Tuesday 30 August 2011

More on objective morality

Here's the latest video from that scourge of theistic obfuscation, NonStampCollector. What's interesting about his approach here (apart from his unusually minimal wielding of the subtle, awesome power of Microsoft Paint) is that in order to make his point he takes on board almost every assumption and presupposition tacitly proposed by William Lane Craig — and still shows why they lack foundation.


The whole question of morality — objective, absolute or otherwise — is now receiving much-needed scrutiny, and the theistic (particularly Christian) proprietorial claims on it are being shown for what they are — unfounded, vacuous and arbitrary.

(Via Fergus Gallagher.)

Monday 29 August 2011

Irrelevant exegesis

Darrell Bock, the author of Chapter 29 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, entitled "The Son of Man", was recently a guest on Premier Radio's Unbelievable? programme. On that occasion he was opposite Bart Erhman talking about the latter's book Forged, and the conversation was, for me (as far as I recall), a little technical and mostly irrelevant. That should have been fair warning, for in this chapter — scarcely two pages long — Bock searches for Old and New Testament mentions of the phrase "Son of Man" and attempts to interpret their meanings (which incidentally he maintains are different in different contexts).

Here's an example:
One way is to discuss whether the use of the title comes with a clear use of Daniel 7, an indirect use or no use, since this is the only OT passage that is connected to the title specifically in the NT. Most uses of the title do not make an explicit connection to Daniel 7. In fact, the explicit uses that do come appear in two places: (1) the eschatological discourse where Jesus discusses the return of the Son of Man and (2) at Jesus' examination by the Jewish leadership where he speaks of the Son of Man seated at God's right hand coming on the clouds, a remark that combines Daniel 7 and Psalm 110:1. This means that in most uses in the gospels Jesus used the title but did not give a reference to tie it to as an explanation. Both of the explicit uses come late in Jesus' ministry.
To whom is Bock directing this scrutiny of minutiae? In a book purporting to offer arguments and evidence for God, it seems more than a little premature. Shouldn't we establish the provenance of scripture itself before discussing its apparent subtleties?

Bock's final paragraph is this:
So the Son of Man is a title Jesus used to refer to himself and his authority. He revealed its full import toward the end of his ministry. But the title referred to Jesus as the representative of humanity who also engaged in divine activity. It was a way of saying I am the One sent with divine authority to also be the representative of humanity. In this context, all of Jesus' ministry and work, including his suffering on the cross for sin takes place.
To which I reply, "So what?"


QEDcon — Manchester, 10th & 11th March 2012

Last February's Question.Explore.Discover conference in Manchester was a great success, and Northwest Skeptical Events Ltd are doing the whole thing again next March. The list of speakers so far announced looks impressive. No news on a "break-out room" yet.

Tickets went on sale today. I've got mine, and I'm booked in to a nearby Travelodge (I note that the conference hotel — the Ramada Jarvis Piccadilly — has upped its room rates, such that the Travelodge is now more than just marginally cheaper.)

If the last QEDcon is anything to go by, next year's should be a superb event and lots of fun, beginning with the meet and greet, pre-registration session on Friday in the hotel bar.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Euthyphro and 500

As my blogging activity declines (temporarily, I hope) I will now attempt to justify this as deliberate deceleration for the purposes of emphasising a milestone. This is my 500th Evil Burnee post, and to mark it I will do no more than post a recent take on religious morality:


This is Plato's Euthyphro dilemma, as discussed with Matt Flannagan on the latest Skepticule Extra (number 13, to be posted shortly).

As for my semi-millenial blogposting and whether the number will increase at the same rate, it's not that I haven't anything to write about — over the past couple of weeks I built up a list of things I wanted (and still want) to cover — my problem is finding time to do the actual writing.

Watch this space.

Burnee links for another Sunday

Still busy, still less blogging, still hopeful for more. Some links 4 U:

GCU Dancer on the Midway - Bad arguments about religion: faith and evidence
Paul Wright with various insights (including David Hume's) into how much "faith" is OK.

Muslim Woman Assaults Photographer, Toronto Police Say It's OK
I really hope this is a rare occurrence.

The Flow of Time | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine
I have always thought that our concept of "time" is flawed, or at least overly simplistic. That's why I have problems suspending disbelief when reading time-travel stories.

A very sad story | Pharyngula
PZ inveighs against religious puritanism. Now there's a surprise.

The strength of Dawkins, and the murk of accommodationism | Pharyngula
It's true. Why hide it? PZ (again) stands beside Richard Dawkins to denounce ignorant folly at the top of the Republican Party.

Evolution threatens Christianity - On Faith - The Washington Post
Paula Kirby on why evolution is so damaging to the beliefs of the religious right. Clear and concise prose that ought to be read by all school governors.

Saturday 27 August 2011

The Philosophy of the Mind — Dr. Clio Bellenis

The audio of Dr. Clio's talk two weeks ago at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub is now available for your listening and enlightening pleasure:


This recording is an example of what's kept me busy recently (and reduced my blogging activities). It involved more than one portable recorder and therefore required careful editing. Despite being hi-tech crystal-controlled digital technology these devices rarely stay in synch for more than a few minutes. I must also find a simple and effective way to record contributions from the audience when there isn't a roving mic.

Technical problems aside, it was a fascinating talk with much that was relevant to what we've been talking about in Skepticule Extra (particularly SkepExtra 010 when our guest was Rosemary Lyndall Wemm).

Photo by Malcolm Stein

Sunday 21 August 2011

Burnee links for Sunday

Rick Perry and the scandal of prayer - On Faith - The Washington Post
This has to be said? Unfortunately yes, and Paula Kirby says it very well indeed.

The Rants of Cherry Black » Blog Archive » Meanwhile, back in the UK…
A sense of perspective.

Wait, what if idiocy is blood-borne? | Pharyngula

Case Study: How a notorious spammer was brought down via Twitter « Skeptical Software Tools
It's gone very quiet — at least in the spamland of David Mabus/Dennis Markuze.

Sick cat owner who microwaved his pet walks free from court - Law and Order - The News
What caught my eye in this story from the online version of my local paper was the implication in the headline that the cat-owner walked free because he was sick. I expected to read something about his schizophrenia, clinical depression or some other disorder.
Sick Stephen Stacey crudely named the cat ‘come on then’, an aggressive phrase used by people in a bid to start a fight.
He's described in the body of the report as "sick", but I don't think the journalist is using the word in its medical sense. Rather, the word is applied as an unsubstantiated value judgement. The accompanying photograph is captioned "YOB Stephen Stacey". Whatever I might think about Stephen Stacey's reported actions, this is poor journalism.

Liberal intellectuals are frightened of confronting Islam's honour-shame culture – Telegraph Blogs
Elucidating the problem with Islam — an unreconstructed fundamentalist religion still caught up in its relatively recent past. Hard-line Islam is clearly incompatible with contemporary global culture, therefore it must change or be defeated, or at least marginalized.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Incredible miracles require credible evidence

In my previous post in this series I answered the question, "Who do YOU say Jesus was?" with the following:
It seems likely that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who developed a considerable local following, to the extent that he annoyed the established religion of the time, which got rid of him in an effort to preserve the status quo.
It's clear that I don't think Jesus was a supernatural being. But could a non-supernatural being perform supernatural actions?

Chapter 28 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God is "The Credibility of Jesus's Miracles" by Craig L. Blomberg, in which he puts forward the idea that the historical record of Jesus performing miracles is a true account. Unfortunately for his thesis he employs too many assumptions in order to come to this conclusion. For example, here's part of his attempt to establish the existence of God (a necessary precursor to the divinity — and therefore miracle-workings — of Jesus):
One of the most exciting and encouraging developments in recent years in this respect is the intelligent design movement. Pointing to numerous examples of fundamental entities in the natural and biological worlds that display irreducible complexity, even some scientists who are not Christians at all have acknowledged that there must be an intelligent being behind this creation. The entire "big-bang" theory for the beginnings of the universe leads to the question of what or who produced that "bang." (p 147.)
Blomberg's implication here is not just that there must have been a cause for these things, but that the cause was necessarily divine.
For others, philosophical arguments like those of the famous seventeenth-century Scotsman, David Hume, turn out to be more persuasive. While not alleging that miracles are impossible, the claim now is that the probability of a natural explanation will always be greater than that of a supernatural one. Phenomena could mislead, witnesses could be mistaken and, besides, explanations of events must have analogies to what has happened in the past. But it is not at all clear that any of these arguments mean that the evidence could never be unambiguous and the witnesses unassailable. And if every event must have a known analogy, then people in the tropics before modern technology could never have accepted that ice exists! (p 147-8.)
I think he's misappropriating Hume here. Hume stated that reports of miracles could only be accepted as true if the alternative explanation — that the reports are false — would have to be more miraculous than the miracles themselves. That rules out most of Jesus's miracles right at the start. And arguments by analogy carry little weight. Analogies are useful in explaining the general nature of things, but eventually all analogies break down because they are only "like" the things they are analogous to, not identical to them.

Blomberg goes on to challenge the idea that there were lots of reports of miracles in myth and legend that are similar to those allegedly performed by Jesus:
It is curious how often laypeople and even some scholars repeat the charge that the Gospel miracles sound just like the legends of other ancient religions without having carefully studied the competing accounts. For example, it is often alleged that there were virgin births and resurrection stories all over the ancient religious landscape. But, in fact, most of the alleged parallels to special births involve ordinary human sexual relations coupled simply with the belief that one of the persons was actually a god or goddess incognito. Or, as with the conception of Alexander the Great, in one legend almost a millennium later than his lifetime, a giant Python intertwined around Alexander's mother on her honeymoon night, keeping his father at a discrete distance and impregnating the young woman. (p 148.)
He seems to be claiming that the Gospel miracles were of a quite different order from the examples he gives, but I don't see it. Whether a person was actually a god or not has little effect on the credibility of the story when that story is already incredible. Consciously or not, Blomberg is using special pleading to impart undeserved credibility to his preferred account. He does the same with the resurrection story, but here we begin to see a pattern emerging.

If the miracles of Jesus are similar to other miraculous events reported in ancient texts, then that similarity lends the reports credence, because those reporting them knew what they witnessed and wrote about. If the miracles of Jesus were wholly different from those other miracles, they are thereby rescued from the skepticism duly applied to those other, more mundane miracles. Blomberg wants it both ways.

But if that doesn't work, he tells us that most of those other miraculous accounts were based on the miracles of Jesus anyway, in a frenzy of "me too!" copycat miracle-working. I can't help seeing some desperation here. He wants it to be true, but the "evidence" is really thin, and frankly unconvincing.

One might fairly question my own disposition regarding these accounts. I don't think they're true, and I have a bias in my interpretation of them. But we're talking about miracles — extraordinary events that require extraordinary evidence. That evidence is not forthcoming, and until it is, I'll go with the account that fits with my experience of the natural world around me — the world for which there is evidence.


Friday 19 August 2011

So You Want To Be an Exorcist — BBC Radio 4

This BBC Radio 4 half-hour programme appears to be a serious documentary, but the deadpan delivery of presenter Jolyon Jenkins, and the words of his interviewees, put me inexorably in mind of the spoof documentary series, "People Like Us" — and I couldn't shake the suspicion that the whole thing might be a send-up.

(Streaming audio available in perpetuity or until the beginning of 2099, whichever occurs first.)

Jolyon Jenkins
It was HumanistLife, the news and blogging website of the British Humanist Association (and for which I've written), that linked to the programme and I can see why. The idea of demonic possession seems completely out of kilter with our contemporary world — and I for one don't believe a word of it. But there are those who think it's real, despite much of the rationalization sounding like archaic interpretation of symptoms more likely due to other causes — such as, for instance, constitutional indolence.

What's disturbing is that some of the people being exorcised should probably be undergoing treatment for clinical depression. Convincing them they are possessed by an evil spirit seems at the very least counterproductive.
Why do exorcists and their clients think that demonic possession is on the increase? Exorcists point to an alleged increase in interest in the occult, together with risky behaviour such as practising yoga, reading horoscopes, and an increase in new age forms of spiritualism. One Anglican bishop has said that clues to the presence of an evil spirit include "repeated choice of black, for example in clothing or colour of car".
That people can take this stuff seriously is symptomatic of the tenacity of magical thinking. Here we have the suggestion that you can be controlled against your will by having a little person (who isn't you) inside your body — or your mind — inhabiting your unconscious and making you behave "out of character". Sounds to me like a massive excuse for something or other.

During the course of the programme Jolyon Jenkins gets the opportunity to attend an actual exorcism, and he is given permission to record it. But at the last moment the exorcist tells him that he can't record audio of the event, only take notes. Undaunted, Jolyon Jenkins does just that, after which we are treated to a spirited re-enactment of the whole thing where he performs all the voices.

It's a well-made programme, and actually quite fun — but don't take it as gospel. (To be on the safe side though, you should avoid yoga, horoscopes and wearing or driving anything black. I always thought those London cabbies looked a bit suspicious....)

For another (far more sensational) take on demonic possession you should check out Bob Larson.

Unfounded moral absolutes

Regular readers of this blog (and listeners to the Skepticule Extra podcast) will know that I'm half way through reviewing a book that purports to give arguments and evidence for the existence of God. I say "purports" because so far the book has been unconvincing. Whether or not such a book is intended to persuade someone whose atheism has of late become increasingly vocal and hardline, some arguments tend to focus my attention more than others.

The moral argument is one that is often proposed by theists in general and Christians in particular, and it's one I'm interested in because it has more impact on my daily life than most of the others. The so-called fine-tuning of the universe, its first cause, the appearance of design in living organisms, the status of scripture and personal revelation are all interesting facets of the God question, but none of these affects the day-to-day running of our lives as much as the moral argument for the existence of God.

Those who believe that morality is derived ultimately and solely from a supposed creator of the universe are often responsible for derailing deliberations of morality across a wide field of concerns. One need look no further than the controversies surrounding assisted dying, abortion, genetic engineering, sex education and penal reform to see how the idea of absolute objective moral laws tends to skew rational discussion in those areas, to the extent that genuine progress becomes stultified.

The responses to the recent riots in various parts of England illustrate the muddying effect outdated moral ideas have on modern life. I shall illuminate this by taking a possibly extreme example. On 13 August Creation Ministries International published on its website an article by Dominic Statham entitled "Why is England burning?" Statham is in no doubt as to the answer to that question:
What is happening in England is the inevitable consequence of a nation rejecting God and His Word.
He blames modern academics and politicians who claim that...
...we can forge a better society based on secularism. Accepting this view has led to there being no final authority, no absolute basis for morality and no clarity about who or what we are. 
Once more we are back to the theistic claim that without absolute morality we have no morality at all. And where does Statham say absolute morality comes from? It's the Bible, of course. This weak-minded craving for instructions from above reminds me of the ironic riposte, "How can I use my initiative if you won't tell me what to do?!"

There's much to criticize in Statham's article (he is, after all, a creationist), but here are few lowlights:
When I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s, the Christian thinking and values of previous generations were still evident. General behaviour, truthfulness and respect were still considered more important than academic or material success. This was based on the view that we were made in the image of God, and good character was necessary to preserve this.
"Made in the image of God" is often used by Christians to justify their view of the source of morality, but what does the phrase actually mean? Does God look like us? Does he have a head, two arms and two legs? This seems like unwarranted and blinkered anthropomorphism, and tends to suggest that God was created in the image of man, rather than the other way about. If "made in the image of God" doesn't mean that — what, in fact, does it mean? What, indeed, could it mean? I suspect there's no real meaning to the phrase, and that it's merely theological nonsense trotted out to defend the indefensible.
Children who were brought up properly were understood to have better prospects of a stable, useful and fulfilling life. Back then, many parents and teachers understood that they had God-given authority and God-given responsibility to raise children rightly.
Again, an unsupported claim that "right" is God-given. This is dangerous nonsense, and leads to parents and teachers thinking their actions are justified by arbitrary ancient texts that often run contrary to secular morality that has at least been deliberated upon long and hard in the context of modern circumstances.
The doctrine of original sin made clear that children were not born good; they needed to be taught right from wrong, and the discipline we received instilled a sense that wrong-doing had consequences.
The doctrine of original sin is more dangerous nonsense, but Statham is being inconsistent in his claim that the instilled sense of wrong-doing is that such wrong-doing has consequences. Who cares about consequences if the instructions of the Bible are there to be simply followed regardless? But maybe this is a hint that he knows deep down that Biblical morality is essentially unfounded and actions need to be considered in light of their effects. If so, I agree with him.
In contrast to all this, much of today’s educational system places little if any value on such biblical ideas. This is not surprising; if even many church leaders claim Genesis is not real history, then original sin is but a myth. In fact, it is quite likely that the ‘progressive’ educationist will take a different view simply because they think that, if the Bible teaches something, it is probably wrong. The teachers know that they themselves lie, and the head teacher lies—so why should they expect their pupils not to lie? Indeed, a recent New Scientist article actually argued, from an evolutionary standpoint, that lying in our personal, professional and social lives is a strategy for survival
Original sin a myth? Genesis not real history? Say it's not so! Sorry Statham, but it is so. As for teachers knowing that they lie — where does he get this idea? It is a fact, however, that everyone dissembles to a degree — social interaction, business, creativity, life in general would be practically impossible if no-one ever spoke an actual untruth. I've not read the New Scientist article referenced on the page Statham links to, but I'd be surprised if it undermined the basic idea that integrity of communication is something generally desirable. Statham wants these things to be black and white when they are actually many shades of grey.
Humanists, in defiance of the true history in Genesis 3, assert the doctrine of the intrinsic goodness of humanity and see no need to teach right and wrong. The logical consequence of the ‘evolutionisation’ of society over the last century has been to undermine the truth and authority of the Bible, inevitably leading to the relentless undermining of all vestiges of the worldview based on Christianity. In many schools, it is frowned upon or even forbidden to teach morality as it is considered inappropriate for adults to impose their views on children.
Clearly humanists are in favour of teaching children right and wrong — just not tainted with Biblical irrelevances. Statham sets up his humanist straw man here, but it's fireproof. He's correct, however, in claiming that evolution undermines the truth and authority of the Bible. Darwin's theory shows how the notion of a sustaining deity is superfluous to undirected natural processes. As for schools not teaching morality, the ones he's referring to most likely teach ethical behaviour without reference to the Bible — which is OK by me.

For some exasperating fun read the comments on Statham's article, and then console yourself in the knowledge that these are hardcore minority creationists.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Giles for the Day

The Rev Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral has come up with some weird suggestions for appropriate responses to crises in the past, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at his advice for dealing with the outbreak of rioting and looting throughout the country last week.

While the media and the Government pondered the correct action to take to stem the lawlessness, Giles Fraser had an altogether "alternative" solution:

Do nothing.

I'm surprised he didn't suggest lighting a candle, as he has before. Presumably this crisis was so serious it required the full force of moral action to nip it in the bud. You might think it was a bit late for that, but when the action suggested is in fact inaction, it doesn't really matter precisely when you don't do it.

Glory in the the advice of the Giles here, for a limited time:

Or read the transcript:
(Yes, it's the same link — streaming audio and text on the same page.)

Or if you're a glutton for punishment, get the podcast:

(It's been suggested to me that I'd be a lot happier if I avoided Thought for the Day in general, and Giles Fraser in particular. But I listen to the BBC's premier morning radio news programme — Today — and sometimes I just can't avoid the Godspot. Fortunately my blood pressure is commendably normal, so a bit of witless pomposity does no more than limber up the critical faculties at the start of the day.)

How extreme are the Phelps'? — Skepticule Extra

The latest Skepticule Extra is now available. It was recorded last Friday and is an interview with representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church, of "God Hates Fags" fame. The interview was organised and conducted by Skepticule co-host Paul Baird, though Paul (Sinbad) Thompson and myself were also in attendance. I hardly said anything, and what I did say could easily have derailed the conversation, but Paul B knew what questions he wanted to ask and he asked them.

The resulting exchange was enlightening. The Phelps' are often painted as extremists, and watching what they do certainly gives this impression. But as was revealed in this conversation there isn't a single tenet of their faith, however extreme, that isn't fervently held by some other Christian sect somewhere around the world. The Phelps' just seem to hold to all of them.

The actual interview is about 38 minutes long, followed by a few minutes of the three Pauls discussing what they've just heard. Listen here:


A belated bunch of Burnee links for Thursday

"It's gone very quiet."

(Listeners to the Skepticule Record will know that I'm quoting myself there.)

But yes, it's been quiet here in Burnee land over the last week. That's because I've been busy — mostly with audio editing (including our fascinating Westboro Baptist Church interview), but also with other non-blog-related stuff, such as attending Pompey Skeptics in the Pub, going to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, seeing a Terence Rattigan play at Chichester Festival Theatre, and spending most of last Sunday in a woodland clearing at my family's annual picnic.

Maybe I'll catch up with the blogging, or maybe I won't. Anyway, here are some links:

When I stopped being an atheist … « Choice in Dying
The Biologos video is called ”A Leap of Truth.” It’s not really worth watching, in my view. It has all the same suspects saying roughly the same things they’ve said otherwhere and otherwhen. I have to admit, though, that Alister McGrath is arguably the biggest bullshitter of them all, and is almost compelling in his vacuity.
Eric MacDonald plumbs the McGrath shallows.

Paul Simms: “God’s Blog” : The New Yorker
As a "design", this is unintelligently brilliant!

Is the internet dangerous? Taking a closer look at Baroness Greenfield’s concerns — Risk Science Blog
Susan Greenfield is given a fair hearing, but still lacks evidence.

The Daily Mail knowingly and commercially used my photos despite my denying them permission. - Wonderland
Let's pretend to be ethical when it suits us. (But mostly, to hell with ethics.)

Sunday 14 August 2011

New episode of Skepticule Extra

(Note, this is not the special interview episode recorded last Friday — this was recorded a week ago.)

In the latest episode of Skepticule Extra the three Pauls concentrate on education, including faith-based academies, eating your words in class, plus we educate you in nefarious institutional shenanigans. Listen and get up-to-date now, so that you're ready for episode 12 (which you definitely don't want to miss).

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Anarchy in the UK — can I blame the Christians?

Reports of violence, looting and arson in many places throughout Britain in the last few days is met by peace-loving, right-thinking people with nothing short of bewilderment: what on earth do these looters think they're doing? How can they possibly believe they have justification for lawlessness and criminality of this kind? How can they do these things and live with themselves?

Perhaps I can offer a hypothesis. Nothing more — this is not a researched analysis, just a thought, based on recent discussions in various places (notably on the Skepticule Extra podcast).

The perpetrators of these crimes, it would appear from news reports, are mostly young. Where do they get their moral guidance? In days gone by they would have received it from religious sources, in school, in church, from their parents. These days, however, young people see through the associated baggage that accompanies religious morality. They see that the God-myth is just that — an unsubstantiated fantasy with little relevance to their everyday lives.

Recognizing the God-myth for what it is may not be difficult. But there's a harder question, which is this: where does morality come from?

The answer given to this question, I contend, may lead to a mindset allowing the lawlessness witnessed this week. Religious apologists — in this country mostly Christian — insist that without God-given morality you have no basis on which to distinguish right and wrong. Advocates for humanism have long argued that such a claim is unfounded, but Christians stick obdurately to the idea that without God, "everything is permitted". This is false, but enduring. It's this nihilistic notion that appears to have permeated the minds of lawless youths tossing petrol bombs into high-street shops. They've rejected the God-myth, but unfortunately bought into the Christian proprietorial account of morality.

But you can be good without God, and the insistent Christian denial of this fact has, in my view, contributed to the current trouble.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Oh Kalamity — a cosmological debunking

The Kalām Cosmological Argument is a favourite of William Lane Craig. It's formulated in such a way as to preempt objections, though as I've previously mentioned on numerous blogposts this disingenuous wordplay — an attempt to insulate the argument from criticism — fails.

This great video is as comprehensive a take-down of the Kalām's flawed logic as we're likely to see for some time — at least until some new cosmological theory emerges from legitimate science. The analysis and arguments presented here are thorough, properly referenced and in many cases from the very mouths of the cosmologists themselves.


Here's the info on the video, copied from YouTube:
We hope this is the definitive take down of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. We show how it is contradictory and that the physics being used to support it doesn't do so. We also had this video reviewed by Marcus, one of the Cosmology Advisers on Physics Forums to make sure there were no errors, his words
"I think it is excellent.Your narrator comes across as really smart and personable....I don't see any glaring errors, really amazingly good
it's charming, intelligent, visually engaging, sporadically really beautiful like the brief cut of the Hubble telescope and the volcano etc. Well-made!"
And here's what P. Z. Myers says in his Pharyngula post (credited to Skepchick) that alerted me to it:
This is a wonderful video debunking the Kalam Cosmological Argument. What I really like about it is that it takes the tortured rationales of theologians like William Lane Craig, who love to babble mangled pseudoscience in their arguments, and shows with direct quotes from the physicists referenced that the Christian and Muslim apologists are full of shit.
Watch and enjoy.

Burnee links for Sunday

An exercise in doing journalism the old-fashioned way.

Atheism is an essential part of skepticism | Pharyngula
P. Z. Myers on why it's a bad idea to make a walled garden into which skepticism cannot go.

Abortion: pregnancy counselling centres found wanting | Life and style | The Guardian
This is what happens when organisations with an agenda — in lieu of the state — are allowed to provide public services. Contrary to what we're told, choice is narrowed rather than widened.

New Humanist (Rationalist Association) - Anjem Choudary exploits Norwegian tragedy to publicise his 'Sharia Controlled Zones' for UK cities
Choudary is a notorious media whore, so the seriousness of this proposal is to be questioned. On the face of it he's suggesting that his private police force will be above English law. Clearly that won't be allowed.

Research linking autism to internet use is criticised | Society | The Observer
Susan Greenfield is at it again (has she ever stopped?) — making wild unsubstantiated claims about the evils of the internet while refusing to produce even one single shred of evidence to support any of them.
"I'm not just sitting here staring out of my window and making something up to talk about," she said.
Really? You're not? Then how come it appears to practically everyone else that "making something up" is precisely what you are doing? (Hint: you're a scientist. Evidence.)

Existence of followers isn't proof of that which is followed

Several months ago on a Christian discussion forum I was asked two questions:
1) Who do YOU say Jesus was?

2) Do you deny the resurrection?
I answered both, but the first question is the one relevant to this post, and my answer to that was:
1) It seems likely that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who developed a considerable local following, to the extent that he annoyed the established religion of the time, which got rid of him in an effort to preserve the status quo.
This still seems to me to be a reasonable interpretation of the story we have of Jesus. There are some who deny Jesus existed at all; others suggest that the popular account is a melding of stories of a number of different preachers who were around at the time.

Chapter 27 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, "Did Jesus Really Exist?" by Paul L. Maier, is addressed to those who claim Jesus didn't exist — a claim he characterizes as "this pathetic denial".

Maier's first foray is to say that the New Testament wouldn't make "an ounce of sense if Jesus had never lived." This presupposes that the books of the New Testament do make sense, which to me seems like putting the cart before the horse. He describes this as "internal evidence", which appears suspiciously like "circular evidence". (Or to put it in simple, direct terms, Jesus existed because it says so in the Bible.)

Then we come to "external evidence" — Christian, Jewish and secular. The Christian evidence Maier lists is from Jesus' disciple John, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was John's student, and Irenaeus of Lyons, who was Polycarp's student. Pardon me for my skeptical view of this chain of hearsay, but I see a problem with calling the writings of Polycarp and Iranaeus "evidence", if they both had it ultimately from John. This is evidence from one man, not three. Maier also counts the writings of Justin Martyr as external evidence that Jesus existed, but as with Polycarp and Iranaeus he does not provide references.

When considering Jewish external evidence Maier quotes writings in the Talmud (though once again without a citation). He acknowledges that references to Jesus in the Talmud are garbled, but claims that one of them is "especially accurate" when it reports on Jesus' arrest notice. By what standard, I'm bound to ask, do you assess whether a report is garbled or accurate? (If you already "know" what happened, such assessment is easy.)

As is usual in these arguments it's not long before Josephus is wheeled out to proclaim the existence of Jesus, as if this impartial chronicler is the last word on the subject. But when you read what Josephus writes, you find he's only reporting what others have said.

For his secular external evidence Maier first cites Tacitus, who mentions the Christians in his Annals. Tacitus is referring to followers of Christ, but such reference is no stronger evidence for Jesus than the existence of Raëlians today is evidence for Raël. Next come Suetonius — who mentions Christians and Christ one time each — and Pliny the Younger, who asks for advice in dealing with those superstitious Christians.

In passing Maier also mentions Theudas and Mara bar Serapion as providing evidence for the existence of Jesus, but again gives no references — an omission he excuses on the basis that he's already made his case that "Jesus of Nazareth was no myth, but a totally historical figure who truly lived."

As I mentioned at the top of this post I'm not one of those who deny that someone of the name of Jesus ever existed, but I don't think the evidence for the existence of the man described in the New Testament is as clear cut as Maier suggests. It's likely that a charismatic preacher or three did make waves — enough to get at least one of them executed — but that's a far cry from categorical proof of the existence of the New Testament Jesus. Nor do I deny that the followers of "Christ" existed — but the existence of Christians isn't automatic proof of the existence of Christ.


Saturday 6 August 2011

More on BBC2's The Life of Muhammad

A while ago I posted about Rageh Omaar's TV series The Life of Muhammad (and talked briefly about it on the Skepticule Extra podcast). My skepticism about Muhammad's revelations — and about his "Night Journey" as well as other aspects of Islam — provoked a series of comments from a user by the name of Walid, who essentially claimed that it was true because the Prophet said so. I did try to elicit some valid evidence for this claim, but to no avail.

Some days later Stuart Parsons responded to my post with a condemnation of the TV series, and to rescue his comment from the depths of Walid's justification attempts I reproduce it here:
As someone who has made a seious study of the Islamic religion, I can assure you that the BBC2 'Life of Muhammad ' series was a travesty. It was more noteworthy for what it chose to conceal about the life of Muhammad than what is was prepared to reveal.

Islam's own sources, the Quran, Sunnah and sirahs of Ishaq, Tabari and Kathir, reveal a very different life of Muhammad than that disingenuously presented to us by the BBC Head of Religious Broadcasting, Mr Aaqil Ahmed. We certainly were not told that the Quran and many hadiths call for ongoing holy war against ALL non-Muslims, until the religion is for Allah alone throughout the entire world. Instead it was mendaciously explained that Jihad is the struggle of individual Muslims to lead a good life. According to many Quran verses and numerous ahadith a Muslim is leading a good life if he is killing non-Muslims, forcibly converting them to Islam or subjugating them as inferiors under Muslim control. 
This does appear to be a damning indictment of Rageh Omaar's programme, and incidentally of Islam in general. To be fair though, I noticed a good deal of "equivocation by stealth" in the programme, with many hints of "interpretation" of scripture and much use of the phrase "according to Muslim tradition". Often these phrases slip by unnoticed, but they serve the same purpose as judicious use of "allegedly" when saying something that could be judged defamatory in a court of law.

And if we were in a court of law, could we say that the jury's still out?

A heartfelt invitation to believe

Occasionally as an atheist I come across the saying, "It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God." This, of course, is usually spoken or written by someone who does in fact believe in God. Sometimes this person claims to have been an atheist in the past, but is no longer, so I might question their sincerity when they now claim to have less faith then they did before.

I would suggest they look into their heart and examine their innermost convictions. Though they outwardly profess a belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator-agent, despite never seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling or otherwise having any compelling evidence — physical, historical, documentary or scientific — for the existence of this agent, I contend that they do not believe in this agent. They know in their heart that this agent does not exist. They are, in effect, in denial about the agent's non-existence, and therefore suffering cognitive dissonance when they proclaim their faith.

To all those in denial about their unacknowledged atheism I offer this simple challenge and invitation. Does the truth matter to you? Does the reality of the external world present itself to you in a way that allows you to represent it to others in the same way — as real? Does what counts for you as "real" depend on whether it can be verified by others, and by yourself, on a repeating basis?

If so, I invite you to accept the reality of the universe into your heart as your only reliable, repeatable measure of truth.

And the truth will set you free.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Burnee links for Thursday

The Atheist Experience™: A Critical Thinking Course You Just Won't Believe
No, you won't. It's incredible. There ought to be some kind of "trade descriptions" claim here.

Science: The incessant drive for 'balance' distorts education | the big issue | From the Observer | The Observer
James Williams leads this correspondence about science education, in the light of Steve Jones' criticism of the BBC's "balance".

Stop the teaching of pseudoscience - Blogs - Pulse
A mild request from Edzard Ernst provokes ridiculous vitriol in the comments -- homeopaths on the rampage!

As atheists know, you can be good without God - USATODAY.com
Good article by Jerry Coyne, but mostly depressing comments.

The Atheist Experience™: Evangelists panic when they're losing ground
Russell Glasser with another perspective on Jerry Coyne's USA Today article.

Jesus and Mo
It's an old one, but still valid.
Click to read the rest of the strip

Wednesday 3 August 2011

New, extended, edition of Skepticule Extra

The latest Skepticule Extra, number 10 (double figures! Yay!), features Rosemary Lyndall Wemm who generously shares her insights on the neurological aspects of morality. (This show is our longest to date, making up for the one before, which was truncated.)

Other subjects discussed include near-death experiences, near-terrorist experiences, near-anti-semitic experiences, near-torture experiences, near-prison experiences and near-empathic experiences. Or in other words, a whole bundle of fun.

We also have feedback plus a progress report on a half century of God-arguments. Enjoy:


Monday 1 August 2011

Theology for the masses

It's less than a week since The Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral, informed us on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day that America's financial problems were foreshadowed in the Garden of Eden. Now he's berating politicians for using fancy phrases that don't mean anything.

Not that theologians would do anything like that, of course — though Giles does acknowledge dismissals of theology as "unrealistic stargazing" and "the musings of unworldly philosophers with their heads in the clouds". However, says Giles, "...theology, like blue-sky thinking, is the attempt to see things in the widest possible context." Or to put it in a way comprehensible to the ordinary bloke and blokesse (that is, those who are so lacking in the finer subtleties of academe they can't tell exegesis from hermeneutics), theology is like a zoom lens pulling back to its widest setting. That's right, theology lets us see everything. But just in case said bloke and blokesse get a bit cocky by being shown how easy theology really is, Giles tosses in a snippet of Latin to keep them in their place.

Lest we think he's off on a flight of fancy, he warns us, "Of course the practical minded are not wrong to worry that all this abstract reflection can easily slip its anchor with reality." Next, to reinforce his cultural credibility he quotes a verse of poetry. By this time we're approaching the end of his allotted three-and-a-half minutes, and though Giles has dutifully included something theological (remembering to dumb it down for the hoi poloi), thrown in some Latin and even some poetry — he's so far not mentioned God.

But never fear — the flight of fancy may be postponed but it's not forgotten: God is everywhere! And God is in the details!

"One might even say," Giles continues, "that this incarnation of theology of God-become-human is the original localism." One might, but what would it mean if one did?

Whatever the "original localism" might be, Giles won't let those stick-in-the-muds obsessed with practical reality blunt our wild speculations. "Indeed, too often, talk of 'being realistic' is just code for a failure of the imagination."

Wild speculation, apparently, is essential to politics, just as it is to theology. I think the "practical minded" may be right. Giles Fraser slipped his anchor long ago.