Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

On death (recycled)

2014/01/23

This is a repost of a comment I made back in September 2012 over at Dale McGowan’s excellent blog, The Meming of Life. It was in response to his request for thoughts about how atheists deal with death. I repost it here because I’m very proud of it and want to share it with you, but also because it’s a good lead-in to another thought, which I’ll post in a few days. I start this post with the question Dale posed. It was part of his research for the book that is now out, Atheism for Dummies. I encourage you to go to his blog and read the other responses – there were several thought-provoking contributions.

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

My answer:

For me, there are just a few very important things:

1. Not thinking about it. Is that shallow? Not really: my live is lived entirely when I am alive, so I should be working on living well rather than worrying about death.

2. Avoid death. Is that cowardly? Not really: I try to cultivate healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones, so that I can live as long and as fully as possible. (I agree with you, Dale – in general I’m against death.)

3. Think cosmically. Is that cerebral? I don’t care. Does the idea of *only* a hundred years getting you down? Quarks and other tiny particles bubble in and out of existence in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. Wonder what will be left of you in a million years? All the hydrogen in your body has been hydrogen for the entire 13+ billion year history of the universe, and will be until it is fused into more complex and interesting elements in the hearts of some ages-distant future star. The little points of light you see in the sky have been travelling to your eyes for hundreds or millions of years, only to be absorbed by the rods in your eyes, ending as ephemeral impressions in your visual cortex.

4. Suffer. Is that cold? Well, perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt much to hurt a little at the thought of death. I don’t know if it’s good for you to feel that pain, but at least it doesn’t kill you. Think of it this way: being afraid of death is, at least in part, simply the flip side of being in love with life. And that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day (until I can find a better deal).

Who am I to talk?

2013/12/01

Who am I to talk about this stuff?

What does a lifelong atheist have to offer when many of the key problems we as a secular community face (antagonism, discrimination, psychological scars from childhood indoctrination, etc) are completely alien to me? This post is partly a bit of fretting about my relevance as a blogger, and partly an exploration of what I might have to constructively offer. It begins with a brief summary of my life so far …

I grew up in rural Alberta, one of the more socially and politically conservative regions of Canada. (The ruling party in Alberta’s legislature for the past 42 years has been the Conservative party.) I was extremely lucky. My parents are both much less tradition-bound than the general population. My mother grew up on a farm in England; they met when my dad (a farmer) was on exchange working for her dad. It’s all very romantic. More than that, I’ve always imagined it gives them a slightly wider view of the world than many rural Albertans. Some of whom have never been outside the province, let alone the country.

Anyway, I never had religion pushed on me as a kid. My grandparents were all religious – we would go to the local Anglican church on Christmas Eve every year. We did Christmas, but it was only ever for me a family-gathering, gift-sharing, feasting holiday. Religion’s only hold on it was that relatively indoctrination-free church service. Same for Easter – a secular holiday involving chocolate eggs, a fun bunny myth, and a family gathering. I have even less memory of token church attendance for Easter than for Christmas.

So I grew up without any religious belief. I had friends in school who were religious – mainstream Christians and one or two Mormons – but it was never a point of conflict. Just one of those things. I had a really tall father and a mom who was from England; my friend I.S. was Mormon; S.M. was really good at running; and so on. That sort of thing.

It’s not that I was sheltered from it. I had (perhaps my parents still have) a “Children’s Story Bible”, which I read from once in a while.

I do remember wondering a little about it – this thing that was part of other people’s lives but not mine. But what did religion offer that I really lacked? My parents were very clear about social and ethical precepts – we knew right from wrong, so obviously that didn’t depend on religion (or any sort of deep philosophy). Our extended family and the local community were very supportive and close-knit, so the community-building function of religion wasn’t needed. The story-making role of religion, giving us a sense of where we fit in things, was a no-go: I had way better facts, from being a science nerd, and more enjoyable myths, from consuming science-fiction.

(Not that I believed the sci-fi myths to be true, of course. Just that they were more engaging stories than anything of the religious stories that filtered through to me. Literature, even when one doesn’t believe the stories literally, is a great source of narratives to use for wrapping meaning around the events in our lives.)

I did go through a phase in my early university career where I actively explored religion. Partly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. Although I hadn’t been actively shielded from religious information, neither had I been taught the details as kids from more religious households had been. (Deena still laughs at my ignorance about some passages; I’m still amazed at her capacity to cite scripture, even if it’s largely confined to the headline verses such as John 3:16.) Partly, my exploration was driven by the same curiosity that made me a scientist: “Here’s a popular hypothesis, maybe I should examine it and see if it has some merit.”

I spent a little time identifying as a neopagan. They have some fun symbols, neat rituals, and a generally non-dogmatic approach to what you have to actually *believe* about the whole affair. It was also titillatingly controversial, at least if you read the conservative Christians’ tirades. Admit it: there’s something exciting about being a persecuted minority.

But basically, my background is a very vanilla secular-living-well story with no conversions or de-conversions, no ostracism or recognizable oppression of any kind, no religion-based trauma or excitement. Not even any great teen rebellion.

And here I am, a self-identified humanist, skeptic, and atheist. And it often feels like the people who share these labels – especially the last one – seem overwhelmingly to have come from religious backgrounds. Former-Baptist (eg, Matt Dillahunty). Former-Pentecostal (eg, Jerry DeWitt). Former-Muslim (eg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Former-Jain (eg, Hemant Mehta). Former-Something. People have been harassed, parents have kicked kids out of their homes, people live under death threats, while others are outright killed. All perpetrated by religious people against atheists. Even Richard Dawkins has a story about molestation by a religious figure (though he seems to have suffered more from reactions to how he told the story than from the event itself). There are whole communities dedicated to those who are struggling with their newfound atheism: the Living After Faith blog and podcast, Recovering From Religion, the Clergy Project, and probably loads others that I haven’t even heard of because that’s not my story. (If you know of any, please feel free to list them in the comments.)

Derived from ARIS data

Shifts in religious identity among Americans

By the numbers, the vast majority of atheists in the US come from religious backgrounds. This report seems to support my hunch that, for the UK, the trend is less pronounced, though it looks like a slight majority of current “no-religion” folks still claim some childhood religious identity. (I want to note I was unable to follow through to the original report for the UK link, so I’m interpreting a flashy graphic rather than hard survey numbers.) I suspect that Canadian numbers, if they’re out there, fall somewhere between these two cultural neighbours of ours.

Data from www.brin.ac.uk

Shifts in religious identity among the British

So, having said all that, am I the (metaphorical) white guy lecturing on feminism for minorities? Do I have anything relevant to offer the people in this community, that isn’t already being better provided by someone with more relevant experience?

It’s a question worth asking, and I hope I will always ask it before I condescend to put finger to keyboard. (Linguist’s side-note: Is “put finger to keyboard” an acceptable re-tooling of the old “put pen to paper” idiom? You know what I mean, anyway.) I think there are a couple of answers that can justify this admittedly self-indulgent blogging habit.

First, there are still a few (increasingly many) people like me out there: people who come to humanism/skepticism/atheism not as a reaction to a former state of theirs, but as a recognition of what they have always felt/believed/etc. So, within the wider tent, there is a large contingent of “people who are especially like me”. And perhaps my musings and reflections will seem particularly relevant to them.

Second, for people who continue to work through the fallout of their former beliefs, my story (and the stories of those like me) may be encouraging. This is the end-game that they are working toward: so their children, and future generations, can live lives that are casually and uneventfully religion-free. Lives unscarred by childhood belief in eternal torture, or untenable “moral” commandments.

Third (and most importantly), there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether you come to the humanist community from a nonreligious background or from a lifetime of fervent religious belief, you and I will tend to share values and goals. We want a public space that is free from religious coercion. We want a society that upholds basic secular values (individual rights and liberties, science as a beacon of understanding, etc). We want to promote quality education, discourage bigotry, and enjoy artistic creations that lift the spirit and inspire greatness.

Alright then. My angst is largely assuaged. The fact that I’ve never been a believer doesn’t disqualify me from being able to contribute useful ideas to our community.

Let me know what you think. Are you a formerly-religious person, now identifying as humanist or atheist? Are you a lifelong atheist? What do you think about the content of this blog? Does the material here seem relevant to you? How do you see yourself fitting into the freethinking community in general? What issues are important to you?

Is there anything I haven’t talked about that you would like to read from someone in my position?

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?

Contending with Dawkins (2)

2012/08/22

This is a review of the sixth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence by Gregory E. Ganssle

Didn’t we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of Dawkins’ argument:

  1. A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
  2. Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
  3. Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe. (p75)

Also unlike Craig, I think Ganssle manages to present the argument in a form that Dawkins would be content with. I certainly am. The idea here is to treat naturalism and theism as hypotheses that make predictions about the sort of entities and events we should observe, and compare these predictions against what we do observe.

Unfortunately, Ganssle runs off the rails pretty soon after by playing loose with the idea of “observability”.

Dawkins is disposed to think of detectability in terms of sense experience and the methods of the natural sciences. Something that is in principle subject to scientific investigation is detectable. (p77)

Yes. The methods that centuries of scientific progress have shown to be the best for teasing fact from our own bias are the best methods to use, if our goal is to form conclusions that reflect facts rather than our own biases.

For example, ethical theories can differ from each other in detectable ways. If one theory prohibits lying in every circumstance, while a second theory allows lying under specified conditions, there is a detectable difference between them. … The difference between the theories is also not due to some empirical observations. (p77)

In other words, it is not an observable difference in the sense Dawkins (and any other competent scientist) would mean – the sense that underlies the argument Ganssle so efficiently summarizes at the beginning of his essay.

Now, having excused himself from the hard work of providing real evidence within the framework of Dawkins’ argument, what does Ganssle offer in support of theism over naturalism?

  1. The universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation.
  2. It is a world with consciousness.
  3. It is a world with significant free agency.
  4. It is a world with objective moral obligations. (p79)

Let’s take these one at a time. I actually think they are interesting points, though I disagree with Ganssle on both their truth and their relevance to the question at hand. I am therefore indulging in a longer-than-usual post.

1. Order and susceptibility to rational investigation

The first item may point to the argument from reason, that was so opaquely exposited in Reppert’s essay. In the current context, the question is: should we expect an ordered universe more if there is a god, or if there are only naturalistic laws at work? Philosophically, I think this question is tractable. Empirically, I can’t easily think of a test for it.

Interestingly, Ganssle’s discussion smuggles in two completely arbitrary assumptions that carry all of the apparent value in this argument. First, he is assuming not just any god, but a god who is rational, and desires a rational universe. Fair enough – that is the sort of theistic hypothesis he wants to pit against naturalism. But he is not making a parallel assumption for naturalism. He is not looking and noticing that naturalists tend to describe a natural universe that has orderly laws. He just says that “a naturalistic universe, however, would not have to be susceptible to rational investigation.” (p80)

So yes, if you’re pitting a theistic hypothesis that fits our universe (and that many people support) against a naturalistic hypothesis that does not fit our universe (and that virtually nobody would support), then our universe fits better with theism than with naturalism. But if you were to pit an “orderly-god” theism against a “natural-laws” naturalism (a fair comparison), then the apparent advantage here disappears.*

2. Consciousness

I had a lot of thoughts on this section when reading it. Ganssle presents two aspects of consciousness as particularly difficult to cope with naturalistically: the first-person-ness of it, and the intentionality of mental states. These are both non-starters for me. His description of the first-person problem – that I have more immediate access to my own mental states than to anyone else’s – is no more problematic for me than the fact that the domino I push falls over but the one I leave undisturbed does not: physical systems (such as the mental states embodied in our brain) react more immediately to causes adjacent to them (such as other mental states in the same brain) than to causes distant from them (such as the mental states of other brains). As for intentionality, I simply look to the causal chain of connections between the memories and mental states I experience and the physical experiences and objects they are about. To use Ganssle’s example, when I’m thinking about Niagara Falls, those thoughts are causally connected with my memories of being there, and my memories of television shows and conversations I’ve had about the falls. None of these things are problematic under naturalism.

Of course, consciousness is a philosophically thorny topic. What is it? How does it work? These are difficult questions, whatever your philosophical position. He points out, rightly, that it is difficult for naturalists to account for consciousness. He also points out, rightly, that by positing up-front the existence of a conscious creator being, theism has already accounted for a crucial step: how consciousness arises in the universe. What he seems to fail to acknowledge is that he hasn’t really freed theism from the “probability penalty” that comes with trying to deal with consciousness. He’s just put it somewhere else. Naturalism has to deal with it by finding ways for it to arise. (Hint: natural selection is very powerful in generating things that help us survive.) Theism has to deal with it by including a very complex premise up front: the “prior probability” of theism takes a severe hit by including this ill-defined and complex thing called “consciousness” in the definition of its god.

So, consciousness is a problem for theism and naturalism, and I don’t see how we can confidently say it’s worse for naturalism than for theism.

3. Significant free agency

This is a fun one. Free will is one of those issues that seem to hinge on aesthetic preferences rather than anything substantive. I have to thank Ganssle for sparking some new and tantalizing thoughts on this topic, which I’ll defer to another time to discuss. For now, let me summarize what he asserts and how he supports it. First, “A world with significant free agency fits better in a theistic universe” than a naturalistic one. Ganssle clearly means libertarian free agency here. I tend to agree: libertarian free will is less surprising under a theistic view than a naturalistic one.**

He closes this section by saying “they may be right [that there is no such thing as libertarian free will], but the case for libertarian freedom is strong enough that it lends support to the sort of argument I am presenting.” (p84) So basically, he’s saying that if libertarian freedom exists, then his argument stands; many people deny that it exists, but let’s just accept that it does so he can keep his argument. He never actually gives us a reason to believe that libertarian free will exists. Scratch this point.

4. Objective moral obligations

This is another case where his initial premise seems to be legitimate: “A world with objective moral obligations fits better with a theistic universe.” Yes it does. (He even includes a quote from an atheist philosopher agreeing that, if objective moral obligations in Ganssle’s sense existed, then they would lend support to theism.) He also asserts that “To think that objective moral obligations exist is reasonable.” To my dismay and disgust, the one comment he makes in support of this statement is that “It is enough to note that many people think there are such obligations.”

If my premise is true, then the conclusion I hope for is true. I’ll hope my premise is true, and take my conclusion as proven.

Summing up

Ganssle’s bits of evidence are every bit as flimsy as his setup led me to expect. He begins by excusing himself from looking for real (ie, observable, empirical) evidence. Then he leads us through four arguments, all leaning on wishful thinking in various ways. He concludes by reassuring his readers that Dawkins’ best argument “does not deliver”.

Ganssle fails utterly to provide actual evidence for his conclusion, and so leaves the field to actual scientists, who have documented a whole lot of evidence that is less surprising under a naturalistic hypothesis than under a theistic one. Dawkins, for all his lack of philosophical ambition and subtlety, carries the day.

Footnotes:

* I had another thought about the argument from reason, which I won’t elaborate on here. It boils down to this: exactly how ordered is the universe, and how ordered would you expect it to be under the appropriate theistic and naturalistic hypotheses? After all, there certainly seems to be a fair amount of chaos in the universe, from quantum uncertainty to the apparent intractibility of many psychological and sociological phenomena.

** Well, one flavour of theism anyway. I have a Calvinist friend who might disagree. But I would guess that most modern, Western theists would be libertarians, so we’ll let this one pass. But note that this is yet another subtle narrowing of the theism hypothesis, rendering it just that bit more unlikely to begin with.

Contending with evolutionary naturalism

2012/08/16

This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?

Contending with a trick of the brain

2012/08/13

This is a review of the fourth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Belief in God: A Trick of our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

This essay gives a pretty good account of why we should expect god-belief even in a naturalistic universe. It draws on psychology, evolution, etc. There are well-evidenced biases that suggest the common human intuition that gods exist is unwarranted. That is, a similar intuition could be expected whether or not any god actually exists. After a clear exposition of these biases, complete with a presentation of their epistemological implications, Murray closes with a casual reference to the cosmological argument, and so ends by asserting theism.

This left-field ending reminds me of the closing of Ecclesiastes. (Though in this case I’m less inclined to blame the editors.) My wife, Deena, doesn’t share my sense of the disjunction here, and I recognize that not everyone feels the end of Ecclesiastes is out of place.

Whatever one’s aesthetic take on the final argument, it seems to me to tacitly acknowledge one thing. All the psychological predispositions discussed in the first part of the essay do not provide good evidence for the existence of a god. If they did, the author would have said so rather than reaching out to cosmology to salvage his preferred belief system.

Oh well. At least the biases toward god-belief have been given a mostly unpolluted airing. Baby steps, right?

Contending with reason

2012/08/10

This is a review of the third essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert

This is a closely-argued essay which was difficult to follow. Reppert draws on several philosophical terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to me, without explaining them. I will react to what I do understand.

The conceptual setup is intriguing: he points out that there are two types of worldview we can consider: mentalistic and non-mentalistic. Under a mentalistic worldview, mental entities (such as human minds) are considered basic, and other entities (such as trees, rocks, planets, etc) must be explained in terms of mental entities. Under a non-mentalistic worldview, non-mental entities are basic (be they atoms, quarks, superstrings, whatever), and all entities (trees, rocks, minds) must be explained in terms of those basic elements.

This setup is quite interesting, because it taps one of the key differences between naturalistic and theistic pictures of the universe. I am even inclined to let the fundamental either-or fallacy slide. Is “mental vs non-mental” a meaningful division? I would say that, under evolution, there is a very gradual slope of distinctions between things that are clearly non-mental (for example, the behaviour of single-celled bacteria) and things that are clearly mental (human behaviour, and that of some other complex organisms).

At one point, Reppert seems to betray a misunderstanding of the point of science:

Nor could one argue that one should be supremely confident that use of the scientific method will result in an accurate understanding of reality. (p 32)

Who ever claimed this for science? Science is not about establishing absolute certainty; it is about finding the most probable answers, having acknowledged the limits of our unaided senses and intuitions. It is about trying to overcome those limits as far as we can, while realizing that those attempts are constrained by our human nature too. This point is, so far as I can tell, tangential to his main argument. But it still bugs me. Scientists are not trying to claim absolute knowledge. That’s what relgious dogmas are for.

I’m afraid I can’t give a judgment beyond this. There are points where Reppert seems to be confusing personal with metaphysical certainty: he can’t see how we could explain somthing naturalistically, therefore we fundamentally cannot do it. (For example, in the section titled Irreducibility of propositional content). But I can’t say. Sorry I can’t give you more – perhaps a philosopher familiar with the essay could wade in here?

Note this response to the idea of ontologically fundamental mental states, by Eliezar Yudkowski.

Another side of the argument from reason is given in the last essay of this section, which I’ll write about soon.

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)

2012/02/13

There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers are likely to soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?

Definition: “religion”

2011/09/24

I’ve been asked for my definition of “religion”. I’ve blogged for some time now without really offering a definition.

Let me offer the normal preface: I do not offer my definition as a prescription, nor lean on my authority as a trained linguist (can you believe I have a doctorate now?) to suggest that others ought to conform to my opinion here. I’m simply trying to clarify how I tend to use the term, in hopes that this will help people better understand what I write on this blog. See here for a friend’s much more eloquent summary of the linguist’s standard attitude to prescriptivism.

So here goes…

A religion is a system of thought or belief that includes some supernatural, transcendent entity or phenomenon.

Now, what would count as a religion under this definition?

  • Certainly, any belief in a god or gods – orthodox forms Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Paganism – is a religion.
  • And not just organized religions: any belief in a god or gods, even if it’s outside the scope of any particular organized religion, is a religious belief. This includes deism, the belief in an impersonal creator-god.
  • It is possible to believe in an afterlife without believing in a god; for me, this too falls under the umbrella of “religion”.
  • Similarly for belief in karma, fate, etc: they are transcendent and supernatural, and so they are religious.

What doesn’t count as a religion, by my definition?

  • Atheism and humanism are not religious systems; the one specifically excludes the supernatural, the other is simply defined without reference to religious elements.
  • Other systems that exhibit social elements analogous to organized religion – sport fandom, the adulation of celebrities, some flavours of patriotism – are not religions. (Though, of course, I reserve the right to use the term “religious”, as any other term, metaphorically when talking about such phenomena.)
  • Science is not a religion. It saddens me to have to even mention this, but there are those who would lump science in with religions.
  • Ethical systems are not religious, except where they invoke supernatural justifications (God-the-Lawgiver, or supernatural versions of karma, the threefold law etc). It is here that I would say Unitarian Universalism, as an overall movement, is not religious. The organizing principles of Unitarianism are non-religious ethical precepts, not specific supernatural beliefs.
  • Superstition, astrology, and other (non-supernatural) instances of human credulity are not religious. The whole “alternative medicine” scam is not (in general) religious.
I think this definition broadly agrees with the common usage of the term. I also think the term “religion”, and affiliated terms like “religious” or “spiritual”, are messy things.

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