Archive for July, 2011



The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*

There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.

Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.

Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.

But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.

Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.

British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.

To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – NewtonHume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.

If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.

Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.

I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that,  “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.


* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.


Contending with the multiverse


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

At home in the multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

Sinclair sets his sights on the multiverse, one of the leading contenders for a sound naturalistic explanation of apparent fine-tuning. I will pick out some highlights.

First, let me say that the fine-tuning argument – the latest and least ambitious incarnation of the ancient argument from design – has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument for the existence of a god. But, having read accounts of it from both sides, I’ve come to feel that its strength lies mainly in our anthropocentric biases rather than any logical superiority it possesses. (See Luke Muehlhauser’s discussion of Fine Tuning at Common Sense Atheism.)

Sinclair also commits some curious blunders. For example, he says that science flatly rejects gods as impossible. Certainly, few modern scientists consider gods as possible explanations. But that is largely because they’ve learned the lessons of history. Early scientists (such as the ancient Greeks, Newton, and Darwin in his youth) did believe – at least in some deistic lawgiver, if not a full-on personal god. But those beliefs got them nowhere in terms of explanation, so modern science tends to skepticism about the usefulness of gods as explanations. Also, look at Dawkins. Sure, he rejects the god hypothesis, but he does so only after evaluating it within a scientific framework. There are scientists, even atheistic ones, who assert that god is outside their purview, but that is not a universal belief among scientists.

As another example, I will share an interesting passage that presents a multiverse version of the ontological argument.

Jay Richards asks us to consider another refutation of an atheist Many Worlds: Christian Alvin Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument. In the strong version of the SAP, all possible worlds are considered actual. But if this is so, then if it is even remotely possible that God (the necessary being) has reality (i.e., He is in one possible world), then this necessity implies He must be present in all possible worlds. In essence, an atheistic attempt to produce a necessary universe produces God-as-computer-virus which propagates to “infect” every world! As Richards states, “Such can be the penalty for toying with notions such as possibility, necessity, and infinite sets.” (pages 22-23)*

This argument suffers not only from the linguistic defect of Anselm’s original ontological argument; it also commits a fatal equivocation. Anselm’s key error was to treat “existence” as the same sort of property as “redness”. That error is repeated here. The equivocation in the multiverse version above has to do with whether the god exists separately for separate universes, or exists transcendently, a single presence spanning them all. On the one hand, if the god’s existence in universe A is a different question from the god’s existence in universe B, then it is true that the probability of the god existing in some universe increases as the number of universes increases. On the other hand, if the god is equally present across all the universes by definition, then the probability of its existing is unaffected by contingent details like the number of universes. The above argument switches definitions at a crucial point. In a more valid form, the argument can give you either a probably-existing contingent god in a small subset of universes, or a very unlikely god that is present across all universes.

In truth, I don’t know if a multiverse approach is worth pursuing. I don’t know if it solves the apparent problem of fine-tuning. But then, after reading Luke Muehlhauser’s thoughts on the issue, I’m not convinced that fine tuning is a legitimate “problem” for naturalism that requires a solution.

At any rate, I don’t see that this essay gives any reason to shift my beliefs.


* Sinclair references this online paper by Richards as the source of this argument.

Candy evangelism


I do not worry too much about my kids and religion. I suspect that, if you give kids a good grounding in thinking for themselves, then they are unlikely to gravitate to religious belief. And if they do become religious, it’s less likely to be a toxic, anti-science, anti-equal rights, us-vs-them type of religion.

But there are some things that are off-limits. Basically, any kind of emotional blackmail, fearmongering, or bribery is unacceptable. That means threatening hell, promising heaven, that sort of thing. I know you may believe in these things very sincerely, but you are not entitled to scare my child into believing as you do. Period.*

What I would not have expected, but find equally repugnant, is what this group did, not far from where I grew up. Members of a Christian church in Edmonton approached a 9-year-old in a playground, offering her candy and religious quotes (with promises of more candy in the future).

It’s creepy and disturbing without the religion bit, and it’s just as creepy and disturbing with religion. Don’t do this, people. The kid may or may not be creeped out; their parents are more likely to be (whether or not they’re religious). If the kid is creeped out, your proselytizing has backfired (and you’ve made it more likely the kid will want to stay away from all religion in the future). If the kid’s parents are creeped out, you have at best turned a whole family a little further away from your message. At worst, you’ll get bad publicity that will make a whole community less receptive to your message.

How did the church in this case defend their actions? They say that they believed they had the okay from the city to do this.

Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like the people who argue that guys in elevators should be allowed to hit on lone women in elevators at 4am?**

Short answer: yes, it should be allowed by law, but it’s creepy, and it’s going to backfire (ie, you won’t achieve your goal – a woman in your bed or another soul in your flock). An appropriate response by the person being solicited (the woman in the elevator, or the kid’s parent on the playground) is to publicly criticise the act, and raise awareness in the community at large as to why this is not a behaviour we want to encourage.

I suspect that this particular type of incident – using candy to entice children without okaying it with the parents first – is rare. But it may be worth pointing out to the more evangelical folks out there (do I have evangelical folks reading this blog? If so, welcome!) that, from my perspective, evangelizing my kids with promises of heaven or threats of hell is just like evangelizing them with promises of candy, and for the same reasons. Only more so, because heaven and hell speak to even deeper hopes/fears than candy, and so are more powerful emotional manipulators.

(Thanks to PZ Myers for bringing the candy evangelism story to my attention.)


* I’m happy to say that almost all of the family and friends that will be in a position to influence our children much are well over on the atheist/agnostic/liberal religion end of the spectrum, so I don’t really worry about the issue of religious blackmail or bribery coming up. But I know it happens.

** I would love to produce an eloquent and persuasive post on the whole “Elevatorgate” palaver. But frankly, it’s an open-and-shut case for me. Of course there shouldn’t be a law against guys creeping women out, but of course it is reasonable to ask them not to do it anyway. If you want a more thoughtful, extensive discussion, read this, thisthis, this, or this. Follow the links in them. Think about it.

Contending with Dawkins (1)


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

Dawkins’s Delusion by William Lane Craig.

In the first essay, William Lane Craig outlines what appears to be Dawkins’ main argument against belief in god from The God Delusion. Here is the structure, as Craig presents it:

  1. There is an appearance of design in the universe.
  2. A designer is one way to try to explain the appearance of design.
  3. Positing a designer raises the question of who designed the designer.
  4. The best explanation we have for the emergence of complex things is evolution by natural selection.
  5. We have no equivalent explanation for physics.
  6. We should maintain hope that such an explanation may turn up.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Craig correctly points out that this is a crashingly bad argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises, and point 3 in particular seems to raise the spectre of an infinite regress of explanations. But is this a fair assessment of Dawkins’ argument?

No. It ignores the very important aspect of explanations that they be simplifying. That is, you have a simpler account of things after adopting the explanation than you had before. Dawkins harps on about this rather a lot in his book. Craig may not agree that simplicity is a key virtue of a successful explanation, or that a creator god fails the simplicity test; but he really should acknowledge that this is part of Dawkins’ argument. This answers, I think, the problem of the infinite regress of explanations. What I read Dawkins as meaning is that, if your explanation fails to simplify things, then the only reason we would have to adopt your explanation if, behind it, there isanother explanation that does simplify things.

Now, I realize that this may be me projecting rather than successfully reading Dawkins’ original intent. But that doesn’t really matter. The point here is not an atheist apologetic (“What is the true meaning of the text?”) but an attempt to get the best understanding of reality. So here is my reformulation of Craig’s version of the argument.

  1. The universe exhibits the appearance of design.
  2. A designer is one purported explanation of the appearance of design.
  3. Generally speaking, appeals to a designer fail as explanations because:
    1. they fail to systematically predict actual observed phenomena and rule out phenomena we do not observe, and
    2. they fail the test of simplicity, relative to naturalistic alternative explanations.
  4. In the past, comparable design arguments have been countered by the very powerful and well-evidenced theory of evolution by natural selection.
  5. Although not yet as evidentially-supported as evolution, naturalistic explanations of the appearance of fine-tuning – such as the multiverse – are available and being explored.
  6. We therefore have good grounds for optimism that naturalistic explanations will prove more empirically successful than theistic explanations for the appearance of fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, we should prefer the more parsimonious no-god hypothesis until substantial contrary evidence arises.

I know, it is not watertight. Nor is it a deductive argument. Like any scientific argument, it is inductive – seeking the most likely explanation of the observations available.

And despite my disclaimer, I do think that it is closer than Craig’s version to the actual arguments presented by Dawkins. (But again, I don’t want to pretend that my goal is to faithfully parrot Dawkins; please don’t attribute any of my errors to Dawkins. If you want to know what Dawkins says, read Dawkins.)

So much for the first essay in the series.

Contending with Christianity’s Critics


This post introduces the fourth book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Contending with Christianity's Critics

Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

  • ISBN: 978-0805449365; ISBN10: ; B&H Academic; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

Edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig

This book contains a collection of essays by various apologists, responding to various criticisms of Christian belief.

The previous apologetic book in the series began with high ambitions and a promising premise. In this book, our expectations were set low from the opening paragraph. The editors begin their introduction by pointing out that the recent popular “New Atheist” books are less philosophically and historically solid than much of atheist philosophy, previously and currently. It is these New Atheist books that the current volume aims at.

I can understand the desire to counter the more prominent voices, rather than the stronger ones. And I am sure that, aside from Deena and me (and the others who have accepted Luke’s challenge), very few atheists will be reading this book. It is aimed at other believers and apologists, not at atheists. Nevertheless, the admission that this book aims philosophically low disappointed us.

On the other hand, we looked forward to at least one essay in this volume: Daniel Wallace’s piece critiquing Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament as a record of historical events. I mentioned in my review of Ehrman’s book that I would like to see what arguments are raised against it, because I am unqualified and not strongly motivated to see for myself any errors he commits. Perhaps this essay would help balance my impression?

Anyway, this is a book of essays, so I will review them individually (for the most part). I will maintain a list of links here pointing forward to the reviews as they go up:

Part 1: The Existence of God

1. Dawkins’s Delusion, by William Lane Craig

2. At Home in the Multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

3. Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor Reppert

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

5. The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism, by Mark D. Linville

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

Part 2: The Jesus of History (single review for whole section)

7. Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity, by Robert H. Stein

8. Jesus the Seer, by Ben Witherington III

9. The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line, by Gary R. Habermas

10. How Scholars Fabricate Jesus, by Craig A. Evans

11. How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? by Daniel B. Wallace

12. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? by Michael J. Wilkins

Part 3: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

13. The Coherence of Theism, by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty

14. Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One, by Paul Copan

15. Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation, by Paul Copan

16. Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution, by Steve L. Porter

17. Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way, by Stewart Goetz

18. What Does God Know? The Problems of Open Theism, by David P. Hunt

(I will also provide a summary of the volume at the end.)

Day against stoning


To my shame, I am only picking up on this because of a fortuitous mention in another blog (Pharyngula).

Today is an International Day of Action against stoning. This barbaric ancient practice of killing someone by throwing rocks at them is still active in some parts of the world.

But some brave people and organizations are trying to eradicate the practice. Check out the International Committee Against Stoning. Find out who you can contact to add your voice.

Spend a few minutes to help bring a measure of justice to people you may never meet.

50 reasons people give for believing in a god


50 reasons people give for believing in a godThis post introduces the third book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

50 reasons people give for believing in a god. ISBN: 978-1-59102-567-2; Prometheus Books; Pages: 330; [Amazon]

by Guy P. Harrison

In the introduction, Harrison says, “This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods.” So believers are free to simply read his responses as “Here’s why I don’t find your reasons for belief persuasive,” rather than, “Here’s why you have no justification for your beliefs!” By the same token, non-believers cannot pretend that Harrison’s responses to the 50 reasons are anything close to disproofs of gods’ existence.

So, as an entry in this Truth-Seeker’s challenge, this book may seem a little irrelevant. I can imagine a believer reading it with the same impatience I had reading Letters to Doubting Thomas. Many of the points it puts forward for atheism are answerable by more sophisticated apologetics.

But I think such a response may fail to see the value (and purpose) of the book. Remember Harrison’s disclaimer. He’s not out to soundly disprove the best philosophical defenses of theism. He’s interested in responding, as a regular atheist, to the reasons regular believers give for their belief.

Harrison draws on extensive travel, not only to spice his book with interesting anecdotes from around the world, but to demonstrate that he’s not just setting up convenient straw men to tackle. He really is responding to the reasons most people give for believing. If I, as an atheist, do not understand these reasons and have a quick reply ready, I am unlikely to influence anyone’s belief. And if you, a believer, have not seen the casual atheist reply to some of these claims, you are unlikely to influence atheists’ beliefs. For both of us, seeing these in-the-trenches arguments, presented respectfully and succinctly, may help avoid a certain amount of talking past each other. They may help us see more clearly where the points of difference lie.

I think that, for a challenge that is aimed at non-philosophers, this book maps out some of the important philosophical foothills that we’d need to navigate before we try to tackle the more rarefied heights addressed (I hope) in the remaining books (all of which are written or contain contributions by professional philosophers).

To sum up, this book does not directly tackle the question at the heart of the challenge: “Which belief is most reasonable?”

But to the question “Do people generally believe in gods for good reasons?” then this book makes a good case for the answer “No”. This seems to be Harrison’s project – he is not pretending to be a philosopher. For that reason, and because of the entertaining presentation and many anecdotes from Harrison’s extensive travels, I’m glad we’ve read this book, and glad to have it on my shelf for future reference.


I’m a junkie


I’ve discovered a drug. A wonderful, happy-making, pain-soothing drug. And I’m hooked.

This morning I got up and, before anyone else was awake, slipped out of the house to get myself a hit. When I came back, Deena and Kaia were up. Deena could see on my face that I’d been out getting high. She knew the look. She’s the one that got me hooked in the first place.

She was proud of me.

I was proud too.

You see, I’ve taken up running. And when you run, along with the sweat, the encroaching feeling of heaviness, the mind-fogging weariness that creeps over you, there is a payoff.

The body gives you the gift of endorphins.

Let me tell you, it’s awesome.

It’s powerful.

It’s more than a little bit habit-forming.

Just over a month after I went for my first run with Deena, I find myself eager to go out for more. Even though we’re in the middle of a hot, humid Boston summer. (Hence the early morning run, when the temperature is moderately bearable.) Even though I’m not getting quite enough sleep (two young kids and all). Even though I have all the excuses I’ve always had not to spend time on exercise.

I am almost up to five kilometres in one go – long enough to enter a proper run. My goal by the end of the summer is 10k, and at the current rate I’ll get there no problem.

Now, I hear you thinking that maybe it’s not this endogenous drug cocktail my body is dosing me with. Maybe I’m simply high on life. Maybe I’m elated at the sense of personal accomplishment.

To which I say yes, of course. I am an animal, and my subjective experiences are built from complex interactions of hormones, neurotransmitters, synaptic potentials, and other things that I (a non-biologist) don’t really understand. Stupendous!

The subjective experience is captivating, compelling, even addictive. By extension, the biological processes supporting it are pretty nifty too. (Anyone know of a good popular-level book on the science and physiology of running? Or of exercise more generally?)

And now, I’m beginning to wonder if running endorphins are some sort of gateway drug. I’ve been getting this odd urge to try out weight training too. I’m starting with push-ups, but who knows where this spiralling behaviour will lead?

(By the way, can anyone suggest any late-summer or autumn 5k or 10k runs in the Boston area that I could set my sights on?)

Letters to Doubting Thomas


This post introduces the secondLetters to Doubting Thomas book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I undertook last year.

Letters to Doubting Thomas. ISBN13: 9780195308150 ISBN10: 0195308158; [Amazon]

by C. Stephen Layman

It is difficult to sum up my very mixed reactions to this book in the space of a single blog post.

Layman’s book claims two excellent ideas as its organizing principles: it is written as a dialogue; and it is an argument to the best explanation.

Dialogues have a long and distinguished history in philosophy, and I looked forward to seeing this format applied to such an interesting topic. And, to the extent that an argument to the best explanation adheres to the rules of its big brother, probability theory, it represents one of the most reliable ways of deriving new beliefs from existing knowledge.

So I dared to hope that here, at last, was a book that might embody that ideal of an accessible, balanced approach to the perennially muddy question of the existence of a god.

Alas, no.

In terms of the dialogue – the back-and-forth between characters on either side of this debate – Layman falls flat. His characters are a theist philosopher (understandably, someone much like Layman himself), and an atheist layman (named Thomas, of course). Sadly, the arguments reflect the characters’ unbalanced backgrounds. The theist character draws on modern scholarship; the atheist cites Freud and Nietzsche. The theist is confident and verbose in defense of his intuitions. The atheist rolls over and accepts the most absurd assertions – such as:

The Principle of Credulity (p45): Accept what experience suggests unless special reasons apply. (p43)

It was not a robust back and forth between equals; it was a teacher-student exchange. I don’t mind that the characters end up agreeing in favour of theism; what bugs me is that only the most superficial straw-man version of naturalism is given time in the book.

In terms of the positive case that Layman tries to build for theism through the book …

Let’s begin with the “principles” that he offers early on – principles which seem custom-made to elevate human bias and wishful thinking above the objective, dispassionate weighing of evidence. In addition to The Principle of Credulity above, he offers these gems:

The Starting Principle (p45): Accept what seems to be so unless special reasons apply.

The Principle of Testimony (p49): Accept what others tell us unless special reasons apply.

Clearly, these principles make life easier. Instead of questioning everything, we can simply accept things at face value. Most of us live by such principles most of the time. But of course, they stand directly in the way of advancing knowledge – of learning new stuff, and correcting old errors.

Or, put another way, centuries of scientific investigation have taught us that special reasons very often apply. Our experiences can be misleading; our intuitions about “what is so” are often crashingly wrong;and the testimony of others is confounded by such a host of conscious and unconscious biases that uncritical acceptance of another’s report can be downright irresponsible.

Let me offer a couple of highlights. One is the theist’s assertion (which receives only token resistance from the naturalist character) that libertarian free will obviously exists. Because Layman offers nothing more than his gut feeling that his is true, I am content for now to counter it with nothing more than my own gut feeling that it is false.

Another is Layman’s suggestion that naturalists have a problem grounding the concept of “evil”. He even has the temerity to claim that this problem negates theism’s disadvantage due to the theistic problem of evil.

It was difficult to finish this book. It became clear early on that Layman wasn’t really interested in pitting the best theistic philosophy against the best naturalist alternative. He was content to conjure up a straw man out of his own imagination, or perhaps from randomly selected Internet chatrooms discussing religion.

Deena and I were left hoping that the next apologetic book in this series will contain a bit more bite.

But I’ve also had the germ of an intriguing idea: maybe I could do some part of what Layman so completely failed to do. Maybe I could construct a probabilistic comparison of the theism and naturalism. A proper comparison. Involving, you know, actual numbers, instead of the vague statements offered by Layman.

Given the subjective nature of many of the concepts involved, anything I came out with would, like the famous Drake equation, certainly not be a definitive or persuasive argument. But it would be an interesting exercise in probability theory. Also like the Drake equation, it might be a useful spur to further refinement and improvement, with the hope of eventually producing a more robust calculation.

I’ll get to work on it, and let you know what I come up with.

In sum, I can’t say this book was a total loss. It has inspired me to learn more about probability. It also gives an interesting, if not terribly impressive, initial idea of what passes for philosophy in religious circles.

Next up, stay tuned for Guy Harrison’s fast-paced romp through popular reasons for believing in gods …