"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, 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.