Saturday 31 March 2012

Textual transubstantiation

"Why All the Translations?" is the question Denny Burk asks in the title of chapter 44 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God. It's a good question; it seems likely that we have more translations of the Bible than of any other ancient text (Beowulf, say, or the works of Chaucer, Homer, Plato, Omar Khayyám...). The only reason for this I can come up with is that many people have been dissatisfied with the extant translations and thought they could do better — and believed it was important to do better.

Burk points out that there are three approaches to translating the Bible: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and paraphrase. The King James Version is apparently a formal equivalence or word-for-word translation, while the New International Version is a dynamic equivalence translation, which Burk describes as a thought-for-thought rendering. This gives a clue as to why there are so many ways one can interpret scripture. The version I see cited most often is the New International Version, which according to Burk is not a word-for-word translation but one where the translators have endeavoured to get inside the heads of the original authors. This in itself requires a degree of interpretation, so it's not surprising that when Biblical scholars are engaged in exegesis they feel free to contribute their own interpretations.

The third option — a paraphrase translation — isn't really a translation at all. Burk quotes Paul D. Wegner in The Bible in Translation, describing a paraphrase as a "free rendering or amplification of a passage, expression of its sense in other words."

All this concern over different translations cannot help but raise the suspicion that the real reason there are so many is that no-one knows for sure what the original really said, let alone what it meant.

Friday 30 March 2012

"Nature Deficit Disorder" is not a medical condition

The Today Programme is the BBC's premier morning news radio show. It lasts three hours (from 6 till 9) but inevitably some its subjects are given minimal coverage. One such was this morning's discussion about a report recently released by the National Trust. "Natural Childhood" is authored by Stephen Moss, who was on the programme to support his contention that children are missing out by not spending enough time outdoors. This is all very fine and dandy — I'm in favour of kids getting up close and personal with nature — but unfortunately the National Trust have fallen into the all-too-common view that the way to promote their services (and providing services is what they do by charging admission to their properties) is to spin the reduced outdoor-time as some kind of medical condition.

Taking up an invented syndrome and running with it is a bad way to promote yourself; as a member of the National Trust myself I find this tactic regrettable. "Nature Deficit Disorder" is not a recognised medical condition — Stephen Moss's report even acknowledges this, so why is he using it to spin the statistics to indicate that children are being harmed?

Aleks Krotoski has ably covered this in the Guardian, and she was on the Today Programme to debunk Stephen Moss's disingenuous PR:

The report itself is available here:

It has over 100 references and notes at the end, appearing appropriately scholarly for its 28 pages. I noticed, however, that one of those references was to something by Aric Sigman, which did not inspire confidence (it prompted a search for the word "Greenfield" — though thankfully that yielded no results).

The Reason Rally — A Secular Celebration (video)

Too late for yesterday's Burnee links, so it gets its own post. This nicely produced eight-minute video by The Thinking Atheist seems to encapsulate the flavour of the Reason Rally.

I hope that eventually all the talks will be available in video quality to match this. The fact that many people flew hundreds of miles to stand for six or more hours in the rain — and maintain that it was totally worth it — speaks volumes about the significance of this event.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Burnee links for Thursday

When the rug is pulled | The Crommunist Manifesto
Read it. That is all.

Episode 109 | Righteous Indignation
Hayley Stevens talks about her recent trip to investigate a brace of Nessies, accompanying the world's premier paranormal investigator — the incomparable Joe Nickell. (And Michael Marshall talks about his recent visit to Sally Morgan's stage show — sorry Marsh, interesting though your piece undoubtedly was, it was pre-emptively upstaged by Hayley's hobnobbing with a living legend.)

MPs try to overturn 'God can heal' ad ban | Total Politics
Three MPs make twits of themselves. I posted this comment:
"Gary Streeter (Con), Gavin Shuker (Lab) and Tim Farron (Lib Dem) say that they want the Advertising Standards Authority to produce "indisputable scientific evidence" to say that prayer does not work - otherwise they will raise the issue in Parliament."
And I want indisputable scientific evidence that the invisible pink unicorn does not exist and that the government are not spraying tranquilisers into the air using chem-trails and that Messrs Streeter, Shuker and Farron are not twelve-foot tall lizard aliens in disguise — otherwise I will raise these issues with Deepak Chopra. (If David Icke happens not to be available.)
Martin Robbins takes them to task at the Guardian:
Hapless MPs defend faith healers

10 Amazing Practical Jokes « Richard Wiseman
For anyone who thinks Professor Wiseman spends far too much time on frivolities...

Triablogue: Outreach Report: Reason Rally 2012
The presup account. For some reason they don't think they're wasting their time.

The Most Astounding Fact About The Universe, As Told By Neil DeGrasse Tyson (VIDEO)
Grasp it:

(Via Project Reason.)

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Adam Rutherford's Darwin Day lecture — pictures

Given that I've started to post my photographs of QEDcon it's about time I got round to posting some of my previous pictures. So here are those I took at this year's Darwin Day lecture. I won't reiterate what Adam Rutherford said as I've already talked about it on Skepticule Extra, and if you want to hear (and see) the lecture yourself there are links below.

My pictures:

Watch the lecture here:

Or listen to the audio only, but complete with introductions and Q&A:


Sunday 25 March 2012

Burnee links for Sunday

Jourdemayne: Profanity and Nuptials, or, Get Your Hands Off My Words
"It is inhumane to deny gay couples equality. I never want to hear another religious person tell me that their beliefs are primarily about ethics ever again."

Graveyard of the destitute set to be site for plush new London flats |
Prostitutes were licenced? By the church?!

It's my way or the highway: Christians and atheists in religious road row | World news |
These Christians don't know when they're being wound up. (But it's so easy...)

A vision for a secular America - Guest Voices - The Washington Post
Many if not all of Sean Faircloth's ten points ought to apply to the UK, but we'd have to disestablish the Church of England first...

The reports are trickling in | Pharyngula
A useful initial source of links to videos of the Reason Rally.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Divine law and gay marriage

Every single argument I've heard against the legalisation of same-sex marriage has been fundamentally flawed in every particular. Here's yet another example, which I highlight not just because it's an easy target, but because young-earth creationists are at least honest about where their dogma originates. This is the latest "Creation News Update" from our very own (and local) Creation Science Movement.
Firstly, we note that it is already legal for gay partners to enter into civil partnerships, as sort of secular contracts, and if that is what humanists and secularists want then it doesn't have an impact upon the spiritual aspect of human life. In an open society we do not oppose secular civil partnerships if that is what people living in the world want. However, we would suggest that a secular society has all it can want in the concept of civil partnerships, so why try and change the meaning of marriage, if it is not an attack on religious belief and religious communities?
What about the concept of equality? CSM are saying here that gays can have a kind of second-class marriage, but not "proper" marriage, which CSM want to reserve for partnerships between opposite sexes. Note that they assume that gay marriage is "an attack on religious belief and religious communities" without backing up this assertion.
We need to recognise that marriage is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman that has a spiritual dimension - it transcends, or goes beyond, secular civil contracts (even if unrecognised by participants) - as the saying goes, 'marriages are made in heaven.'
Why not a covenant relationship between a man and another man, or a woman and another woman? And marriages are made in heaven? (See what I mean about an easy target?) Note that they claim a "transcendent" quality of marriage "even if unrecognised by participants". This is a classic instance of religious dogma being applied to those who don't share their religious convictions. In the same paragraph CSM talk about a secular state having no mandate to change spiritual laws. To my mind a secular state has no business making "spiritual laws" at all. State law should be entirely secular.
Of course people may point out that not all cultures have upheld monogamous marriage between men and women. Some religions allow a man to marry four or more women, and even homosexual marriage has been known in the past. The Greeks and Romans allowed such marriages, Nero for instance married a male freed slave, but it often also occurred between grown men and young boys. However, Rome was a brittle kingdom and struggled to maintain social cohesion due to its brutality and inconsistencies (Nero also murdered his own mother and wife).
The Roman Empire fell, and by the way Nero was a murderer. Therefore everything the Romans did was invalid. Spot the fallacy.
The lesson from this is that if secularists and populist governments seek to overthrow the order that Christianity brings to society, for instance by undermining the Mosaic ordinance of marriage, it will be sadly Britain that collapses, and not the Church which will stand as a beacon of hope in the darkening land. By undermining Christian values and principles, for instance in marriage, what principles will society have other than those based upon fickle human sentiments?
I can't make up my mind whether that's a threat, a vain hope, or a simple misunderstanding of the origins of human morality — or all three.
We are not to be slaves to our thoughts and feelings; instead we are volitional beings. So we do not believe that people are born gay, but gay sentiment arises through other factors, particularly through biased media propaganda that closes down honest debate. ‘Gayness' then is not intrinsic to the human condition, but is extrinsic and arises according to a lifestyle choice. It cannot then be a human rights issue. 
This is simply false. CSM may not like the idea that people are indeed born gay, but that doesn't change the facts.
Marriage is a sacred union between two human temples, one man and one woman, for the purpose of bringing forth children. One wonders about the arrogance of politicians who think they can alter divine law. 
I'm not interested in changing divine law, nor, I believe, is David Cameron. It's the secular law that needs changing, for the sake of human equality.

My QED 2012 experience — part 1

For me the stand-out features of QED this year were the range of speakers and the socialising. Unlike last year I didn't stay at the conference hotel so I had to carry everything for the day with me — which turned out to be a raincoat and a fairly large camera bag. These, I'm happy to report, didn't impede me much.

Like last year I arrived on Friday, catching an earlier train than I'd expected from Euston, and took my time ambling from my lodging to the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel for a relaxed meal before the Mixer, which was scheduled for 8 but seemed to be in full swing some time before that. By 8, however, wandering through the packed bar area was like swimming through a sea of skeptic celebrities. It's not called the Mixer for nothing and is one of the things that makes QED special. Whether or not they had read Hayley Stevens' blog, many people seemed to be taking her advice about talking to 'strangers'.

As for the event itself, I shall blog about it in short bursts, with photographs:


On Saturday, after Andy Wilson's official opening — not much more than a welcome and some housekeeping, Deborah Hyde kicked off with the historical context of the werewolf myth. Being the first speaker at an international conference can be, I imagine, a bit daunting, but Deborah displayed no sign of nerves even as her microphone was replaced or adjusted only seconds into her talk. Last year's first speaker was Bruce Hood, and I seem to remember he did take a few minutes (though not many) to get into his stride.

Deborah's talk was a new one, though she had given us a sneak preview at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub about a month earlier. In her QED talk she outlined the popular myths, and how it might have been reasonable, given the context and specific examples, to believe that werewolves were real. Bringing the myth down to earth, she included some real wolves.


Next was Steve Jones, explaining what is meant by natural selection — immediately illustrating the diversity of speakers and topics at this year's QED: from an investigation into the historical basis of popular myths we had moved on to why evolution, as understood by Charles Darwin (though he never used the word in his Origin of Species), is an undirected process. The example Steve used was the generation of effective shapes for nozzles used in the industrial manufacture of powder, by applying random but small variations to successively more effective shapes, thus refining the efficiency and durability of the nozzles without knowing precisely why they work. It's apparently an engineering technique still in use today.


The last speaker before lunch was David Aaronovitch. I was particularly keen to hear what he had to say as I attended the CFI Conspiracy Theories day at Conway Hall, at which David was scheduled to speak, but he had to withdraw due to ill health. So I was not entirely pleased when he began by announcing that his talk would be completely new and unike any of his previous talks. Nevertheless it was lively and off the cuff — conspiracy theories are everywhere so it's not as if there's a dearth of material — and well worth hearing. He spoke mostly about the conspiracy theory that's grown up around the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn — that the allegations against him of attempted rape are part of a sting organised by the French government (or more particularly by factions loyal to Nicolas Sarkozy).

After an equally lively Q&A session it was time for lunch. Topics had already ranged far and wide. More next time.


(Click here for part 2.)

This is my 600th blogpost. I thought you'd like to know.

Doubtful text is no standard for doctrinal accuracy

"This chapter addresses a popular argument that is used against those who hold to an inerrant Bible. Essentially, the argument is posed as a question: How can you claim to have an inerrant original text when we don't even have the original text? On its face, this argument has seemed so compelling that some people never get beyond it. This chapter will show what are the underlying assumptions behind this question and why they are fallacious."
A laudable goal, don't you think? Unfortunately Daniel B. Wallace does no such thing. His chapter — "Inerrancy and the Text of the New Testament — Assessing the Logic of the Agnostic View" (the second in the final section of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God) —  says much the same as did David Instone-Brewer at Unbelievable?: The Conference. Which is, we don't have the autographs but we know what they (mostly) said. This, it turns out, amounts to little more than wishful thinking. As I pointed out in my review of the previous chapter, the lack of the original manuscripts throws everything else into doubt, because there is no provenance for any of the copies. At one point Wallace claims that there are almost 10,000 Latin manuscripts, but it makes no difference how many there are if you don't know from what they were copied. Suppose they're all derived from an early but inaccurate copy — there may be differences between them that can be ironed out by scholarship and statistical analysis, but the resultant agreed text will be nothing more than a reasonably accurate representation of something that itself could be wildly inaccurate.

Wallace spends many words (indeed this chapter is the longest in the book so far) on whether acknowledged discrepancies are significant, and claims that in terms of doctrine they are not. But he's basing his judgement of what conforms to doctrine on the text that he's trying to validate. This is begging the question. If the doctrine happens to be stated in the missing or disputed text, he cannot know whether the text conforms to doctrine or not, because the doctrine itself is therefore in doubt.
PDF available here:

Thursday 22 March 2012

Intelligent design in the pub

Today I received email from someone willing to give talks on their chosen subject, anywhere in the UK, for free. This person is also "happy to participate in more intimate settings like a dinner or supper event."

Sounds to me a bit like Skeptics in the Pub, so I'm wondering if I should suggest this person to Trish — the convenor of my local (Portsmouth) Skeptics in the Pub — as a possible future speaker. My emailer's subject is one that concerns many skeptics, and is often discussed when skeptics get together.

The talks seem likely to be of a professional standard, after all the email states: "I have a number of illustrated presentations which are suitable for college, university, church or public audiences..."

Seems too good to be true, although that fleeting reference to "church" might give one pause. Perhaps I should write back to the sender, thanking him for his kind offer, and (after consulting with Trish) suggest a few dates. Of course I'd have to come clean as to my own identity and my own stance on his particular subject, as I've blogged about my emailer before — which might make him think twice about travelling the length of the country in order to give a talk to an audience who would most likely disagree with him.

So despite his claim that he's happy to "speak at any event, anywhere in the UK, which you may wish to organise," I think this is one invitation Dr. Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, would probably decline.

Religious comfort at my expense

"As the NHS looks to find at least £20bn of savings between now and 2015, could the provision of chaplains be one area where the service could save money? Edward Presswood, a doctor of acute medicine based in North London, and Rev Debbie Hodge, chief officer of Multi Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy, debate whether there is a place for spirituality on hospital wards."
This was a brief discussion on BBC Radio Four's Today Programme this morning, and though four and a half minutes isn't enough to explore the issues in detail, it proved sufficient to reveal the underlying concerns of both sides. Edward Presswood made the point that a religious chaplain could not cater for the "spiritual needs" of someone who was of a different or no religion, though he stated he wasn't against hospital chaplains on principle — only their being funded by the National Health Service.

Debbie Hodge offered a similar argument to that used by the Lords Spiritual when attempting to justify seats in the House of Lords for Anglican bishops: that "religious" care isn't the forefront of the care they provide, but their religiosity gives them unique expertise. This ties in with the suggestion that clerics have some special spiritual power that only they have access to, perhaps because they have a hotline to the Almighty. Unjustified assumptions like this lead to taxpayers funding hospital chaplains to the tune of £29 million per year. Edward Presswood ably skewered the assumption with his football-fan analogy.

Listen to the discussion here (fast forward to 2h45m — available for a week):

Given more time, I'd like to have heard the Rev Hodge explain precisely what she means by "spiritual care" as it seems this is a term bandied about with little idea of what it's actually supposed to be.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Incomprehensible actions for unknown reasons

There is a theme in the affairs of apologists, which taken at the flood, leads on to incoherence.*

At Choosing Hats, contributor McFormtist considers what constitutes successful apologetics. As the type of apologetic usually in question at Choosing Hats is "covenantal" or "presuppositional" apologetics, and my own limited encounters with presuppositionalists have led me to the conclusion that presuppositonal apologetics is spectacularly unsuccessful in the declared purpose of apologetics in general, naturally my interest was piqued.

Early on in the piece comes this:
  1. Our theology dictates to us that it is God who changes men’s hearts. As Reformed Christians, we understand that God in His Holy Sovereignty is superintending everything that comes to pass, including the salvation of men, and that the conversion of men starts and ends by God’s active working in their hearts, and this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized. (Eze. 36:26, John 3:8)
...which I found puzzling (emphasis in the original). If "...this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized," then apologetics would seem to be irrelevant. If the moving of men's hearts is not dependent in any way upon man's efforts, the whole enterprise seems redundant. I posted as much (albeit briefly) as a comment to McFormtist's post.

McFormtist was good enough to reply, and it was in the reply that I saw the recurrence of a theme I've encountered before when Christians are questioned about their evangelism. They don't do it because of its results — the purpose of apologetics is indeed irrelevant to its effect. They do it because God told them to do it. It's all about obedience. Men must do what God tells them to do, regardless of whether it makes sense or leads to unintended consequences. That's unintended by man, of course: God works in mysterious ways — who can fathom the depths of His intention?

This theme is also present in the Westboro Baptist Church. When Shirley Phelps-Roper and her husband Brent were guests on the Skepticule Extra podcast, they made it clear they were not concerned with the effect their uncompromising brand of evangelism (if you can call it that) might have on the people they were picketing. The results of what they did were irrelevant to them and their purpose. Their only purpose — a purpose they appeared determined to pursue regardless — was to obey God. Anything else was a side-issue and of minimal importance.

So, coupling God's "mysterious ways" with His commands interpreted from scripture, we end up with groups of devout believers earnestly carrying out incoherent actions for reasons they accept they cannot understand. These people are doing incomprehensible stuff and they don't know why.

*With apologies to William Shakespeare

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Christianity's seminal documents still missing

We come at last to the final section of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, which is entitled The Question of the Bible. But I have to ask, why did the editors consider the question of the Bible to be the final thing worth addressing after the foregoing sections on Jesus, on Science and on Philosophy? Much of the book has already quoted copiously from the Bible, and yet only now are we to consider if the Bible is ... what? Reliable? True?

Of course it's possible Dembski and Licona take the truth of the Bible as self-evident, and only included this section as an afterthought. Unlikely? Perhaps, but nevertheless I feel that The Question of the Bible should at least have come before The Question of Jesus.

Now that we are addressing the biblical question, what does Andreas J. Köstenberger have to say in his chapter, "Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written?" Two things: the Bible was transmitted accurately, and it has been translated accurately. The latter can be — and is — continually debated. Translation from one language to another is never set in stone as long as the original language text is available to be re-translated by anyone who feels, for whatever reason, that another translation is necessary.

But the availability of the original language text remains problematic, for one very simple reason: we do not have any original autographs. All we have are copies, and no matter how much comparison of different copies is done in an effort to recreate the original, we can never be sure that it is actually the original that we are recreating. What all the careful comparisons might be achieving is a reasonably faithful re-creation of an early — but erroneous — copy. It's impossible to tell. All the arguments about the number of copies — and how similar or different they are — cannot get us reliably closer to the actual originals, because we have no way of knowing for sure if the re-creation is accurate.

Köstenberger, however, appears unfazed by this towering uncertainty:
Today, when someone opens any English Bible (NKJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, TNIV, HCSB), he or she may know that generations of faithful scholarship have managed to preserve and protect that Bible as it was originally given.
He may devoutly desire that to be the case, but merely asserting it doesn't make it so.

Monday 19 March 2012

Skepticule Extra 22

Late (as usual) but all the more superbly great for having to be waited for. (And yes I know that a conjunction is something you're not supposed to end a sentence with.)

It's Skepticule Extra, episode 22! (that's an exclamation mark, not a factorial — which incidentally would be 1.12400072777760768 x 10^21 according to Wolfram Alpha).

In this episode the three Pauls discuss, among other things, skeptical and godless conferences, non-skeptical (but highly lucrative) books, and debating delusion.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Burnee links for Sunday

Some belated (most from over a week ago) Burnee links. (Sorry, but I've been busy. I went to this QED thing in Manchester...)

Why Richard Dawkins is still an atheist - Guest Voices - The Washington Post
Dawkins an agnostic? Well, that's a surprise! (Actually it isn't.)

‘It’s time to quit the Catholic Church’ - Freedom From Religion Foundation -
If only.

Why I am an atheist – A Texan | Pharyngula
Another story of enlightenment — short but inspiring. The born-again religious tell these kinds of stories too — for belief going in the opposite direction — but we don't seem to hear so many of those.

The Fireplace Delusion : Sam Harris
Sam's analogue should make you think.

Debunking Corner: Origins Exposed: Latest Crypto-Creationist Pamphlet Debunked by Paul Braterman | British Centre for Science Education
Quote-mining, misrepresentation of legitimate science (deliberate or otherwise) and incredulity (aka failure of the imagination) are the orders of the day.

What Nonbelievers Believe | Psychology Today
Dave Niose keeps it simple.
(Via Paul Wright.)

Saturday 17 March 2012

Question.Explore.Discover your media here

On Monday evening after returning from QED in Manchester I posted this tweet:

and received this response from Geoff Whelan:

Glad to see suggestions being considered. But you know what? I'm not going to wait. Think of this as a temporary repository for QED media. If you've posted images (photos, sketches, scans), video or audio, or blogged about QED, post links to your content in the comments below and I'll list everything on a special page, which the QED organisers can use or not as the fancy takes.

The page is here:

I've put a few links in already, to kick things off.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

The beam in thine eye and dogmatic projection

So Chris Bolt accuses me of dogmatism. Whether I am actually dogmatic, however, cannot be deduced from the blogpost of mine that Chris references. My blogpost is 116 words long, not counting the link to the Unbelievable? audio stream, so Chris must really, really want to believe it contains dogmatism. What I actually wrote about Hell was that I could think of an alternative explanation for believing it was real — alternative, that is, to its actual existence. I did not claim — dogmatically or otherwise — to know that Hell doesn't exist. Chris, on the other hand, does claim to know that Hell exists. He writes:
Hell is incomprehensibly awful. I am deeply troubled by the thought of people going there, but they will, and they do. However, it is the wicked who go to hell, and they deserve the punishment they receive there.
This isn't a suggestion of a possible alternative view, nor is it speculation on different interpretations. It's a claim of knowledge based on nothing but scripture — otherwise known as dogmatism. Go read his piece, then see if this slightly altered version of one of his eight paragraphs (of nearly a thousand words — that's a response ratio approaching ten to one) wouldn't be nearer the truth:
One might question how Chris is so dogmatically certain that hell exists. Of course it does not matter how certain Chris feels he is with regard to the alleged existence of hell if hell doesn't in fact exist. It does not matter how strongly opposed one is to the existence of terminal cancer if one has it. One’s beliefs do not affect such states of affairs. The cancer is going to win out in the end. So also Chris’s opinions about hell do not matter in the end if hell is indeed a fantasy. It would serve Chris well to give more critical thought to how he knows that hell exists.
In short, Chris dogmatically claims that Hell exists, while accusing me of dogmatism for merely suggesting an alternative explanation for belief in it.

Monday 5 March 2012

Eternal conscious mild inconvenience

A while ago I had occasion to doubt the usefulness of a certain kind of discussion, which I characterised as piffle. Understandably my doubt was challenged, but the challenge didn't change my view on the matter. I chose not to pursue it, as I didn't expect such pursuit to be fruitful.

I shall not be pursuing this either:{71DF5283-40AD-40B4-AF6E-1FEE9B98ACE9}

It's about whether Hell is "eternal conscious punishment" on the one hand, or "annihilation" on the other. Other options are given short shrift, if considered at all. The alternative that occurs most obviously to me is, "Hell doesn't exist — it's a horror story told to children to stop them being naughty."

Not just piffle, but risible piffle.