Must have had a supernatural cause. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural. Why the sun rises and sets; why people get sick; what causes the weather and the seasons; why children look like their parents; how the complex variety of life came into being; etc., etc., etc. We didn't have a clue what caused it, or even the shadow of a we assumed it was God. (Or spirits, or demons, or whatever.)
And every single time that we eventually got a conclusive answer to the cause of Phenomenon (X), that answer has been entirely natural.
So why on earth would we assume that any currently unanswered question about physical existence -- even a massive and baffling question like how it all came to exist in the first place -- would eventually turn out to be caused by God? It's never been the right answer before. Not even once. Why would we assume it's the right answer this time?

Easy = True - The Boston Globe
Fascinating — and an advertiser's goldmine. But it would have been nice to have a list of links to all this innovative research, rather than just taking the journo's word for it.

The pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
Any other organisation would be crumbling to dust in the wake of these endless revelations. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is still standing (though no doubt staggering somewhat) is indicative of its deep entanglement in western culture.

Poetic Atheism | Unreasonable Faith
Why should atheists care about anything? After all, everything's just molecules in motion, isn't it? Jennifer Michael Hecht explains why this isn't any kind of sensible argument.

Science is an Economic Solution (New Scientist) | The Lay Scientist
Professor Brian Cox gave a talk at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on the subject of science funding. According to The Lay Scientist, the news is not good.

Skepticblog » Faces of Skepticism
Skepticality was the very first sceptical podcast, and when I found it back in early 2005, I also discovered that I was not alone. (And this is a great pic of Swoopy!)

The Atheist Experience: Communication Interference
TracieH attempts to understand what Alister McGrath believes, and why. (Join the club!)

Johann Hari: The Pope, the Prophet, and the religious support for evil - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent
No-one is above the law. This affair just goes on and on — it's horrendous. Any other organisation found to have institutionalised child sexual abuse for decades would have been completely disbanded by now.

Tear down the wall of silence in the Roman Catholic Church. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine
The Hitch has Pope Ratzinger clamped in his jaws, and he won't let go. (Nor should he.)

On Faith Panelists Blog: Seize the day - Paula Kirby
Paula Kirby highlights the skewed reasoning often employed by theists who profess not to understand why atheists should care about anything at all.

YouTube - Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Sam Harris will have a new book out soon. That'll go in my Amazon pre-order list as soon as it's announced.

Saturday 20 March 2010

"Leap of Faith" — Ruth Turner writes in New Humanist

The current (March/April 2010) issue of New Humanist magazine contains an article by the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Ruth Turner. I've had my doubts about the true purpose behind our ex-Prime-Minister's ill-conceived foundation from the start, and Ruth Turner's article does nothing to dispel them. The article, "Leap of Faith", is also available online. There's not much of substance in the article — mostly it's a hope that people of different faiths (and none — that's a first, I believe) can just get along. I've no quibble with that, but there's an underlying assumption that faith is, of course, a "good thing". Though there is a rather odd statement early on:
[Religion] is at the very core of life for billions of people, the motive for their behaviour, the thing that gives sense and purpose to their lives. Gallup predicts that by 2050, 80 per cent of the world’s population are expected to be of faith.
Is Gallup predicting an expectation of a percentage rather than an actual percentage? I'm not sure what she's getting at here.
[A]t its core religious faith represents a profound yearning within the human spirit. It answers to the basic, irrepressible, irresistible human wish for spiritual betterment, to think and act beyond the limitations of selfish human desires. More than that, it is rooted in a belief that the impulse to do good is not utilitarian but is being aware of something bigger, more central, more essential to our human condition than self. It says there are absolutes – like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being – that can never be sacrificed. Religion does not provide the only ethical framework, but it is an enduring one. 
This, at its core, is the problem: "It says there are absolutes". The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is trying to reconcile different religions that, at their core, say "there are absolutes ... that can never be sacrificed". Fine, if they all share these absolutes — "like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being" — but they don't. Not even these. What about the inalienable worth and dignity of women and gays, for example? Many religions maintain absolutely that large portions of society are of decidedly less worth than others.
There is no point in ducking this issue. Religious faith can give rise to extremism. But even if a minuscule minority of religious people use terror, there are people who hold extreme views in virtually every religion. And even where there is not extremism expressed in violence, faith is problematic when it becomes a way of denigrating those who do not share it, as somehow lesser human beings.
This is where the Tony Blair Faith Foundation does indeed seem to be ducking the issue. It's not just a matter of denigrating those who do not "share faith" — many faiths denigrate those who don't share their own particular faith, never mind those who profess no faith at all. Some religions say absolutely that those who don't share their own particular faith are on the path to everlasting damnation. Some say, absolutely, that they deserve to be killed. To me, this doesn't seem like a mere minor impediment to faiths getting along with each other.
Religious people can show how their faith motivates them to do good for others, as well as providing spiritual support and salvation for themselves. And we would all think more highly of religion, if the stories we heard were about care for the poor and the sick, the environment and society, not about prejudice, conflict and violence.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation doesn't appear to be doing much about the prejudice, conflict and violence, other than saying it would be nice if we didn't hear about it.
Of course you don’t need to be religious to be good. Those we support do so in collaboration with many non-religious agencies. But in these areas the faith community is making a contribution that, in reality, only they can make. We have trained a group of young people from five of the world’s main religions – and a humanist – who work together to mobilise communities in the West and link them with faith communities in the affected malarious regions.
This is no more than a sticking-plaster covering the fundamental disease. If the problem at the core is faith itself, it will take something other than faith to solve that problem.
For religious and non-religious alike, I believe that interfaith understanding and multi-faith social action initiatives perform a valuable function that should be welcomed. Those who seek to cause religious conflict are small in number but highly motivated, well organised and well funded. Those who want to create a more positive alternative need all the support we can get. While there are billions of people who are loyal to their own religion, there is no natural constituency for interfaith – but there needs to be.
Yes, it would be nice if different religions could get along, but the Tony Blair Faith Foundation isn't providing anything concrete to promote the formation of a "natural constituency for interfaith" because — given what religious faith is — such a natural constituency is impossible.
Without organisations that help facilitate relations between people who have different cultures and belief systems, the world is a much colder, potentially much more dangerous place. In a crowded, constantly changing and interdependent world, the Foundation attempts to bring people of different religions and none together to understand each other better, and to live peacefully and with respect, by providing opportunities to collaborate on practical projects that make a real difference to the challenges of modern life. That’s a mission I’d have thought anyone – religious or not – would be happy to support.
I'd be happy to support it, if I thought that its stated goals were achievable. They're not.

Friday 19 March 2010

Online debate at Premier Christian Community

Since my repost of my comment in a Premier Christian Community discussion thread started by Todd Pitner I have joined in the subsequent discussion in response to Todd's questions posed to a user named LinearC (whose points, incidentally, I generally agree with).

Though I don't know why Todd posted the original questions (the reasons he gave in his opening post do not appear to be borne out by his subsequent comments), at the time I thought the discussion was interesting enough to pursue. I include (below) the post with which I responded to Todd's response to LinearC:

I appreciate these questions were directed at LinearC, however I'd like to share my own responses to them:
What kind of evidence would you be looking for to prove God exists?
I'm interested in any evidence that genuinely points to the existence of God, though I don't expect to find "proof". Proof isn't something we find in practical reality, only in mathematics.
If there is a God...and if He ultimately revealed Himself...and if He revealed that He purposely gave us all a free-will choice to accept or reject Him...could it be that you just are not acknowledging the general and special revelation that is before you every second of every day? Could it be that you're stepping all over His nature to deny His existence?
That's a lot of ifs. And no, and no. Revelation is a two-way affair. You may say that God has revealed himself (in scripture, in nature or wherever) but I see nothing of such a god. I see a collection of ancient texts, and I see nature. No "revelation".
Have you ever read the Book of John as if the account was true and Jesus was/is Who He claimed to be? Have you ever read JUST the red letters (to make it more time efficient for you)? Scripture opens the Door AFTER you knock. That's Biblical.
I admit I haven't. But then no-one has given me any cogent reason why I should regard any book of the Bible as anything other than literature. When I read the Bible, or any "scripture", I read it as literature, not as "holy writ".
Where did all the matter come from and, even more importantly in my mind, after the Big Bang when all that matter began to coalesce, where did the gravity come from to bring everything together in kum-bay-ya fashion? Assuming you weren't there to empirically verify, what do you BELIEVE? Or does "belief not really come into it?" Or is your "belief" selective? If so, why? What's your issue with the truth claims of the Bible?
I don't know where all the matter and gravity "came from". I'm vaguely aware of theoretical research by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss in these areas, and I understand they're making progress. I'm happy to leave it up to them — I'm not a physicist.
Did nature create itself? What do you BELIEVE?
I believe I don't know the answer to this question.
Life from non-life...tell me how the first cell evolved? Do you KNOW or do you have a BELIEF?
Sorry, I don't know. I'm not a specialist in origin-of-life studies either. But from what I've read about abiogenesis, it seems likely that life started with a self-replicating molecule of some kind, and I understand there are various theories about how that might have happened by natural processes.
Who or what is your ultimate authority of knowledge? Why do you BELIEVE what you believe? Where do you drop your anchor on knowledge? The scientific method? Why? Was the scientific method used to discover the scientific method?
One at a time please. Ultimate authority of knowledge? Doesn't exist. I believe what I believe because I have a reasonable body of evidence for those beliefs. The scientific method was not "discovered", it was invented, just like writing was invented. It's a tool, and on the whole it works — in as much as it's the best way we have of finding out what's true and what isn't.
Atheists seem chronically afflicted with the disease of yesbuts, “Yes I follow the evidence, but not when it points to God.” Having an allergy to God’s say-so, I submit all the misguided attempts to debunk Christianity succeed only in exposing the atheists need of it.
This is just wishful thinking. Atheists don't need to debunk Christianity, because Christianity assumes the existence of a god that atheists don't believe in.
Do you really understand what Christianity is all about? Tell me, what is the Gospel message? Why did Jesus become man, allegedly?
I don't see why I should need to know this stuff if I don't believe in a god in the first place. Reading the New Testament as literature is useful as a cultural reference — especially in Britain — but the "message" of Christianity is wide open to interpretation, as evidenced by the multitude of Christian sects throughout the world.
Do you deny Supernaturalism? You say, "Belief just doesn't come into it." Do you really believe that?
Not directed at me, but I'll answer anyway: Yes, I deny supernaturalism (if by supernaturalism is meant the belief in a reality that is "outside" of nature — not a very coherent definition, I admit, but I don't see how else one could define it).

I'm interested in debates about origins, about morality, about evidence — amongst other things. But I'm not much interested in theology, because theology assumes the existence of the thing it is supposed to be about, while I have yet to see any compelling evidence for the existence of that thing.

Go here to see Todd's response (and subsequent posts):

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Burnee links for Tuesday

Interpreting Genesis : EvolutionBlog
Jason Rosenhouse tackles creationists and the Bible.
(via Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True.)

Goodbye to a not-so-good scientist | Sue Blackmore | Comment is free |
Susan Greenfield appeared far too fond of publicity — for example she had her own little intro at the beginning of the most recent RI Christmas Lectures, which was a first. And her pronouncements about Facebook and Twitter etc rewiring kids' brains were shameful (she even admitted she had no evidence for her claims).

Heresy Corner: A Reading from the Book of Dawk
Oh, the troubles, the troubles...

I believe in the god of thunder ...thank Thor our politicians agree - Herald Scotland | Comment | Muriel Gray
Muriel Gray is one of my favourite writers (primarily for her fiction — of which there isn't nearly enough).

CERN faces possible court order | HumanistLife
This is just daft.

Bishops Move Over! | HumanistLife
Another illustration of why the existence of the "Lords Spiritual" is an anachronism inappropriate to a modern democracy.

Sins of omission : Pharyngula
More evidence for why accommodationism doesn't work.

The New Commandments | Culture | Vanity Fair
Not for the first time, Hitch gets his teeth into the Decalogue.

Monday 8 March 2010

Is God real? Is Jesus God? — My response

This is something I posted a while ago (in response to an invitation) in a Premier Community Unbelievable? discussion thread started by Todd Pitner entitled "ATHEISTS, might I have a Word with you?"


Richard Morgan invited me to post in this thread and I'm happy to do so. I've been an atheist for some 40 years or so. Brought up by Anglican parents who weren't overly religious (though they did send me to Sunday School) I was belatedly invited to be confirmed into the Church of England at about age 14 or 15. I say belatedly because by that time I knew I no longer harboured the faith of my childhood and had prevaricated when the suggestion was put to me. Nevertheless, my mother wanted me to be confirmed and I agreed to be tutored one-on-one by our local vicar. We had some interesting but fairly fruitless discussions, and after about four of these sessions he said he was prepared to confirm me despite my professed doubts. By that time I was certain I could not in all honesty be confirmed, and found his willingness to go ahead anyway somewhat disingenuous. I admit that this incident did cement my unbelief at that time.

After that background, on to your questions about what I might find compelling about "God being real" and "Jesus being God". The latter depends on the former, and as I have major problems with the idea of God being real the question of whether or not Jesus is God doesn't arise for me. First I must consider what we are to understand by "God" and "real". If by "God" we mean an intelligent creator of the universe (and by "universe" I mean everything and not just a subset universe of something else), I can conceive of a kind of power or essence in which the universe came to exist, but I find the notion that this power could be in any way personal or intentional to be untenable. By "real" I mean in actual existence — probably some kind of physical existence, because though I can imagine the existence of a god, and I believe my thoughts are "real" in the sense that I do actually think them (and so my thoughts do actually "exist"), they don't have a physical existence in the physical world, beyond being information in my brain. Let me say that though I can conceive of such a God-essence, I've yet to see any compelling evidence for it, and have no reason to suppose it actually exists.

This is a long-winded way of coming round to the statement that I find the Abrahamic God of the major monotheistic faiths completely illogical, ridiculous and unconvincing. I can't conceive of anything that could convince me that the God of the Bible is "real". (I have, however addressed this elsewhere.)

I'm aware that many Christians claim to have had personal experiences that convinced them God is real, but as I've had no such experience I can't offer any opinion on whether such an experience would convince me.

There are lots of arguments for the existence of God, but I don't find any of them convincing — at least, not the arguments I've come across; I'm happy to consider others. I don't think many Christians find these arguments convincing either, using them merely to bolster the faith they derive from personal experience. So we reach a kind of impasse: the theist is convinced by personal experience, but knows that this is unlikely to convince someone who lacks such an experience, so he or she resorts to the well-known arguments for the existence of God, despite not finding them particularly compelling. It's hardly surprising that the atheist finds them even less compelling.