"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

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A-theism can ignore the deists

At the risk of retreating into sterile dictionary definitions, strictly speaking, atheism does not deny the possible existence of a supreme creative intelligence of the “unmoved mover” variety postulated by Anselm or even the “ground of being” beloved of modern sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Plantinga. What atheism denies is the existence of describable gods that actively intervene in the world, can be influenced by prayer or who actually give a shit about the human condition.
This is not to say that there aren’t good philosophical reasons to doubt the existence of the first concept, but it is one that most atheists are agnostic about to the extent that we either can’t know or at least don’t know yet whether such an entity is necessary . The second variety of god however is a different matter. Not only can we falsify all the claims made for such deities and so pretty much write them out of existence it actually matters that we do so and try to explain why.
Deistic concepts of god are abstract and philosophical: interesting mainly as potential explanations for why there is “something rather than nothing,” or “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in science”. But, suspect as these explanations might be it does not matter on a daily basis whether they are correct or not as science will proceed to its conclusions whatever and nobody makes moral judgments or enacts legislation on the basis of this ontology.
According to their adherents theistic gods, existential or no, actually do things; they have opinions, dictate dress codes, define marriage, circumscribe sexuality, restrict diets, grant wishes, deny wishes, exact retribution, show mercy, send disasters, save us from disasters, require genital mutilation, demand worship, have sacred spaces, promise lands, sanction war and bless nations. Although which of these they do and for or to whom depends on which deity we are discussing. Yahweh has a thing about shellfish for example, Allah not so much.
Once you postulate a god that gets its hands dirty in the business of humanity a cabal of the righteous will soon be telling you exactly what that god requires of you and regardless of what your own sense of morality or personal thriving may say you had better listen and comply. Even if your god is of the more benign variety and its putative demands seem reasonable if not rational there is always the risk that someone with more power than you will decide it has taken a vindictive attitude towards something you cherish.
Luckily, we do not have to bend to the whims of these theistic tyrants or their apologists. Atheism, that’s a-theism, is justified by science, observation and rational inference to be the reasonable default assumption. Those “evidences” of such gods as are to be found in scripture are dispelled and proved to be false. Pace Rabbi Sacks, showing “that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood” is an important first step in dismissing the reality of Allah, Yahweh and God in the same way that a lack of activity on Mount Olympus disposes of the Greek pantheon. Similarly the problem of evil is a strong philosophical counterpoint to the assertion that an omniscient omnibenevolent god has our best interests at heart and ridiculing prayer as an effective prophylactic against disaster is amply justified by its track record.
The existence of theistic gods is an absurd and easily refuted fiction which is why many religious apologists fall back on cosmological and ontological justifications that really only speak for the deistic gods of distant creation and divine apathy, but nobody cares about them. Christian theologians attempt to argue from ‘anthropic principle’ to ’ergo Jesus’ but there is no logical connection. You cannot get from an “unmoved mover” to any of the gods peddled by religion and a good thing too. A-theism allows us all to build our society on a strong secular ethic, free from moralising but not from morality, by accepting the undeniable truth that there are no gods to guide, beguile or coerce us into error.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Thoughts on GMO

I’m a science guy; I have a degree in genetics, follow technology trends, watch documentaries, read popular science books and magazines and am generally an all-round geek/nerd whenever it comes to new ideas and advances in any field. As a consequence of which I exhibit a tendency to scorn and scepticism when the popular media or lobby groups stand in the way of progress with cries of “frankenfood” or other scaremongering portmanteau and look on with despair when environmentalists attempt to sabotage field trials of GM crops designed to gather data on the very things they claim to be concerned about.
In general, I trust scientists. I trust them to be acting in good faith and with good intentions. I trust their knowledge, their expertise and in particular their ability to assess risk and be aware of the consequences of their actions. This is because scientists are people like me, the people I associate with and once studied alongside and under. Scientists are rarely ideologues since experimentation has a nasty habit of proving cherished notions false and, outside of B-Movies, they are only occasionally mad.
The media however always have an agenda, which is to make a science story ‘interesting’ to a lay public steeped in popular cultural tropes about science but barely literate about the science itself. This makes them seek out the conflicts, giving small but vocal protest groups equal time and weight in debates that elevate opinion over knowledge and ideology over data, none of which serves the public well.
The truth is that there are legitimate public interest questions about genetic modification that need addressing. From a strictly scientific point of view the message needs getting across that moving genes between organisms is not Frankenstein science. Genes have been jumping around and between organisms by natural vectors ever since the first Adenine molecule said hi to a Thymine, coding for whatever proteins natural selection saw fit. That scientists can now do the job with more precision than a random phage can is not an abomination to get spooked about but an achievement to be celebrated.
From a societal point of view we absolutely need to have the debate about how these advances are applied and in particular how the products are commercialised. For example should companies like Monsanto be able to own patents on both herbicide resistant grain and the specific herbicide it is resistant to? Is there a bio-safety reason to make GM crops sterile or is it only to stop farmers harvesting seed for the following year? Do we really need to label foods as GM once they are deemed to be safe for human consumption by government food standards agencies?
I don’t propose to offer answers to these questions but as a general principle I do believe that the research and development of GM technologies should not be entirely, or even mainly in commercial hands. Whilst I trust the good intentions of scientists I am less sanguine about the motives of corporations and separating the development of GM technologies from the marketing of them would take away a lot of the opportunities for exploitation (for the same reason I also think that medical research should not be done by pharmaceutical companies). Ideally, given the potential of GMO’s to increase crop yields and nutritional value I would rather see development centrally funded and overseen by the World Health Organisation or the U.N and the products released to manufacturers to sell under a (revocable) licence.
One of the issues that should be understood about GM crops is that once in use natural selection will continue to operate on the weeds and pests around them. Weeds exposed to high levels of Glyphosate will evolve their own resistance (more likely actually than acquiring it from their GM neighbours) and bugs confined only to pest resistant crops will evolve the ability to infest them. This is not a reason to vilify GM but a reason to modify farming practices to acknowledge the reality. This is nothing new: the transition from hunter-gathering to agrarianism and more recently to monoculture and the green revolution all required a shift in methods and practice. The provision of non-modified crops as refuges for insects among the pest resistant strains maintains biodiversity and lessens the selection pressure on the bugs to adapt, but farmers in several third world countries are failing to do this, partly for economic reasons and partly from lack of understanding, but this could be rectified under the right auspices.
I don’t deny the environmentalist's right to raise questions about the safety and wisdom of GM technology and I have sympathy with those who protest the way Monsanto and others appear to profiteer from it. But these are separate issues that should be addressed separately and without hysteria and disinformation. We may soon have 9 Billion mouths to feed and whilst I am not suggesting GM is the only solution to world hunger, it is a powerful tool to have available.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Jonathan Sacks thinks atheism is doing it wrong

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, has a piece in the Spectator entitled atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians headed by this observation...
Jonathan Sacks
“I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists.”
Which ironically also sums up his own argument pretty well.
"Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another."
Well if that were really all intelligent secularists were doing, historians may well wonder. But, debunking the obvious idiocies of scripture is only a part of the new atheism, a necessary part too because the corollary assumption the good Rabbi is making is that all theists are of his sophistication whereas many of the powerful members of the Christian right, Hassidic Jewry and Islamist don’t share his nuanced views. There are still children in advanced countries being taught that Genesis is history, and someone has to keep the scientific truth in the public eye.
"Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?"
Can Sacks really be unaware of the existence of Humanists, ethical societies, The Sunday Assembly,and the moral explorations of atheism by authors such as Sam Harris and Adam Lee or philosophers like Alain De Botton? It’s almost as if the Chief Rabbi was erecting some kind of strawman atheism to denigrate but surely a man of his depth who claims familiarity with “serious atheists” like Nietzsche and Hobbes would not stoop to such a tactic. Or would he…?
"A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society"
Yes he would apparently. Just because the ‘eternity’ of the human condition is not a given within atheist discourse does not mean that the practicalities of human thriving and social justice are not. And then there’s this canard…
"Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation."
This always has and always will be complete nonsense. The fact that Sacks precedes this with a reference to Nazi Germany is also intellectually dishonest as none of that philosophy had anything to do with atheism. He then goes on to recruit, of all people , Richard Dawkins to his cause.
"Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem."
Well let’s see if this atheist can explain it to him without stammering: Darwinism is not an ethic and Dawkins is correct to say that treating it as one (at least the simplistic version of Darwinism many people carry around with them) would not make for a fair or pleasant world. However, Darwinism properly understood explains morality perfectly well as a natural (yes Rabbi “natural”) consequence of our evolution as a social species living in small close knit tribes under extremely harsh selection pressure over the past few hundred thousand years. We even have evidence of caring and compassion in our Neanderthal cousins who presumably managed it without the Judeo-Christian narrative to influence them. The obsession theists have with seeing humanity as fundamentally flawed or evil without the watchful eye of a vengeful deity to restrain it is one of religion's most egregious legacies and those modern states that have largely abandoned religion, such as the Scandinavian countries, give the lie to the idea that society falls apart without it. Even so Sacks concludes with this..
"I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also."
Well, fair enough, but that he is unable to conceive of a sufficiently robust secular ethic is a failure only of his religiously constrained imagination, not a failure of secularism or the ability of humanity to apply reason and enlightened self-interest to the task of surviving whatever the coming ages demand of us to prosper. That such a societal view is only now beginning to emerge is to some extent due to religion’s previously unfettered ability to suppress it, retreating only when faced with similarly monolithic ideologies such as Communism or Nazism which it then tries to lay at atheism's door. Freedom from religion is not freedom from culture or obligation, it is however freedom from the fetters of dogma and from the institutions that perpetuate misogyny and social inequality in the name of traditions that are the real epitome of the faux profundity he accuses atheist of.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

C of E drops opposition to same sex marriage

Well! Here’s something to be pleased about. The Church of England has decided that its chances of blocking the legalisation of same sex marriages are so remote, it will no longer oppose them. In fact, it now claims it is intending to seek to amend the new law in ways with which I heartily agree.
'under the current bill people in a same-sex marriages who discover that their spouse is unfaithful to them would not be able to divorce for adultery after Government legal experts failed to agree what constitutes “sex” between gay or lesbian couples. The bishops are also seeking to change a provision which says that when a lesbian woman in a same-sex marriage has a baby her spouse is not also classed as the baby’s parent. The result is that in some cases children would be classed as having only one parent.'
Assuming the church is not just attempting a cynical passive aggressive approach to elicit greater antagonism to the bill, strengthening the institution of same sex marriage to cover adultery and shared parental responsibility will in my opinion add to the justice of this long awaited social advance.
So far the government has taken the line that it cannot adequately define adultery in a same sex relationship, which strikes me as bizarre and vaguely insulting. After all when homosexuality was completely illegal they had no problem defining what constituted sex between gay men and something about the idea suggests they have bought the stereotype that all same sex relationships are based in promiscuity and infidelity by definition.
I can accept that there may be ethical dilemmas over parental rights of a lesbian spouse, but they are by no means insurmountable. There are plenty of mixed sex couples where the legal father of a child is not the biological one and we seem to negotiate competing financial and emotional interests in the child quite adequately under those circumstances.
So I await with interest the detail and substance of the Lords Spiritual’s actions towards the bill’s passage from here on. I would not be surprised to hear demands for greater protection of Christians who want to discriminate against same sex couples but the government must resist weakening equality legislation in one area merely to facilitate implementation in another. Nor do I think we have heard the last of the church’s concerns over challenges to the ban on same sex marriages happening in church, for the good reasons I outlined in an earlier post.
Finally, for now I am going to resist making too much of the moral and theological volt face this change of position implies, content as I am to welcome the fact of it. Suffice to say the Anglican church has a history of catching up with enlightened thought... eventually... and before long will be telling us that this whole gay marriage thing was its idea in the first place.