"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 25 May 2012

Why don't theists debate honestly?

One of the things that strikes me with surprising frequency is the lack of straightforward intellectual honesty from theists when defending religious beliefs.
I’m not sure whether this is conscious bald-faced “lying for Jesus”, or a sub-conscious cognitive bias against any factual evidence that contradicts their worldview. However it turns up in all sorts of guises, from Muslims claiming there are no scientific errors in the Qur’an, when there demonstrably are, to theologians equivocating between common and religious definitions of “faith” in order to equate science and religion epistemologically.
The (admittedly rather trivial) thing that has brought this to my mind today was reading the foreword to Lawrence Krauss’ current book A Universe From Nothing in which he talks at length about the various definitions of ‘nothing’ from a simple vacuum, to absence of space-time, the quantum foam et al. He makes the point that no matter how physicists refine and define the concept of ‘nothing’, theologians will always insist that this is not the “nothing” from which God created the universe “declaring by fiat that ‘nothing’ is that from which only God can make something”.
This in itself is descriptive of the intellectual sand shifting that religious apologists employ, ending every infinite regress with a ‘goddidit’. But I have a more down to earth example from the same source.
Last Easter Richard Dawkins was in Australia where he debated Cardinal George Pell on the Q&A Television program. Reference was made to Krauss’ book, as Richard Dawkins had endorsed it but then the Cardinal describes it as a “con” because at the end of the book Krauss “admits that ‘nothing’ is not really ‘nothing’ so fails to deliver on the promise of its title.
Now Cardinal Pell claims to have read the book, then in the course of a live television debate dismisses it as a “con” despite the fact that at the very start the book makes clear that the definition of ‘nothing’ would never satisfy a theologian. If you watch the debate (video link here) you will see Dawkins’ eyebrows raise, although he doesn’t challenge the comment. But the point is Australia’s top ranking clergyman was prepared to lie on live T.V over an easily checkable fact in order to score a religious debating point.
When I first watched the debate I hadn’t started Krauss’ book so didn’t know if his comment was true or otherwise, and it is but only in so far as Krauss reiterates the point towards the end but nowhere does he pretend to be offering a theological ‘nothing’ which he dismisses right at the beginning. I’m not saying that atheists are immune from this, but in general when atheists debate theists they stick to facts and consistent definitions and don’t just make stuff up to win the argument. Perhaps it’s because to atheists ‘truth’, as far as it can be empirically ascertained, is important whereas to the religious protecting belief is paramount whether it is consistent with the facts or not.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Richard Dawkins supports Bibles in Schools

The Daily Mail is apparently surprised that “Arch Atheist” Richard Dawkins is in favour of Michael Gove’s plan to supply a free copy of the King James Bible to every state school.
They shouldn’t be of course as he is on record as acknowledging the cultural and literary contribution made by the 1611 translation of the bible to the richness of English prose and it would be as serious an omission not to have a copy of it in schools as to omit Shakespeare or Keats.
However, Richard Dawkins supports this initiative for the same reason I do; knowledge of the Bible is probably the best way to ensure children do not fall for the cherry picked rhetoric of the clergy (and religiously motivated politicians like Gove) that tries to portray its message as “moral”. As I pointed out in my last post, confirmed by my own bible study, it is anything but.
It would be nice to think that Michael Gove and the Tory donors sponsoring this initiative are doing it for the culturally relevant reason of “commemorating four hundred years since publication” but I suspect not. The motivation is at least in part religious but unlike the National Secular Society (whose general aims I fully endorse by the way) I am not concerned that this will result in the promotion of Christianity, either over other faiths or atheism. In the unlikely event that any child actually attempts to read a copy in any depth it is much more likely to repel than attract.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

I'm reading the Bible

"You little know the effect of the Bible on me. Properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived." Isaac Asimov.
For a little while now I have been reading the Bible. That is to say I decided a while ago to read it from cover to cover over however long it takes because if there is one thing an arrogant opinionated atheist blogger like myself should know it is the source material that the majority of the world’s religious types base their faith on.
Needless to say, It’s not an easy read. Even a casual acquaintance with the text is enough to persuade most people that it is an endeavour best left to others even if, as I have done, you avoid the florid and pseudo archaic language of the King James Version and opt instead for the New International Version, which in any event is reckoned to be a more accurate translation of the original texts.
Even so it is not a book to be swallowed all at once so I’m setting aside a bit of time each week to chew over a chunk. So far I have read through the Pentateuch, the first five books that constitute the Jewish Torah, and made some headway into the historical books as far as Kings, so I have a way to go yet, even to finish the Old Testament.
But given that the first five books are foundational to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and also set the agenda for the conservative right of all three religions I would like to make a couple of observations at this point.
The first, well-worn but worth repeating, is that the Old Testament god is not a pleasant character. I mean he admits to being “jealous” himself, but honestly this guy is positively narcissistic. He’s also an obsessive-compulsive control freak who dictates the minutiae of the Israelites' daily lives and takes murderous revenge on anyone who deliberately or mistakenly gets it wrong and displays a totally warped sense of justice that is totally irreconcilable with modern concepts of fairness.
O.K so what? You may say. He is after all the one and only God and creator of everything, he can be as big a jerk as he wants. Well yes, except that good ol’ Jehovah never claims to be the only god around (I’d heard this said but read it, it’s true) just the one the Israelites have to worship if they want all that Canaanite land for themselves. You have to wonder why they thought he was worth it. But more to the point, why do Jews, Christians and Muslims still think this genocidal, unpredictable deity worthy of pandering to today. I know Christians will say that their God is not like that, in which case it must be a totally different one; if not, Jehovah had some serious psychotherapy before embarking on the sequel.
The second observation is that the stories are so ridiculous it’s incredible that even those writing them down for the first time took them seriously. When I say ridiculous, I am not just talking about the impossible things like cramming millions of drowning species into a boat four hundred feet long, or people surviving for three days in the belly of a fish or any of the obvious fables. I mean those narratives that make no sense; like God having to send angels into Sodom to determine what was going on there, being unable to defeat enemies with “chariots of iron”, or that whole shtick with Moses and the Egyptian plagues. Whatever happened to omniscience and omnipotence (we’ve already established he’s not omni benevolent) that he couldn’t have avoided all that trouble with the wave of a celestial digit?
The thing is even if these stories have any historical credence whatsoever; they are so obviously human stories about people dealing with human limitations that the supernatural element just seems farcical. I cannot believe that only now (or in the last few hundred years at any rate) have we grown so sophisticated that the absurdity of the Old Testament is revealing itself. In any event as I said there are still millions of people who can with a straight face claim it to be literally true. I must assume none of them have actually read it, or if they have it’s a totally different version to the one I’ve embarked on.
It would be easy to suggest that as an atheist already, I am just a victim of confirmation bias and selectively noticing those passages that don’t make sense or paint God in a bad light. But honestly, you don’t have to search for this, it’s everywhere from the contradictory creation events in Genesis, to the absurd and morally repugnant near sacrifice of Isaac, the ridiculous dietary injunctions, the insects with four legs, cud chewing rabbits, and child eating bears (one of Jehovah’s most pointless retributions). Trust me the list is endless.

I have deliberately refrained from linking directly to the specific examples listed here, if you want to find them start at Genesis chapter 1 Vs 1 and take it from there.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Study says atheists are more compassionate than the religious

Here is an interesting article from the Mail Online describing a study which concludes that less religious people are more likely to show compassion to strangers and perform random acts of kindness than the religious.
'These findings indicate that although compassion is associated with pro-sociality among both less religious and more religious individuals, this relationship is particularly robust for less religious individuals.'
The study comprised three experiments from the standard canon of tests for pro-social behaviour involving pre-exposure of individuals from each group to certain stimuli and measuring their subsequent willingness to share sums of money with strangers. The article does not quote any figures or error bars from the study but assuming the results were significant it does bear some speculating as to why non-religious people come out as the more compassionate.
It would come as no surprise to me whatsoever if the study had concluded there was no discernable difference between the groups. Despite religion’s claims to the contrary it does not have a monopoly on compassion and can in fact be notoriously callous in its treatment of some people. But, the study concludes that religion is actually a negative predictor of compassion.
My hypothesis is that religiosity suppresses natural human empathy for strangers by focusing its adherents on the benefits of supporting the church and its doctrine. It is true that religious people on balance give more to charity than others, especially when tithing and collection plate donations are included, but these donations often come with added proselytising. It’s charity with the intent of spreading the word and enhancing the reputation of the church; religion hijacking natural compassion to its own ends. It would come as no surprise therefore that the religious could feel they have fulfilled their obligations to society and so are less inclined to help random strangers or make ad-hoc donations.
Atheists and others unencumbered with religious belief are however able to exercise their innate humanistic instincts to assist others in need without reference to creed or dogma. It’s not that they are “nicer” just freer to be compassionate on demand.
The online atheist community has shown frequent evidence of its willingness to rally together for various causes. Scholarship funds for Jessica Ahlquist and Damian Fowler raised tens of thousands of dollars when their atheism made them objects of hate within their community. Charitable organisations like Foundation Beyond Belief, and the atheist groups at the micro lending site Kiva are also exceptionally well supported. This of course goes against the religious script that we need God to be good. We are good regardless of gods, but belief in gods it seems may limit our capacity for goodness.