"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

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Why I believe in Father Christmas

I’m a big fan of Santa. This syncretic quasi-religious staple character of Christmas serves a useful purpose both for parents and the young children that are encouraged to believe in him.
For one thing he can be a proxy for parents and relatives as a source of presents and treats. Children don’t have to know that they are entirely dependent on their families for everything and at least once a year they can rely on something from someone they don’t feel a need to be totally beholden to. Also the extent to which they have been “naughty or nice” can be a good incentive for self-reflection in the run up to Christmas without any real dire consequences following either way (I mean, do any parents ever not give presents from Santa when their kids misbehave?)
But for me the real utility of Santa is at the point where children start to doubt his existence. Most parents eventually observe their children applying a little bit of critical thought to the whole shtick; “How does he fit down the chimney?”, “But, we haven’t got a chimney”, “How does he get to all the children in one night?”, “How come he looks different in every shop with a grotto?”
Ultimately, all children see the absurdity of Santa, but more interestingly most also take longer to let go of the idea altogether and it is common for children to pretend to their parents and younger siblings that they still believe. This is a good exercise in both scepticism and diplomacy; skills to be encouraged in children and adults alike.
It would be better if all children managed to make the logical leap from a non-existent Santa to a non-existent deity but the extent of religious belief belies any pretence of that possibility although this watershed moment at the crux of credulity does inspire some to question the claims of religion sooner or later. But more to the point it is an early object lesson in the tolerance of other people’s cherished delusions.
I have often said that beliefs don’t deserve uncritical respect but one should respect the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they like (note: this does not entail respecting the believer, adults should take epistemic responsibility for what they believe) and the ability to indulge a younger child’s Santa belief or a parents delusion that you still believe is a skill applicable to adult life.
This, apart from the obvious irony, is why I was struck by this story of a Norfolk curate who told primary school children that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
During the carol service, the curate asked children what they thought was the meaning of Christmas. When a child answered "Father Christmas", she told them he was not real. One parent said on Facebook that Mrs McPhee had "put me off taking my children to church just in case something else gets said".
Rev Margaret McPhee has since apologised to the school for her comment and I am sure she sincerely regrets it. However it does illustrate how glibly people of faith will disabuse a child of its sincerely held belief in one supernatural being while trying to defend the existence of another.
As an atheist but particularly as a humanist I am, more and more, finding myself in contact with children and adults with beliefs in various deities and while I openly state that I do not believe in gods would not dream of telling a young child directly and unasked that Allah or Jesus or Santa weren’t real. It is reasonable though for them to know that not everyone believes the same thing and it would have been enough for the curate to acknowledge that Santa and his elves are important for some people at Christmas before relating the church’s entirely rational position vis-à-vis virgin births, heraldic angels and miraculous stars etc.
This is not the same as answering an honestly asked question. A child who asks directly of an adult whether Santa is real deserves a factual answer as does the child who asks directly about God. However, much as it’s fun to draw equivalences between God and Santa the answer to their respective existence cannot be identical. We know unequivocally that Santa is a fiction and should say so when it’s appropriate while explaining why some people maintain the pretence. God however is a much more slippery concept and when a child asks if God exists then is the perfect time to explain how there are so many ideas about what a god might be that they cannot all be correct and that possibly all are wrong.
This is when the previous experience of letting go of one fantastical figure can help them explore their doubts about another while at the same time negotiating the minefield of living with those who still cling to belief.
Anyway, enough! I still have a stocking to hang and mince pies to put out (must remember a carrot for Rudolph).

Happy Xmas

Monday, 15 September 2014

Muslims or monsters?

Over the weekend David Cameron made a statement following a COBRA meeting in response to the appalling murder of British aid worker David Haines. The takeaway sound bite was ”ISIS are not Muslims but monsters”.
Now I understand the realpolitik behind such statements but in this instance and in the way this was phrased it is less than helpful .
Not Muslims?
To start with who is David Cameron to determine who is or isn’t a Muslim and why does he think himself sufficiently theologically equipped to declare Islam necessarily a religion of peace? It’s just vacuous rhetoric with no other purpose than to pander to the sensibilities of moderate Muslims and even on this measure I suspect it will fail. Moderates will only feel patronised.
It’s also self-evidently wrong. Whether or not ISIS conform to Cameron’s view of what Muslims should be the Jihadists self-identify as Muslims and moreover consider themselves to be the true face of Islam. Also, trivially, if they are not Muslims what are they? Perhaps Anglican heretics or lapsed Catholics or maybe they kill to the glory of L. Ron Hubbard and we’ve just mistaken their battered copies of Dianetics for the Qur’an.
“Muslim or monster” is a puerile and dangerous juxtaposition to make. They are not mutually exclusive any more than Christian and monster or Hindu and monster are as it is perfectly possible to be both a follower of a faith and a monster. It plays into the false idea that to be religious is to be moral and that the truly devout cannot behave immorally
All religions are religions of peace to those who follow them peacefully and all are capable of being justifications of violence to those who would be violent (although I maintain that Islam has peculiarities which make radicalism easier to justify). The extent to which the majority of Muslims are “good” is, I suggest, precisely the extent to which people in general are “good”. I would expect most human beings to find moral outrage in the behaviour of ISIS regardless of their religious allegiances and I would expect the majority of Muslims to condemn them as not being representative of Islam. But to suggest ISIS are not Muslims is absurd and a blatant use of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy.
I get that western politicians are anxious not to demonise Muslims in general and they are right to do this. Muslims in general are not demons or any other kind of monster but pretending that radical islamists are not Muslims at all is to neglect a great deal of the ideology that motivates them. Neither will a white Middle England Anglican telling a potential British jihadist that they are doing Islam wrong persuade them from heading to Syria. If anything it will be a greater motivation.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Is there something about Islam?

The panel at WHC Oxford with moderator Jim Al-Khalili
Earlier in August I attended the World Humanist Conference held in Oxford. Among the many interesting sessions and presentations one of the most thought provoking was a panel discussion called “Is there something about Islam?” in which Alom Shaha, Maajid Nawaz, Keenan Malik and Maryam Namazie debated whether Islam is peculiarly prone to violence and fundamentalism.
Keenan Malik, in particular, argued that Islam like any other religion is open to interpretation.
“Jihadi literalists, so-called ‘bridge builders’ like Tariq Ramadan […] and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur’an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.”
This is true of course, but to point out that to be a Muslim does not necessarily mean you will be a radical is a truism that only the paranoid and prejudiced would reject. It is also true that other religions have their extremists and that most religions have at some time or other been used and abused in the service of atrocity, but it is impossible to ignore the frequency and intensity with which Islam is the prime culprit today.
Radicals are also spawned by secular causes; environmentalism, feminism, animal rights, nationalism and racial equality to name a few. Most to some degree have had their share of violent protests, sporadic riots, bombings and death threats but these really are confined to a very small minority of the people who support such causes and a sustained commitment to violent extremism in these cases is rare.
Radical Islam however is building a consistent narrative of violent jihad recruiting and growing to the extent that it can now sustain a well-equipped and effective army in Syria and Iraq.
I.S. may not represent the Islam of the vast majority of Muslims around the world, certainly not the Shia or the Sufis, but they are attracting recruits in droves from Asian Sunni communities in the U.K and Europe despite the horror with which their actions are reported here. It attracts finance from wealthy Muslim countries and, according to a recent report, a 92% approval rating from citizens of Saudi Arabia.
I disagree with Keenan Malik and also blogger Simon Frankel Pratt with whom I had a brief Facebook discussion on the subject. Whilst individuals may have their own routes and reasons to radicalisation they cannot pursue them in isolation, they need a framework and an internally consistent narrative in order to sustain their zeal and justify behaving in ways that in other circumstances would be anathema to them. No other religion in the modern world has the ideology, history, theology and motive to support violence in way that Islam does.
In the first place Islam has always had a strong territorial and political dimension. The traditional history of its early expansion is one of conquest and occupation with the establishment of the faith achieved in a matter of decades following the death of Mohammed. Whether this and the exploits of the first Caliphs, scimitar and Qur’an in hand, are true or not they are written into the Hadith and Sunnah and are a ready justification for modern day jihad. I can think of no other religion that claims to have spread in this way or would want to be associated with forced conversions today even if they happened in the past.
Secondly Islam is socially normative to a high degree. It is not only a religion to be believed it also has to be practiced in ways that can demonstrate that belief. Dietary laws, praying in one direction at specific times of day, fasting and pilgrimage are signals to other Muslims that they are part of a bigger community with obligations to conform. This also makes it easier for other norms such as Hijab to emerge even though they may not be a strict requirement of the religion.
The Qur’an is highly prescriptive. To find a parallel you could look to Leviticus or Deuteronomy in the Bible but the Qur’an is almost entirely comprised of this kind of legalistic theology whereas the Bible drowns it out in history and myth then arguably dispenses with it entirely in the New Testament. Muslims are taught to see their scriptures as authoritative and the Sharia legal system is based entirely on the Qur’an and Hadith. It is still possible to pick and choose liberal interpretations but much harder to refute the conservative ones
The principle schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia runs very deep and traditionally stems from a dispute over who should have succeeded Mohammed as leader of the faith. It is no accident that the main victims of I.S. are Shia Muslims, heresy being a worse crime than being of another religion entirely. Islam is not uniquely but nevertheless very well primed for the “othering” of heretics and apostates and dehumanising potential enemies.
Simon Frankel Pratt kindly pointed me to an article by Clark McCauleya* & Sophia Moskalenkoa called Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism which is worth a read as it explores the mechanisms by which individuals may become radicalised in diverse situations. They call this the “pyramid model”
”From base to apex, higher levels of the pyramid are associated with decreased numbers but increased radicalization of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. Thus one way of thinking about radicalization is that it is the gradient that distinguishes terrorists from their base of sympathizers. How do individuals move from the base to the extremes of terrorist violence at the apex?”
a path that is summarised in the table below.
But in my view Islam short circuits this process by providing a ready-made ladder to the apex and a fast-track means of fulfilment for the wannabe radical. The emphasis on martyrdom, the supra-nationalism, the prescriptivism and the historical justification all make Islam a potent draw for those who would find political cause or personal glory in its name. Islamism is a thing. It is a political movement with substantial theological support and history on its side. Although the vast majority of believers may wish to reject it conservative Islam is shifting the perceptions of what it is to be a Muslim towards its own narrow interpretation, often aided and abetted by western media portrayals of Islam in precisely this way.
Liberal Islam is also a thing so there doesn’t have to be “something about Islam” but for now the conservative view has the platform and the charisma to attract young Muslims who are otherwise disaffected and, more than other causes or other faiths, the doctrines to retain them.

Monday, 21 July 2014

An Imam a Christian and a Humanist walk into a school...

No, it’s not the start of a cheesy joke, rather the way quite an interesting day began…
Just to give a bit of background, a few months ago I attended a course run by the British Humanist Association (BHA) designed to train humanists to assist schools with a revised religious education curriculum that requires teachers to include secular points of view as well as those of the mainstream religions. There are about a hundred of us registered so far and R.E teachers can request assistance via the Humanism for Schools website from BHA volunteers who will help by supplying classroom materials, participating in classrooms directly or speaking at assemblies. We have a range of year group appropriate resources we can draw on.
Anyway, recently I received an email from the Humanism for Schools coordinator asking if I was able to be the humanist representative on a diversity panel for a year 9 group (13 to 14 yrs) alongside a Muslim Imam and an Anglican Vicar. Of course I was happy to oblige.
The event involved half a dozen or so forty-five minute sessions as a series of classes rotated between us and other cultural diversity events. The pupils had an interesting range of questions which each of us answered in turn according to our particular worldview.
The Imam was a particularly interesting person; an affable retired G.P originally from India and without a rational notion in his head. He fielded a question on evolution by insisting “nobody ever saw a human hand appear on a monkey’s arm” and was very insistent that it was impossible to be a moral person without Allah. However in a conversation I had with him during a break he made a very interesting point about the radicalisation of British Asian Muslims which he illustrated by referring to his own “embracing” of Islam. He had been brought up in a traditional Muslim family while in India and learned the Qur’an by rote in Arabic which is apparently the norm despite being unable to speak or understand the language. Consequently until the age of forty, when he finally read it in translation, he had no idea what the Qur’an actually said other than what was told to him. If this is typical of Asian Muslims it becomes easy to see how a hard line interpretation of Islam could be imposed on them without having any other frame of reference. By the time any of them read a translation they can understand (if they ever do as some Imams teach that all translations are corrupt) their minds are already primed for Jihad.
The Vicar was of the “trendy” variety, one of your followers of Jesus types with a naïve pick and mix liberal theology. He had the utmost conviction in the historicity of Jesus claiming it was “better documented than any event in history” (me pointing out that one primary source doesn’t count fell on deaf ears) and, to his credit, insisted in every session that Christianity was the one true religion which is far more honest in my opinion than mealy-mouthed ecumenicalism.
He fielded the first of the “do you believe in evolution” questions with, wait for it… “It’s only a theory” and… “It’s like a whirlwind in a junkyard accidentally making a Jumbo Jet”…Yep! He actually went there. After I was forced to make a small diversion into the actual predictions made by Darwinian natural selection he confined subsequent answers to saying it must still be “God guided”. But, I suppose that’s the best you can expect.
Throughout the day we fielded perceptive questions on; the existence of God, miracles, evolution, contraception, homosexuality and abortion. We all gave answers from our own perspective and for the most part did not pursue the arguments between us but left the different worldviews to hang there for the pupils to absorb.
It’s difficult to know whether any converts were made by anyone that day, which really was not the objective from my point of view (the Imam however came loaded with Islamic literature so maybe he had a different agenda), but several of the classes said they had never knowingly met a humanist or even heard of humanism before so for that alone I considered the day fully worthwhile.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Liberal belief is not harmless

In general atheists only actively disbelieve in the existence of deities that are purported to have influence in the material world or that are presumed to have opinions and preferences about the way human beings conduct their affairs. As a result we are often accused of having an overly simplistic concept of God; merely attacking an old bearded strawman in the sky rather than dealing with Anselm’s unmoved mover or the Ground of Being that Thomas Aquinas and later “sophisticated” theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and my latest buddy David Bentley Hart envisage. But there are reasons why most atheists ignore or are agnostic about abstract concepts of God not least because they really are un-falsifiable from a scientific point of view so having a strong opinion one way or the other would be irrational but more importantly the believer in the street is not concerned with abstract gods and neither, I suggest, is organised religion.
The gods that most religions present to their faithful are not abstract but quasi-human. They have opinions on dress, diet, sexuality and morality. They expect to be worshipped in specific ways on specific days with special words and rituals or prayed to while facing a particular direction. Some of them publish verbose and internally contradictory manuals with a limited first run distribution around a small area of the middle-east that make historical and factual claims we now know to be false and moral claims many now find abhorrent.
To me it is self-evident that these gods don’t exist in external reality nevertheless they do exist in the minds of many people and the ontological presumptions of many cultures. That is where my real beef with religion really starts.
American philosopher Peter Boghossian likes to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Religion makes truth claims about God’s desires on the basis of very flimsy evidence yet these claims are frequently put into the service of enforcing cultural norms that have very real detrimental effects on people. They have been used to defend slavery, they are used to perpetuate misogyny and the subjugation of women, and they are used to justify the hanging of homosexuals, the stoning of rape victims and apostates. They are used to restrict access to contraception and abortion and to deny proper medical care to women hospitalised due to miscarriages. “People pretending to know things they don’t know” are preventing the education of women, opposing the teaching of science, trying to deny same sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage and stop them from adopting children. People pretending to know things they don’t know want the rest of us to pretend we know these things too.
Now if you’re a believer you may be saying to yourself  “I don’t recognise the god this atheist is complaining about, my god doesn’t advocate stoning women or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality. My god is a loving inclusive nurturing sort of god”. Well if so congratulations on choosing a better behaved god and pretending to know nicer things about yours than some other people pretend to know about theirs but all believers, wittingly or not, are involved in the same conspiracy to pretend to know something they don’t know.
Liberal belief in a beneficent deity is, I concede, the source of much good in society. Apart from the comfort if gives to individuals, a selective reading of scripture encourages some religious communities to charity and social welfare, education programs and the like. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues offer sanctuary and community and for some that may be a necessary social lifeline. Yes, some religion in some aspects for some people is a good thing for some of the time.
But, one would have to be blind not to notice that much harm is being done in religion’s name and this is not, I believe, just because the extremists are doing it wrong. The bible that inspires the affable Rev Colin Still is the same bible that motivated Fred Phelps and the Southern Baptists. The Qur’an of “the religion of peace” is also the handbook for Boko Haram. The Jihadists and the moderates, the bigots and the liberals are just pretending to know different things about the nature of God and there is no objective way to prove who if anyone is ‘correct’ since God is unavailable for comment.
Liberal belief is not benign: it is the foundation for extremism. It renders truth claims about the nature of God socially and intellectually respectable despite having no objective measure of their worth. Even liberal belief protects itself against criticism by insisting ridicule of religion is at best impolite and at worst blasphemous giving cover to extremists who will kill over religious satire. The very premise that there exists a God that has attitudes, rules, regulations, likes and dislikes is the root of much more suffering and injustice than can be justified by the good it sometimes engenders and besides as humanists have proved again and again God really is unnecessary for human flourishing.
If theists only believed in the apophatic, un-moved mover god of sophisticated theologians I doubt I would even bother to write this blog. I have no problem with that sort of belief since; for one thing, they may be right but more to the point no-one ever got killed by arguing over the foibles of a Ground of Being.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 3 of 3

David Bentley Hart
Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Bliss.

Given his teleological and platonic presumptions the first two sections Being and Consciousness make interesting if unremarkable arguments for the existence of an ultimate causational ground of something or other that Hart likes to call God. However in Bliss he provides little argument (beyond reiteration) and less evidence for a series of assertions concerning our human experiences of desire for love, morality, status and altruism et al which must, he insists, really be nothing but stops on the way to bliss; a union with the divine.
How, he wonders, can we strive to be moral if there is not some extant perfect morality or feel the urge to pursue happiness if that abstract concept is not in some sense all pervasive? He speaks as though he has already established the case but whereas the universe and, arguably, consciousness are things seeking explanation internal emotions really aren’t. They are already contingent upon physical reality, somatic organic states and consciousness (magical or otherwise) and it makes no sense to insist that they must be representative of “pure” emotions.
Hart pre-empts the obvious evolutionary rebuttal in the most bizarre way by embarking on a tirade against Richard Dawkins’ seminal concept of The Selfish Gene which having ridiculed as a terrible metaphor he then goes on to dispute by treating it as though biologists really believe genes are intentional “imps” with Machiavellian designs on our bodies and minds. In fact Hart’s entire world view seems to make him incapable of understanding the fundamental point about evolution which is that it is an entirely contingent process, unintended and undirected. He claims to get that the idea of “genes for” a particular trait is a naïve simplification of how things work yet attacks gene centric explanations for the evolutionary utility of emotion entirely on that basis and he certainly does not realise that epigenetic phenomena where the organism apparently effects the genes are themselves evolved mechanisms to cope with short term environmental changes.
Biology is a messy business and natural selection may act reflexively and on different levels from DNA through individuals and maybe even populations although as I have said before my intuition is that at bottom the gene (broadly defined) is the ultimate agent of evolutionary change. But Hart wants to turn the narrative on its head and insist that, for example, a mother’s love preserves the genes through her child, rather than genes survive which promote the emotions conducive to nurturing a child. While the observable effect would be indistinguishable either way Hart’s version is un-falsifiable and has none of the explanatory power of Darwinian selection (Ironically in consciousness Hart scorned the concept of memes as units of ideas that preferentially spread through cultures but in bliss partly exculpates Dawkins for the success of the selfish gene metaphor because it has spread organically through media to become a cultural trope. So how does he think that happened exactly? Well, he doesn’t say but I think he’d be hard pushed to supply a non-Darwinian explanation).
This section of the book contains the most word salad by far, in fact in places it’s so unintelligible the circularity of his thinking is sometimes difficult to pick out. Or perhaps that’s the point. For example he insists in various tortured ways that our quest for beauty, love and conscience is in reality our yearning for God because God is good and the good is God (so even if you’re an atheist desiring to do good you are also tacitly accepting Gods existence; handy that…) and waves away the Euthyphro dilemma as irrelevant because God’s goodness is sufficient unto itself. Hart is defining God in his own self-referential terms just like every other theist who needs their god to conform to their own concept.
It is interesting to note that although Hart constantly reminds us that God is everything, is the cause of everything, sustains everything, contains and is contained by everything as the ground of all being, consciousness and bliss his God is always referred to as “he”. For some reason this all-consuming deity (which should definitely not be anthropomorphised in any way, dearie me no!) is resolutely male even before we ascribe other characteristics such as goodness etcetera. Why, for example, shouldn’t such a deity be perfectly evil, hateful or vain or perfectly any other thing that human beings are capable of pursuing when not seeking love or the good?
All told, it’s not that this book is a poor argument for God, more that it’s an argument for a rather poor God and definitely not for the God of most believers. If Hart really accepted only this amorphous definition of God he would be almost as much an atheist as I am. As it is I started his book agnostic about such a ground of being and finished it with the same attitude. Yes, it is logically possible for Hart’s God to exist, but except from a purely metaphysical point of view it is hard to care one way or the other. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in (amongst others) Hart’s other God; the one he is not attempting to defend but the one of his professed Eastern Orthodox faith that made man “in his own image” ,incarnated in the person of Christ, and was crucified. The Eastern Orthodox God that has attitudes and preferences and speaks ambiguously through the bible of dietary laws and sexual taboos. Hart may want to avoid drawing a face on the apophatic God of Being, Consciousness and Bliss but by doing so he is arguing for no kind of God at all.

Footnote: You may have found these three posts a little tedious to read so by way of an antidote I offer this video via the much wittier and entertaining NonStampCollector.

Monday, 28 April 2014

In defense of scientific materialism

As a slight diversion from my three part critique of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I’d like to make a more general point about philosophical materialism and methodological naturalism and why pace Hart they are not logically absurd positions.

In the course of everyday experience our metaphysical and ontological attitudes are largely irrelevant to the point where most people never consider them at all. It is perfectly possible to be a platonic realist without considering every object we encounter in terms of its deviation from a notional ideal perfect form and I seriously doubt anybody lives their lives that way. Similarly we may be able to believe reality is an illusion but still organise our lives so that we don’t try to leave our homes via the first floor window. In general we all treat the world as though it is exactly how it appears to be; a series of causal and caused events acting upon discrete physical objects.
There are good evolutionary reasons why this purely materialist point of view is the quotidian default. At the scales in which biological life can evolve the underlying nature of things is invisible and insensible. Even at bacterial dimensions the interactions with the environment are on a molecular or, at the least, atomic level as far as its sensory capabilities are concerned and millennia of evolution has equipped us and all life to perceive reality reliably but within boundaries that are relevant to natural selection. It is in this trivial sense that Alvin Plantinga is correct to say that evolution limits our cognitive abilities although not, I suggest, to the extent that we cannot make rational sense of the material world.
It is only when we try to investigate the universe systematically that the philosophical issues become paramount. When considering what extra sensory causes lie behind the physical effects we experience the only logical course open to us is to assume that the principles of cause and effect, one material object upon another, continue to obtain even when we cannot directly observe them. To suppose otherwise offers no fruitful line of enquiry because once you allow for the answer to be in some way magical it would be impossible to design an experiment or predict an observation that would disprove it. Methodological naturalism is therefore the only coherent philosophy under which science can proceed even if the ultimate reality, whatever is holding up the last detectable turtle, is something immaterial.
Part of the problem that non-materialists (of whatever stripe) seem to have with methodological naturalism as a scientific presupposition is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what science claims to know. In most situations science is not claiming possession of absolute factual truths about the universe but rather a collection of well tested theories that are both explanatory and predictive of what we can expect to observe either by our evolved senses or the machinery we have invented to enhance those senses. These are conceptual models that if applied via material reality produce reliable outcomes, nothing more; they say zip about what may be the underlying cause of everything. In fact when methodological naturalism is defined it is as a working assumption, not an absolute truth, the overriding idea being that regardless of whether or not supernatural forces operate at some fundamental level the material observations would appear identical. In this scenario supernaturalism is a null hypothesis that eventually science could, in principle, falsify to everyone’s satisfaction making metaphysical naturalism (which does claim, strongly, that there are no supernatural phenomena) the most likely situation. Personally, I suspect that however far science is capable of reaching it will still be turtles all the way down for all practical purposes simply because any cause that we can ever detect or postulate must be interacting physically with some other material system we have either observed or conceived.
Even if the sophisticated theologians or the Deepak Chopras of this world are correct and the turtles swim in something divine or pantheistic it still makes no sense for us to explore the universe from any other perspective than materialism despite alleged logical inconsistencies with its metaphysics. You cannot arrive at a coherent consensus description of reality by appealing to a sensus divinatis that if it exists at all is not universally reliable and no amount of meditation or naval gazing will solve the proximal mysteries of existence even if, for some, they seem to point the way to ultimate ones: for now, and probably forever, materialism rules.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 2 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Consciousness

One would expect that when somebody explicitly denies that they are making an argument from personal incredulity that the substance of what then follows would be something other. Hart does make this claim but unfortunately it is difficult to see his problem with a materialistic view of consciousness as anything but an appeal to complexity and ignorance. For Hart the subjective experience of consciousness seems way too tenuous to be pinned down to the mechanism of the brain and he simply does not believe that neuroscience will ever bridge the quantitative – qualitative gap between a firing neuron and his personal experience of a red rose.
Much of Hart’s issue is that he denies the possibility of emergence the process by which complex systems can arise from large numbers of simple interactions. In the book’s introductory section he suggests that such emergent systems are never seen although, in fact, physics recognises the phenomena at fundamental levels. A wave, for example, is an emergent structure independent of the substrate on which it travels. In a liquid it is explained by the vertical movement of molecules but is described by a mathematical function that is equally applicable to quantum mechanics, in other words a wave is qualitatively different from the components it is made from. In the same way it is reasonable to assume that consciousness could emerge from sufficient numbers of unconscious interactions in the brain or indeed any sufficiently complex information processing structure. Physicist Max Tegmark characterises consciousness as “[…] the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways” and in Consciousness Explained philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that it arises from the parallel and reflexive processing of information by the brain.
The jury is far from out on this and neuroscience in its infancy is still taking the commensurate baby steps towards an understanding of consciousness (and the related question of whether or not we have free will) but to suggest it is forever insoluble is premature. For Hart the ”hard problem” becomes easy as his Platonic view of the world allows for the redness of his red rose to have an ideal existence of its own as a qualia available to augment the mere physical presence of the flower and inform a metaphysical consciousness but the paucity of such a view, even if ultimately proved correct, would put an end to the adventure of research into the subject. By discounting the concept of emergence, even though it can be clearly demonstrated to occur, Hart is biasing his argument in favour of a top down teleological view of consciousness and perception that he offers the materialist no reason to accept bar allowing for the supernatural.
”What makes the question of consciousness so intractable to us today, and hence so fertile a source for confusion and dashingly delirious invention, is not so much the magnitude of the logical problem as our inflexible and imaginatively constrained loyalty to a particular ontology and a particular conception of nature. Materialism, mechanism: neither is especially hospitable to a coherent theory of mind. This being so, the wise course might be to reconsider our commitment to our metaphysics”
By this light the results of all scientific enquiry would boil down to “Goddidit!” and render further effort futile.
On the subject of free will Hart is very quick to trivialise, if not outright ridicule, the work of Benjamin Libet who was the first to conduct experiments that suggest the intention to perform an action, as measured by observing the readiness potential in the brain, precedes consciousness of the intent by some 200ms or so which implies that free will may well be illusory and that our decisions are made at an unconscious level. But his criticism is merely a restatement of his conviction that materialism is a flawed philosophy per se which to my mind is just as pre-suppositional and unnecessary as plenty of materialist philosophers would still argue for free will even if it is not the ‘magical’ free will that Hart, presumably, desires.
Using an extension of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism Hart also asserts that it would be impossible for a purely material mind capable of abstract thought to evolve as there would be no natural selection for such an ability. However this is to ignore (as does Plantinga) the fact that features selected for one advantage can become co-opted for another. Abstract reasoning (and even a coherent sense of self) may well be the result of selection for language ability. The capacity for expressing higher order intentionality, the ability to form “what if?” scenarios to plan for imagined hazards and the sharing of strategies were once adaptive advantages that may have required a brain complex enough to accommodate abstract concepts. In short all of the qualities of mind that Hart believes are too difficult to evolve and impossible to understand via naturalism could well be spandrels, by products of features favoured by evolution for other reasons.
The least convincing contention in this chapter is the idea that pure reason is incompatible with a materialist view of consciousness. But, given that we live in a universe that, whether for magical or natural reasons, is comprehensible it would be expected that brains would evolve to comprehend it. The ability to deduce logically is merely an extension of observation and categorisation of the world we inhabit. Hart finally flogs his red rose metaphor to death at this point by suggesting the syllogism “all of the roses in my garden are red, I am observing a rose in my garden, therefore the rose I am observing is red” must require some kind of mystical preternatural knowledge of categories such a rose , red, garden etc. and awareness of categories of rose that aren’t red and plants that aren’t roses. I really hope I am not straw manning his point here (this is one of his more obtuse segments) but all of this seems either experiential (we have learned what constitutes a rose that is red) or linguistic (regardless of whether we know the objects the syntax makes sense: all of the blibblies in my wibbly are flibbly, I am observing a blibbly in my wibbly, therefor the blibbly I am observing is flibbly) and requires nothing transcendental that I can see.
As with his chapters on being Hart’s quest for the spiritual in consciousness lay less in a strong case for God and more in a weak rebuttal of naturalism which is only an irrational philosophy if you accept a priori Hart’s ontological assumptions and incredulity of emergent phenomena. Again, Hart may be correct; his is not a falsifiable assertion as we can always maintain that purely naturalist explanations for consciousness are just around the corner although an atheism of the gaps philosophy is no better than the more commonly heard theistic trope. But he still fails to provide any evidence for theistic gods worthy of petition or worship on the basis of consciousness. Perhaps he will fare better with bliss.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 1 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject.

As others have pointed out it seems unfair that for theists to criticise scientific rebuttals of religion they rarely see the need to actually understand the science but for an atheist to criticise religion requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of two millennia of theology. But what the hell! I quite like acquiring knowledge for its own sake and have a fair grasp of both theology and science so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn starting with Being

In one respect the disappointment of this part of the book is that it really offers nothing new. Hart’s argument is essentially a re-hash of Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” concept where God is defined as that upon which all else is contingent, although I think Hart’s explanation and derivation is much more cogently explained than many with less resort to post-modernist language and obfuscation (I do mean less by the way, not none: there is still plenty of semi-digestible word salad in this book). He begins by asserting that materialism is a self-limiting philosophy that science uses necessarily to render the observable universe available for comprehension while ignoring the philosophical dilemma of why anything requiring investigation exists at all. The logical consequence of this is that everything is seen as a sequence of causes and effects leading to infinite regressions if you try to contemplate the “first cause” of anything. He extends the argument to say that explanations relying on mathematical imperatives fail the same test as they must also be contingent on something absolute as would an infinite multiverse or any appeal to the anthropic principle to explain why the universe is as we find it.
Hart goes on to explain that his refined cosmological argument requires an eternal infinite indivisible prime cause that doesn’t initiate creation at a specific point or occupy Einsteinian space-time in any way. Meaning it can’t be observed because science only looks inside the system and ignores external supernatural explanations (which is a general claim I have addressed before).
My problem with all of this really boils down to “so what”? Apart from the fact that such arguments have been made for centuries even if such a ground of being does exist (and I am prepared to concede that it might, or even logically must) why call this thing God? In fact why call it anything at all if it is essentially beyond our capacity to observe and the universe cannot possibly look other than it does either with or without it?
My favourite sound-bite response to the question “why is there something instead of nothing?” is to suggest that there is only one way for there to be nothing yet an almost infinite number of ways for there to be something so the balance of probability is massively in favour of something. I’ve always considered this to be a trivial thought but Hart does take the time to argue against it by saying that an “empty universe” is merely a logical possibility and not a logical necessity in the way that his prime cause of being is and anyway there may be many logically possible empty universes: but this wrong. While there may be many logically possible empty universes there really can only be one way for there to be nothing (whatever that means) even assuming it is logically possible at all. It may be that something is the default due to the logical impossibility of nothing.
It is unsatisfying (even for a materialist) to say it’s “turtles all the way down” but this doesn’t mean that any ground of being ,even if metaphysical, must possess divinity or intent and even less that it has specific opinions on the dietary and sexual habits of humans, which leads me to this final observation…
In a substantial diversion from the initial theme of “being” Hart makes the point that the God he is attempting to describe and justify is not a small ‘g’ god or the demiurge of the Old Testament who created a universe from pre-existing chaos but one that’s very much the ex-nihilo be-all and end-all of existence. But, given that he is explicitly aiming this book at atheists he appears to have missed the memo that for the most part it is only the existence of the demiurges that we are denying. After all it is these theistic gods that are supposed to answer prayers and wreak punishments with careless abandon on human kind. These are the gods for which not only is there no evidence but substantial evidence against even though these are also the gods that, despite Hart’s conviction, most naïve believers look to for moral guidance and salvation. Hart, at least in part one of this book, is flirting with something very close to pantheism which really does not square with his professed Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he fails to make the qualitative leap between god in the abstract and a God we should care about.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The birds are singing to Yahweh according to Rabbi Sacks.

Oh Dear! Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has fallen into the “Darwin was wrong about some things” trap to deliver a puerile homily about taking ...
...Darwinian selection to be more than a law about biology, and turn it into a metaphor for life itself, as if all that matters is conflict and the struggle to survive, so that love and beauty and even birdsong are robbed of their innocence and reduced to genetic instincts and drives.

Yes, once again Radio 4’s Thought for the Day has come up trumps as an inspiration for a blog post and for me this one touched all the bases; Darwin, evolution, covert creationism and intellectual dishonesty all in one three minute segment. So where to begin?
Well, Lord Sacks has decided that the account of a revised understanding of the sexual mores of birds in a new book The Wisdom of Birds by ornithologist Tim Birkhead is sufficient to impugn the scientific understanding of evolution because it now transpires that Darwin’s assertion that female birds are faithful and monogamous and the promiscuous males sing to attract mates has proved to be less than universally true. It is now recognised that female birds are also opportunistic in their mating strategies and that some species have females that are as vocal as the males as evidenced by genetic studies of wild populations and observation by ornithologists.
The first thing to say about this is that Darwin was wrong about the specifics of many things, most importantly from an evolutionary point of view he completely misunderstood the true nature of inheritance, ignorant as he was of even the Mendelian laws of inheritance being developed around the same time. This is both understandable and widely recognised by biologists who do not see this as a reason to reject what is arguably the most powerful explanatory scientific theory of the millennium. Given that context, minor observational errors on sexual selection in birds should not be a big issue. Although in fact Tim Birkhead says this of Darwin who, as a pigeon fancier, would most likely have been aware of the truth of the matter.
He was probably playing it safe. In Victorian England it simply wasn’t appropriate for a well-respected gentleman scientist to draw attention to the existence of female promiscuity, let alone to justify it in biological terms.
Be that as it may avian female promiscuity and vocalisation does not lead to the conclusions that Lord Sacks would like to infer with this:
A century and a half ago Darwin argued that birdsong was all about sexual selection. It was males who did the singing, hoping to make female birds swoon at hearing the ornithological equivalent of Justin Bieber, giving the most tuneful males a better chance of handing on their genes to the next generation. Well, it turns out to be not quite like that after all, because scientists have now discovered that female birds do almost as much singing as the males, and it has less to do with sexual selection, than with simply saying: I’m here.
and this:
Not all is wrong in a world where birds sing for the joy of being alive.
Birdsong fulfills several functions not, or only partly, related to mating strategies. For some species it is territorial, a signal to deter members of the same species from invading its feeding and breeding grounds. In flocking birds it can be a means of maintaining colony cohesion and for warning against predators. Singing has to be explainable under natural selection as making a noise can be a risky strategy for a prey species and would only persist in a population if it had other survival advantages: saying "I'm here" just for the sake of it could result in "the joy of being alive" a very short experience. Skylarks for example, while on the wing, will use song as a form of defense against predator birds. By singing, the skylark signals that it is in good condition and will be difficult to catch as only a fit skylark can afford to sing whilst being chased by a predator.
Moreover even if both males and females are singing to attract mates it does not negate sexual selection as both sexes would be advertising their fitness to potential partners which is still true even if strict monogamy were not the expected outcome. Lord Sacks seems to be suffering from the delusion that it can only be sexual selection if the male is behaving like a peacock and the female is a coy recipient of his advances which may say more about his cultural biases than about his grasp of biology. After all, both partners will usually be involved in feeding the brood so fitness, for which singing is a proxy, is advantageous to both birds.
Lord Sacks cannot make any of this mean what he would like it to mean which is birds sing because of God.
[…] like all those psalms that speak of creation singing a song to the creator, and the wonderful closing line of the last psalm of all: Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
Birds sing for survival and not to praise a deity that only human minds can afford the luxury of inventing and no faux pas of Darwin’s changes that. However that does not render the dawn chorus any less uplifting or appealing, in fact the complex twists and turns of natural selection that have granted the birds their vocal abilities are mirrored in our own to appreciate them. Which is a much deeper and richer truth that it may benefit the good Rabbi to contemplate.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Science in the Quran? Maybe if you squint…

Zakir Naik
My youngest daughter appears to have inherited my scepticism of religion yet succeeds in maintaining sincere believers, both Christian and Muslim, as her closest friends. This is an admirable trait of which she should be justifiably proud, as indeed am I, and she achieves this even while having challenging theological debates amongst them. Recently a Muslim friend suggested my daughter and I watch a YouTube debate between Islamic and Christian apologists Dr Zakir Naik and Dr.William Campbell on "The Quran and the Bible in light of modern science" which was supposed to convince us that the Quran is a reliable source of timeless scientific knowledge. Now I have been exposed to Dr Naik before as he is the go-to-guy for Muslims wanting to defend the Quran as a perfect revelation by pointing to Surahs that pre-sage modern scientific theory but although I have read some of his thoughts online this was the first time I had watched him in action. The first thing to say is that the link we were given is an egregiously biased edit of the actual debate with William Cambell's responses amateurishly curtailed to make his arguments fall literally and philosophically short and make Naik appear a better debater than he actually is. This is not surprising as theists of all denominations have been guilty of this tactic, but for the purposes of this post it is irrelevant because neither of the participants actually engaged the real problem, the purpose of that debate being to pitch the Bible against the Quran as to which is defensible through science: but neither are. From my perspective Naik does a pretty thorough job of debunking Biblical claims to scientific integrity, better in fact than many atheist debaters I've seen. But that proves only that Naik is a competent theologian and logician with enough knowledge of science to recognise absurdities when he wants to. However when it comes to defending the Quran his critical faculties desert him and his intellectual dishonesty becomes manifest. Before what appears to be a gender segregated and predominantly supportive audience, Naik cites Surah upon Surah to support what are actually very weak eisogesic arguments for scientific "signs" in the Quran. For example he lists Surahs giving "detailed accounts of the water cycle" but only selectively quotes from them. Consequently if you actually research the Surahs he cites you get the following.
“We sent down water from the sky, blessed water whereby We caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm-trees with their spathes, piled one above the other – sustenance for (Our) servants. Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land. So will be the emergence (from the tombs).” [Quran 50:9-11]
“We sent down water from the sky in measure and lodged it in the ground. And We certainly are able to withdraw it. Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palm-trees and vineyards where for you are abundant fruits and of them you eat.” [Quran 23: 18-19]
“We sent forth the winds that fecundate. We cause the water to descend from the sky. We provide you with the water – you (could) not be the guardians of its reserves.” [Quran 15:22]
“Allaah is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. He spreads them in the sky as He wills and breaks them into fragments. Then thou seest raindrops issuing from within them. He makes them reach such of His servants as He wills. And they are rejoicing.” [Quran 30:48]
“(Allaah) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. When they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a dead land. Then We cause water to descend and thereby bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus We will bring forth the dead. Maybe you will remember.” [Quran 7:57]
“Hast thou not seen that Allaah sent water down from the sky and led it through sources into the ground? Then He caused sown fields of different colors to grow.” [Quran 39:21]
“Therein We placed gardens of palm-trees and vineyards and We caused water springs to gush forth.” [Quran 36:34]
Seven 'divinely revealed' verses that say in no uncertain terms that...it rains...sometimes water comes from the ground...and stuff grows.
This is not science, this is observation which fair enough is where science starts, but science is supposed to be explanatory and none of this is. It may be descriptive of the water cycle but that's as far as it goes and only proves that seventh century Arabs weren't stupid, which nobody is suggesting.
Naik also defends the Quran's description of embryology which is often ridiculed by Christians and atheists alike as being a woefully naive description of the actual process of fertilisation and development of the human embryo.
The truth is that as a descriptive narrative it is not far off. If talks of mixing fluids, a clot of blood, a leach like structure, a formative muscular/ skeletal phase all of which as descriptions are not obviously wrong. But, none of this is miraculous nor was it unknown. Women had been having miscarriages, foetuses had aborted and pregnant women had been mutilated for millenia enough for all of those things to have been observed and described. Again this is not science and in the absence of clear references to meiosis, eggs, sperm fertilisation etc is not explanatory. If indeed these had been explicit the divine provenance of the Quran would not be in doubt.
On most other areas, particularly cosmology and geology, Naik either misunderstands or is just plain lying about the science. His explanations of plate tectonics and mountain formation are laughable as is his characterisation of the big bang. Although, a Quranic reference about "an expanding universe" did give me pause enough to search my own copy for the context of which I'll give you a few Surahs.
51:44 But they were insolent toward the command of their Lord, so the thunderbolt seized them while they were looking on. 51:45 And they were unable to arise, nor could they defend themselves. 51:46 And [We destroyed] the people of Noah before; indeed, they were a people defiantly disobedient. 51:47 And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander. 51:48 And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer. 51:49 And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember. 51:50 So flee to Allah . Indeed, I am to you from Him a clear warner.
Now, leaving aside the fact that like much of the Quran this is actually incoherent it demonstrates entirely how taking one verse out of many in a completely unrelated context can in retrospect be made to say something apparently meaningful. As I pointed out to my daughter on this standard of evidence you could pick any random sentence from any book and draw a parallel to any fact you chose. As a demonstration I linked the current cold snap in North America to this from A.A Milne
The more it snows (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes on snowing (Tiddely-Pom) And nobody knows (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes are growing (Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom)
Which is a clear prediction of the counter-intuitive but scientifically explainable recent effects of global warming. Clever old bear...
There is no doubt that Dr Naik is an excellent debator and skilled theologian. His mastery of presuppositional and (mostly circular) logic is enough I suspect to convince the faithful, indeed it must be given the frequency with which I am directed towards him, but the fact that his title is medical and he is not a science PhD shows painfully to anyone with some grounding in science and frankly no sceptic would take him seriously on the strength of this debate with a Christian apologist also lacking scientific credentials.
He did however give my daughter and I a very entertaining and highly amusing evening as we laughed together at his transparently flawed science and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend his website as a resource for atheists looking for ammunition to use in similar debates.

Monday, 3 March 2014

When Christians talk of slavery...

Solomon Northup
Since the well-deserved success of 12 Years a Slave at both the BAFTA and OSCAR awards ceremonies there has been a renewed interest in the issue of slavery, both in its historical legacy and its modern iteration of human trafficking. The US in particular still has a deal of unresolved baggage around slavery and much of the racism prevalent in the southern states harks back to unquestioned assumptions of white supremacy in an era when to be black was to be owned.
One contribution to the conversation was made on the Thought for the Day segment on Radio 4’s Today programme by Rev Professor David Wilkinson who made the statement (and I may be paraphrasing as the transcript is not available yet) that in the past some people had tried to defend slavery using the bible. In the next breath he appealed to William Wilberforce’s speech to parliament specifically as a parallel to the consciousness raising effect of 12 Years a Slave, but also as a counterpoint to religious culpability for slavery.The problem I have with this is that there is absolutely no difficulty whatsoever in defending slavery with the bible and little evidence of religion being motivated to repudiate it.
So first of all what does the Bible say about slavery? It couldn’t be clearer than in Leviticus 25:44-46
44 ‘“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
So pretty much carte blanche to enslave any foreigner you come across, direct from the deity’s mouth so to speak. Incidentally, that last bit about not ruling over your fellow Israelites is the get out of jail free card some apologists use to argue it wasn’t really slavery, just bonded labour. But what the Bible goes on to say about that refers exclusively to the Israelites, not foreign slaves: they’re yours for ever.
Influenced as he was by Methodism Wilberforce was very much on the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church and possessed a strongly humanitarian view of Christianity. In this the apologists are justified in saying his religion started the process of abolition (at least as far as Britain was concerned) of the slave trade. But what is not mentioned is that the conservative elements against whom Wilberforce was arguing were of the British Christian establishment and equally comfortable with their pro-slavery position. As well they might be…
Ephesians 6:5-8
New International Version (NIV)
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Now this is couched in Paul’s usual apocalyptic assumption that the end times were just around the corner so the slaves would soon be “free” as saved Christians. But, there is nothing in here to suggest that slavery as an institution was being condemned. Certainly none of the canonical gospels have Jesus even commenting on the practice let alone repudiating it.
There is no doubt that William Wilberforce is deserving of the reputation he earned over the abolition of the slave trade and whether his faith informed his humanity or vice versa, though moot, is probable irresolvable but there is nothing intrinsically Christian or Biblical to explain his zeal. One can only assume that like many Christians today he defined his religion by selectively choosing those aspects that chimed with his morality and ignored the rest.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Does science really ignore the possibility of God?

There is a criticism sometimes levelled at atheists who point to the lack of evidence for the supernatural and therefore gods that the reason they see no such evidence is that they are not looking for it. The suggestion is that the world view on which atheists tend to rely, science, is intrinsically antithetical to supernatural phenomena and does not take their possible existence into account for explanations of the world.
This view is illustrated by Tim Minchin’s eponymous character from the beat poem Storm (see link on sidebar) where she is made to say
”Science just falls in a hole When it tries to explain the nature of the soul.”[…] “Shakespeare said it first: There are more things in heaven and earth Than exist in your philosophy… Science is just how we're trained to look at reality, It can't explain love or spirituality. How does science explain psychics? Auras; the afterlife; the power of prayer?”
Theists in general will tell you that the handiwork of God is all around for everyone to see should we deign to take off our reductionist blinkers and appreciate the awesome wonder of their god’s creation. If only we would look at the world in the ‘right’ way, opening our minds and hearts to the obvious God would be self-evident. However I am going to make an argument that possibly even a philosopher of science would find contentious (at least I’ve never heard it put quite this way) that the scientific method far from ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention is in fact constantly testing for it.
Science, it is true, presupposes methodological naturalism
Methodological naturalism is concerned not with claims about what exists but with methods of learning what nature is. It is strictly the idea that all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. The genesis of nature, e.g., by an act of God, is not addressed
which at first sight appear to vindicate the theist’s view that science is ruling anything supernatural out a priori but this ignores the other cornerstones of the scientific method namely falsifiability and the null-hypothesis.
In science a hypothesis is considered to be falsifiable if in principle it can be proved to be incorrect by observation or experiment. For example when J.B.S Haldane was asked what could falsify the theory of evolution he replied ”Rabbits in the Precambrian” by which he meant if a fossil rabbit was found in a geological era prior to the evolution of mammals it would upset the theory.
In practice every experiment conducted or observation made with scientific intent is an attempt to falsify a particular hypothesis but beyond that I would argue they are also, albeit unconsciously, testing methodological naturalism itself because the underlying hypothesis is one of natural cause and effect. A result found or observation made that could not be explained by natural phenomena would falsify methodological naturalism and imply that supernatural events could influence the data.
A null-hypothesis is a statistical concept that states there will be no difference between two sets of observations. For example in a drug trial with a placebo control the null-hypothesis would be that the clinical outcomes will be identical for both groups of patients. An observed statistical deviation between the groups would then tell you something about the effectiveness of the drug in question. For the purposes of this argument I would suggest the null hypothesis that scientific experiments and observations will yield the same results regardless of supernatural or purely natural influences. Over centuries of scientific observations, more than enough to be statistically significant, we have never seen a deviation in an expected outcome due to supernatural activity (Note: I am saying that this null-hypothesis is implicit in the scientific method even if it is not explicit in a particular experiment such as, for example, testing the efficacy of prayer on the mortality rates of cancer patients). This suggests one of two things, either the null-hypothesis is correct and that regardless of supernatural forces the results are identical to those expected from naturalism or, conceivably, there are no supernatural forces. To quote again from Tim Minchin’s Storm
”Throughout history Every mystery Ever solved has turned out to be Not Magic.”
This is not to argue that science has disproved gods or the supernatural but merely to point out that the scientific method is obliquely but consistently testing the hypothesis that is methodological naturalism and as a consequence only ignores the supernatural insofar as, to date, it has either not significantly impacted on observations or shown itself to exist. It is consistent with the rational atheist position that where we do contemplate possible gods they are of the ignorable, non-interventionist, deistic variety rather than the prayer answering, miracle working, null-hypothesis falsifying species beloved of the major religions.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Anne Atkins invokes the devil

It’s been a while since I caught Radio 4’s Thought Sermon for the Day segment on the Today program, but travelling to work this morning I was treated to some delightful drivel from Anne Atkins who to be fair I always find good value if only for the amusing lack of rational content in her contributions.
Anne Atkins
Her latest missive was inspired by the Church of England’s re-working of the Christening ceremony to eliminate the phrase asking godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and substituting it with “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”. Atkins opened her piece with the “good news” that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had “cast out the Devil” but then went on to query why, if absolute good was personified in the existence of the Christian God, should absolute evil not be similarly personified in the form of the Devil? This is of course a very good question that goes straight to the heart of the problem of evil, Christianity’s greatest philosophical nemesis, for if an omnibenevolent and omnipotent god exists there should be no place for evil.
Zoroastrianism, which predates Christianity by some seven centuries and second temple Judaism by two, resolved the apparent disparity by having opposing deities representing good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu) in eternal battle and it is likely that the character of Angra Mainyu became superimposed on Satan during the Babylonian exile demonising a character that in earlier Jewish tradition was considered a loyal agent of Yahweh’s and merely doing his bidding. Mutated by Christian mythology, medieval iconography and Dante’s Divine Comedy we have ended up with the cartoonish Horned Devil so beloved of fire and brimstone Southern Baptist types but seen as an embarrassment to liberal Christians who well understand the theological difficulties such an entity poses.
Anne Atkins reaches out to C.S Lewis to point out that the absurdity of this image has long been recognised.
In every era the Church faces the challenge of presenting eternal truths in the vulgar tongue, and unchanging beliefs in the familiar media of the day. And the devil has been out of fashion as far as memory goes back. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively.
But the lurking implication is that there really is a demonic personality behind the temptation to do evil even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype…and that’s exactly where Atkins takes us
Plato taught that behind every material reality is a greater spiritual reality: his definition of God is the ἰδεα, the form, of the good. Thus good itself has the attributes of personality: mind; affection; and volition. God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out. If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random. If there is morality, there must surely be evil as well as good.
So either she is a born again Zoroastrian or she has totally missed the theological implications of an evil being that her all loving god must necessarily be allowing to exist. But, like all good theists her angst is really all about the necessity of there being some divinely ordained objective morality as without that we are all doomed to nihilism.
 If there is no intelligent force of evil then we live in a neutral universe, I can make choices like a consumer in a supermarket, and ultimately nothing matters.
Nothing matters? Really! Her family, her health, world peace, poverty, the environment, human suffering none it matters unless there is an existential god and his evil twin to make it all meaningful. In order to make this work Atkins has to believe not only in her god but also in a nagging demon on her shoulder tempting her from the straight and narrow.
When new atheists ridicule the superannuated Santa Claus in the sky version of the Christian god we are told that we are fighting a straw man nobody believes in. Sophisticated theologians talk of God as the ground of being or some such blather that we are all too dim to appreciate. But Anne Atkins is not stupid or naïve. I’m sure she is as capable of understanding Alvin Plantinga or Paul Tillich as I am
yet here she is an intelligent woman, the wife of a clergyman no less, arguing against current Anglican doctrine and for the existence of an actual intelligent force for evil, or The Devil by any other name.

Monday, 6 January 2014

I hear what you're saying Frank but...

They say “be careful what you wish for…” a phrase that maybe I should have been mindful of when writing soon after Francis took over from Benedict XV1 as Pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems to be taking a lot of my advice seriously.
Pope Francis Time's person of the year
For the record I don’t think he reads my blog (or even the snarks I send in reply to some of his more fatuous tweets) but his modus operandi since taking office has been spookily in accordance with my suggestion that he focus his message on poverty and income inequality rather than flogging the mantras against contraception and gender equality and it seems to be doing wonders for his personal reputation. He has already been crowned Time Magazine’s person of the year 2013 and become something of a darling to the liberal left while simultaneously enraging the right for his criticisms of capitalism and corporate greed. So what am I griping about?
Well, when he stays within the realm of liberation theology he appears to be sincere and although he is not saying anything radical in terms of catholic doctrine on poverty he walks the walk more than many a previous pontiff. The problem is on those occasions when he does address the social issues that the Church has been so wrong about for millennia he speaks softly but changes nothing. In fact he is quietly reinforcing the misogyny and the homophobia while giving the impression of moderation. For example on same sex relationships…
“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”
…and fine, I don’t want him to talk about it all the time, mainly so that it becomes a non-issue. But by telling us he doesn’t want to talk about it because it is an issue he is entrenching the dogma.
Optimistic liberals will point to the fact that he has removed some prominent ultra conservatives such as Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops as a sign that Church teaching is poised to change but I suspect he is just trying to ease these hot button subjects under the cultural radar by taking the hard-liners out of the limelight.
In case you think I am being unfair to Frank over this, on the few occasions when he has had to respond seriously to controversial events on the ground he has reverted to type, for example by endorsing an anti-gay sermon given by the Bishop Scicluna of Malta in response to a Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise adoption by same sex couples. He has also confirmed the assessment issued under Benedict by the Doctrinal Congregation criticising American nuns' group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ( LCWR), and accusing them of "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life." The assessment called for the organisation's reform to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality which suggests that he is not prepared to allow any liberalising opinions free rein either.
There is no doubt that this Pope is doing a wonderful PR job for the Catholic Church. Outside of the atheosphere very few commenters are stressing the child abuse scandal which has not gone away or been adequately dealt with and I can’t count the number of “lapsed Catholics” I have seen on social media who are claiming to be lured back into the fold by Frank’s fine words. But fine words… high fat dairy… root vegetables etc… he needs to act in accordance with his pontifications.
It would be unrealistic, I know, to expect a revision of Church doctrine no matter how liberal a Papacy he is pursuing and besides unless he is prepared to make some radical ex-cathedra infallible pronouncements the next Pope could easily reverse the direction of travel. So I want to modify my previous advice (well, you never know…). So Frank, here it is. Keep on with the anti-poverty schtick but also stop actively opposing those things we know work to alleviate it; empowerment of women, sex education and easy access to family planning and abortion services. Nobody expects you to hand out condoms with the Eucharist but stop campaigning against programs, like the U.S. Affordable Care Act, that do facilitate access to cheap contraception. Also if you are going to insist on running hospitals around the world, stop imposing Catholic dogma on the professional health workers who staff them and free them to make clinical, not ideological, decisions.
Here’s hoping….