Archive for August, 2009

Competing religious liberties


This is further to a post from a few weeks back about a petition to expand religious freedom regarding civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships are the closest thing same-sex couples in the UK have to marriage. Religious organizations are not allowed to perform civil partnerships in the UK. Several religious communities, including the Unitarians that I heard it through, would like to perform these ceremonies, and feel that it is an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of conscience not to allow them to do so. I completely agree, and support them in their effort to reform the law.

Some weeks later, I was chatting with a conservative Christian friend of mine, and this topic came up. I thought this was a straightforward issue – nobody could reasonably oppose the petition, even if they didn’t want to support it.

My friend put an interesting argument for the other side, though. She said that, if religious groups are allowed to perform these ceremonies, equality legislation regarding the provision of services to people regardless of sexual orientation might lead to churches being forced to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Otherwise, they’d be up for human-rights violations for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This, she said, would unfairly impose on their freedom of conscience.

I actually agree – such an eventuality would be unjust in much the same way that the current situation is unjust: it would prevent people from exercising their freedom of conscience.

Now, the obvious (not just to me) solution to the whole mess is to separate state marriage from church marriage entirely. If you want government recognition of your marriage, you would register it at a government office. No church ceremony would have any legal weight, and therefore churches could be put under no obligation to perform services that their consciences object to. Her church would be safe from discrimination. The Unitarians and other liberal churches would be free to treat same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions. Everybody would be happy.

But of course, the complete disentangling of church and state, especially in Britain, especially for marriage, would be a difficult task. (A worthy task, I think, but a difficult one.)

So we seem to be left with the choice about whose freedom of conscience to protect – the liberals’ or the conservatives’? (Put more personally, is it my freedom of conscience, or my friend’s, that gets violated?)

But that’s not really the choice before us. It’s a choice between a real and present restriction on the liberal churches’ freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical and avoidable restriction on the conservative churches’ freedom on the other. The liberal churches are currently currently unable to treat same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples, and this deeply offends their moral sensibilities. The conservative churches are not forced to do anything. The only way they would be is if legislators made the law more equal without including protection for freedom of conscience. I seriously doubt that they would overlook such a detail, given the undeniably strong political force wielded by the religious lobby. Not only that, but many others (such as me) would object to conservative churches being forced to marry couples they don’t want to – be they of the same-sex, of different religions, of different races – whatever.

So again, I’m back to my original position. The ideal solution would be to keep church ceremonies completely separate from state-recognized marriage. This isn’t a radical idea – even Mexico, with a largely religious population, does it. In Britain, the solution more likely to be worked out in the short term is to remove the prohibition on churches performing same-sex marriages, while maintaining the important freedom of conscience that would allow conservative churches to continue discriminating in this area.


Does Blanchard understand evolution? (2 of 5)


This is the second part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of the theory of evolution. If you missed it, you may want to read the introductory post first.

In order to keep this post as short as possible, I provide links from this post to two of the most accessible and useful online sources of information on evolution: Wikipedia and the Talk Origins Archive. Links to the Talk Origins pages use a small (TO). All other links in this section are to Wikipedia articles. Please follow them for substantiation of my claims.

The scientific consensus on the basics of evolution is sound. It is based on mountains of empirical evidence, including molecular (genetic) evidence, comparative physiology and geographical distributions, and fossil evidence.

Even so, some people – particularly members of certain religious groups – remain unpersuaded. Blanchard is one of those people.

At one level, the existence of a god is a completely separate question from the manner in which life has developed over Earth’s history. So for someone to raise the topic of evolution in an argument against atheism means one of two things: either they believe in a conception of a god that conflicts with the physical evidence on which evolutionary theory is based, or they have an impression of the theory of evolution as something other than what it actually is. Or both.

It’s clear early on that Blanchard is guilty of at least the second error:

No longer limited to biology, evolution has become a total philosophy which claims to explain the origin and development of everything within a closed universe, and thereby to rule out the existence of God. (p83)

No, no, and no.

No, the theory of biological evolution that got its start with Darwin and Wallace has not become a philosophy, nor come to encompass other disciplines. It remains a theory about how species change over time. Other uses of the term evolution in science include chemical evolution (abiogenesis) (TO), stellar evolution, and galaxy formation and evolution. These are separate topics; the evidence supporting them is largely separate from the evidence supporting (biological) evolution.

No, none of these theories, either individually or taken together, explains the origin and development of everything. That is one of the goals of science, but no credible scientist claims to have achieved it yet.

And no, sciences do not rule out the existence of God (TO). They may, in their progress, disprove (or cast reasonable doubt on) certain claims made by humans on behalf of God – such as a geocentric universe, a young Earth, separate creation of similar species, and so forth. And of course, people can extrapolate beyond the science. Dawkins points out that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” because it revealed an alternative to the argument from design.

Blanchard goes on to present misleading arguments that are tiresomely familiar to those who care to learn about evolution.

For example, he describes Piltdown Man (TO) and Nebraska Man (TO) – famous hoax fossils. He plays down the fact that it was scientists, judging the evidence in light of evolutionary theory, who established them as hoaxes. With these and other examples, Blanchard declares that the fossil evidence is not enough to establish common descent.

I suspect he’s wrong, but whether he is or not, there’s a far more obvious flaw in his reasoning.

He’s implying that fossils are the crucial evidence for evolution. They aren’t. They never have been. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin focused on morphological patterns of relatedness and geographical distribution in modern species and genera (see here and here) – patterns which remain unexplained except in the light of common descent. Modern biologists spend much of their time with molecules: the genetic code confirms patterns of descent predicted by Darwin’s earlier methods.

Fossils are wonderful. They invariably support an evolutionary explanation of species development. And, in showing what animals (and occasionally plants) actually looked like, they satisfy human desires for a physical manifestation of the past. But organisms only fossilize under particular, rare conditions (TO). So we expect “gaps”. Even Darwin was aware of them, and (correctly) didn’t feel they undermined his argument. Fossils neither make nor break evolutionary theory; they simply support it.

In summary, Blanchard colossally fails to demonstrate a basic knowledge of why evolution is accepted by biologists. Without that knowledge, he has no hope of persuading a moderately-informed audience that there are deep flaws in evolutionary theory.

So far, he’s failing to engage this atheist; he’s just making me seriously doubt the rigour of his research.

Next up: Does Blanchard understand humanism?

Roleplay to a cleaner house


If everyone in your household already enjoys cleaning, this post isn’t for you. If you never have problems getting the chores done, then feel free to stop reading now.

Deena and I have just discovered a new way to keep track of chores and have fun doing them. It’s called Chore Wars, and it’s awesome. You register (for free) on the site, start up an adventuring party (your team), and decide what chores will merit rewards. When you complete a task, you claim it on the site. According to the FAQ,

Experience points are tracked both as weekly high-score charts, and as ongoing character sheets – every time you rack up 200XP of chores, your character gains a “level”, and their class changes to match the type of chores that they’ve been doing.

Think of it as a kind of Mary Poppins “spoonful of sugar” for people who are mostly grown up and enjoy roleplaying.

We’ve only just started, and we’re already having a blast. Deena’s almost ready to level up already. I’m only halfway there, but I have some dirty dishes waiting to help me catch up as soon as I post this.

I don’t expect we’ll end up like this, though I know some who might use it this way:
There are some promising testimonials on the site. We’ll have to wait and see how well it works out for us. But it has all the right elements. It’s fun (we love roleplaying); it’s practical (it doesn’t take much effort to do); it’s free.

So, if you like games, and if you’d like to try motivating yourself to do more housework, give Chore Wars a try.

[Edit: Just figured out how to do this – here’s an image of my character (updated regularly).]

My Chore Wars character

New blogger


Anyone remember the last count of blogs that have come out of our little Edinburgh student humanist group?

Well, there’s (at least) one new one now, so here’s my previous list, presented yet again for your reading pleasure:

Also, in my last roundup I had missed this one:

And now, presenting

This promises to be yet another active and interesting take on the world from a humanist perspective. From what I know of the author, we are bound to see things there that I don’t touch.

If anyone knows of any others, please let me know in the comments and I’ll augment this post accordingly.