Friday, 23 November 2012

Faith Vs. Science

Science and rational thought erodes faith.

I need to be clear here, it is not the scientists that erode faith, but science itself, because faith claims never stand up to independent tests. Religious faith and science are simply incompatible, and while people may choose faith over science, nobody develops vaccines by faith, prayer does not create new cancer drugs, and the quantum physics that makes modern electronics possible was not found in a holy book.

People can argue non-overlapping magisteria till the cows come home but they have already relegated religion to a combination of metaphor parable and personal revelation. While comforting, personal revelation is just that, personal, it will never be a compelling argument for the masses. metaphor and parable suffer similar inadequacies.

In short, any attempt to combine current science and true rationality with religion, removes the absolute nature of gods word. It becomes an idea that can be compared and evaluated against other (more useful) ideas.

So we have a population whose fundamental beliefs are under threat, not a directed intentional threat (although some anti-theists may have that intent) but a threat that is intrinsic in science to all unsupported, contradictory, unprovable, or generally untrue claims.

When people feel threatened, they run, hide, or attack. Anyone looking at the creationist movement flowing out of America or the fundamentalist Islamic teachings flowing out of the middle east can see all these strategies in combination.

The so called "War of Faith" has started as religionists fight to defend their beliefs. The problem is that in order to defend their beliefs they must hide from and attack science and rationality.

Rationality has been the cornerstone of human society and progress, the so called "dark ages" began when the philosophies of the ancient greeks and the east were removed from western europe in favor of a single bible in latin read and dispensed only by the anointed. That same dark age broke with the enlightenment as we re-discovered the philosophies and rationality that had been buried in the past.

We have seen what happens when rationality is denied in favor of dogma.

But rationality and logic are not enough, because they are entirely conceptual. They must be checked against reality, assumptions verified, conclusions confirmed and results shared and replicated to eliminate bias or dishonesty. This is the role of science.

Science is useful, it tells us which plants grow best in which environments. Science lets us know how much a drug is good, and how much is harmful. Science tells us if the faith healer is really pulling out cancer from a persons stomach without breaking the skin or if the bowl is full of chicken giblets and pigs blood.

But science, like justice, is blind, it has no intention, it has no agenda, the weight of evidence determines which direction the needle will point. So science when pointed at the age of the earth disagrees with the bible and religious texts. Science tells us that mankind evolved and shares a genetic heritage with all life on this planet. Science tells us that there was no global flood, Science tells us the that the creation stories of the bible are not supported by the evidence.

Science is not being mean or agressive, it judges these claims on evidence, not on the source of the claims. Science does not know or care that they came from the bible or any other holy book. It cares only if the claims are true, if the evidence supports or refutes. Science is the method not the motivation.

Because science tells them things they do not want to hear, people run away. People will proudly proclaim they do not know any science. They will revel in their ignorance and crow about their lack of education. They portray themselves as rejecting an academic elitism, but this is claim is false because more people have better access to science in their education now, than at any time in history.

Science and rationality are not the exclusive realm of any elite. Science and rationality are the great equalisers, they allow a man with little education from a poor family like Michael Faraday to teach himself and become one of the great scientists of his time. This is possible because he could experiment, test and prove his claims to others.

Hiding from or rejecting science has left many people without the ability to assess the veracity of claims for themselves, all these people are able to do it trust to their intuition to tell them fact from fiction.

An example of the failure of intuitively evaluating ideas is our historic understanding of gravity. The accepted intuitive belief for thousands of years was that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. This reasoning is so "intuitive" that people can be found who still make the same mistake today.

It took Galileo to prove this was wrong, first in a thought experiment where he proved it rationally then by physical experimentation that could be repeated by others.

The claim that something is intuitively true is basically saying that it "sounds right", "looks right", or fits with our other assumptions but we know it can still be wrong. Stars were intuitively pin holes in the curtain of night, the moon and the sun intuitively circled around the earth. We know these things are wrong. Yet people still want to trust intuition in the face of verifiable fact.

Hiding also means that one can only get new information from trusted sources, this is the idea of information from authority.

In science even people who are considered authorities on particular topics are open to question, claims must be verified, a claim that is consistent with all other knowledge may have more weight initially but it still requires verification.

In religion information flows from trusted authority, from the bible, from a preacher, from god.

This leads to the assumption by religious people that science works the same way. Religious people without any understanding of science claim darwinism is a religion, or assume that people take the works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as gospels.

And they look shocked and disbelieving when you attempt to correct this assumption.

Much of Darwins work has been revised, the concept remains constant but the details have changed incredibly. Newtons works are used even today, and it would be possible with nothing more than newtonian laws to navigate our solar system with amazing accuracy. But newtons ideas of gravity and time have bee almost completely superseded.

Einsteins ideas were being dismantled even during his own lifetime, and lived long enough to see new models for the nature of the universe evolve in quantum physics. Today we know these models are not perfect and the search is on for what physicists call the unified theory.

As a matter of convenience scientists give each other a certain level of trust, but the right to check and challenge is always there. Nothing in science exists purely because an authority has decreed it so. And in fact one only has to look at Darwins work to see that many of the greatest leaps of science suffered the greatest critical analysis because they challenged the standing knowledge of the day.

In fact the controversy of new scientific ideas is being exploited by religionists.

The attacks on science are best seen in the creationist movement in the US which constantly produces "scientific papers" to support their positions, they cherry pick and misinterpret evidence in their favor.

When religious supporters are unable to get their papers published and peer reviewed by real scientists they claim discrimination, then they create their own peer review panels and journals in order to give the appearance of respectability to their flawed work.

The failure of their claims to pass scientific rigor, the failure to be reproducible, the failure of them to find new evidence that has not already been debunked, discarded and disproved is the worst kind of dishonestly.

Religion fights dirty when it attacks too, It uses its position of trust to spread inaccuracies to those whose faith blinds them to critically evaluating information from such a source. Christians are told there is evidence for Noah and the great flood, islamists are told that all science flows from the Qur'an. Both groups will routinely claim that Hitler was an atheist, that Darwin had a death bed conversion back to faith, and that man is above all animals because we alone are capable of morality.

All these statements are verifiably false, but they are repeated in debates, they are repeated in halls of worship, they are repeated by church and religious leaders who know the weight their position of authority gives to their claims.

In America the attacks on truth and rationality are worse with people redefining history to support their beliefs. People believe that the country was founded as a christian nation and that the founding fathers were all christian. The nation was founded to escape religious persecution, many of the founding fathers were not christians at all but open deists and Thomas Jefferson even created an edited version of the bible without miracles or any discussion of the devine.

Perhaps most disturbing is that people believe "In god we trust" has always been the US motto and in the pledge of allegiance, but it's only so since 1956 and 1954 respectively both changes within living memory. In fact it was changed only because the McCarthyism of the era decided that the previous de facto motto "E Pluribus Unum" (latin for "out of many: one") sounded too much like an endorsement of communism.

The creationist movement is perhaps the the most guilty of all faiths movement it its perpetuation of actual mistruths. They attack carbon darting, sedimentation, tree rings, ice cores, and anything else that points to the age of the earth older than 10 thousand years.

They deny evolution, demanding to see fossil evidence but refusing to look. They claim a controversy where none exists, and they do so out of christian dogma not scientific evidence.

We come then to the most important question: "What harm is being done?"

The inability of so called "creation science" to explain human genetic diversity has forced the adoption of ideas from the middle ages to explain the existence of people with different skin colours - specifically claiming african people as being descended from Noahs cursed grandson and the colour of their skin marks them as slaves. This argument is not only utterly false scientifically, it is morally reprehensible and repugnant.

Worse still people are actually beginning to mistrust science in general, and I dont mean the general populous but the actual people responsible for making decision in the US government. The people supposedly governing the largest economic and military power int he world today.

When children are taught that evidence does not matter and that all points of view are equally valid regardless of how illogical they are you create a population of people who cannot be trusted to make rational decisions, and whose higher education will suffer in any area that requires critical thinking skills.

Taken to it's logical extreme we have a systems that allows a professor to be sued for refusing to recommend students to study medicine if they deny evolution, one of the basic tenants of biological science required to study in any medical field.

Science is a tool, a method, a safeguard against believing what we want to believe. Religious faith is it's antithesis, faith declares the truth in the face of evidence the contrary. Faith tells us that what we believe is more important, more truthful, and more trustworthy than anything you can test or prove. These two principles are not compatible, religion will fail in the light of rational evaluation unless it takes a step back and presents as a philosophy rather than an explanation of the universe.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Faith Makes Evil Bedfellows

I am a child of the internet, I grew up with the information super high way and was perhaps one of the first generations to do so.

Debates, flame wars, and irrational arguments are part of my heritage.

The thing about a discussion is that you present your views and your arguments and you understand that lies and aggression dont resolve disputes... ever. When people get nasty the debate becomes a war and people will fight it not because they feel they are right but because they think the other side does not deserve to win.

The other day I made a comment on an article on a pro-life website. It was a small comment but it triggered some interesting responses. Specifically the person was of the opinion that "To discuss a moral issue without [the christian] god was [insane]" effectively throwing out any non-theistic argument.

I dont claim this person is representative of the people who read and comment on this type of article... In fact I think the vast majority are much more moderate in their views and would never say that a person who did not believe in Jesus should be banned form a moral debate.

But where were these people?

I comment on blogs often (faith based, secular, and atheistic) and I never see the moderates telling off the radicals on faith based forums. In the secular and atheists forums/comment threads it's different I have seen people pulled up for saying "I hope the burglar gets caught and that he is punished" simply because the person writing it used the masculine pronoun assuming the thief in question was male.

Outside of faith-based discussions people have far less problems calling out someone on their side for making a non-factual or fallacious argument.

I made a comment myself about what should and should not be allowed to be taught to kids in an atheist forum and was pulled up on it by another member, he was right and I changed my stand accordingly.

But on faith discussions I see far less willingness to do so...

Recently in one article on a pro-life website I have seen people in the comments claim that sex outside natural marriage was rape, and that using a condom was murder.

Why is it that the moderates of faith let those statements slide?

I know people who have been raped, for whom the experience was so terrible it still effects them years later. To liken all consensual sex, all love making outside of a christian marriage to that experience is insulting enough to me but those people who have experienced rape, it is a dismissal of all their pain with a single semantic swipe.

In other articles I have seen people claim that no woman ever dies from not receiving an abortion, this discussion just days before a woman in ireland died because they would not performa life saving procedure while there was a foetal heart beat, nor would they abort the foetus even though the child could not be saved. Savita Halappanavar was the victim of a faith based policy that says when the mothers life can only be saved by terminating the child it is better to let them both die.

Again, why is it that the only people calling these people out, the only ones willing to stand up and point out the absurdity of the claim that abortions are never needed to save a mothers life were people who were pro-choice. Did nobody on the pro life side realise that the facts had been distorted to support the claim?

As far as I can see it is because people of faith hold that others are entitled to their beliefs even if it is radicalised and would cost lives, even if it is bigoted, and even if it is manifestly wrong.

Unless of course... those beliefs contradicts the laws of god.

Then it is not a belief to be tolerated, it is immorality, it is evil, or it is "insanity".

It has been said by many people better than me that moderate religious positions create safe harbours for dangerous radicals most of who are fundamentalists or literalists.

I think this is only true because moderates too often fail in their duty to fight the extreme views they do not share. They allow tolerance of different peoples of faith to prevent them from chastising and openly disagreeing with statements and practices that go against their own morals.

They do this simply because they have been raised to think "faith" is a virtue.

It takes a major event like a woman dying after days of agony or a you girl being shot in the face to stimulate people of faith to protect against their bedfellows.

But by then it is too late and the damage has been done.

It is important for anyone engaged in a debate to remain intellectually honest, this means not trading in your ethics and not throwing away your principles in favor of flawed or untruthful arguments. It also means not silently accenting to arguments that you fundamentally disagree with just because it suits your current position.

I dont claim that only people of faith are subject to this particular weakness, it seduces anyone who feels passionate about their position but the when you consider faith a virtue you have a blind spot to the motivations of others who share that faith.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Baby and Bathwater...

The other day I reasoned that Ken Ham was afraid of the implications that the bible might not be totally true. I stand by that.

I also explained why the ten commandments were not the best of moral codes (or even in the top 5 for that matter), and I stand by that.

But I also believe in not throwing out the baby the bathwater.

Someone sent me a link to a video of Ken Ham saying that if the bible was wrong on astronomy, geology and biology then why should he trust what is says about morality and salvation.

A: Because they are separate claims made from separate positions.

I'm far from the first person to point out that not all the morality in the bible is good, infinite punishment for finite crimes is just one of the many things I dont agree with, but just because the book has many errors, does not mean it cannot also contain truths.

Kan Ham's desperation to defend the bible as absolute truth flows from his fundamental error in thinking:
"If it's partially wrong then it must be entirely wrong"

When all you can really say is:

"If it's partially wrong then it might be entirely wrong"

And while, as I said, the ten commandments are far from perfect, I dont think "thou shalt not kill" is wrong just because I dont agree with "thou shalt have no other gods before me".

Kens thinking seems to be stuck in all or nothing mode. It''s all right or it's all wrong.

I am worried that other creationists share his point of view, they seem to think that by accepting that one part of the bible may not be totally true they must throw the rest of it out too... Thus they lose the baby with the bathwater.

I'll be honest and say that I think treating the bible as an interesting book instead of the word of god would be the best possible outcome, but I dont think they need to go that far in one step, and I certainly dont think they need to assume that if the bible is wrong then the oposite of the bible must be right.

Even if the bible got creation wrong, killing is still not a good thing.

Even if mankind evolved from primate forebears, does not mean we should not be tolerant with each other.

Many christians are able to reconcile their faith without believing the bible as entirely literal truth, and many people who believe and understand the current state of science are able to get comfort from the bible without losing their understanding of the world. I dont think that christians fundamentalists can be helped however, as they are looking for a certainty and absolute truth they will not find it in more moderate churches.

But isolating christian fundamentalists will not help either, if any of them are to be saved from a life of fear induced radical misbelief then it will be because they can see another way, because moderates and atheists demonstrate that the world does not collapse or become a dark place when you allow yourself a little human doubt.

It's easy to shut the door on people with radical misguided beliefs, to stand back and assume that they cannot be salvaged. But as humans we need to be there and help them, we need to accept that they may find wisdom in strange places. But most of all, we need to show by example that there is another way that preserves the core ideal of "being good people".

For their part they have to realise that the world is uncomfortably complex, that while the simplest solution is the best the simplest available answer is not always a solution. And that being wrong on one issues does not mean you need to throw out all your values and start from scratch, only that you have to be willing to look at each belief honestly and judge it for what it is.

The Crocoduck Lives...

The other week someone made a joke to me about the crocoduck argument and I found myself wondering if anyone actually found it a compelling argument for faith.

For those who dont know the crocoduck is an anti-evolution argument made by creationists. Basically the argument goes that because there no intermediate species sitting between two different types or "kinds" of animal (like a half crocodile half duck) then there is no proof that evolution could create one species from another.

They refer to changes in species or in "kind" as "macro evolution" and they claim because no such strange half creatures exist that therefore there no evidence of it.

Everytime I encounter the argument all I can think of is the criminally poor education these people had in evolution theory. Did they never see a picture of the tree of life? It's a simple diagram and you dont have to be genius to spot that, like a real tree, the branches dont join up again after they've split.

The fact that this argument exists is a wonderful demonstrations of just how little the people using it actually understand about evolution or science in general... The fact that anyone raised in Australian could use the argument is evidence of a failure to graduate the second grade.

Q: If one species can change into another over time why do we never see anything like a crocoduck?

A: Because ducks did not evolve from crocodiles.

Seriously? How is that not obvious? How does someone who consideres this a valid question get dressed in the morning because I find it hard to beliefe they manage so complex a task on their own...

But birds did evolve from something reptilian, like dinosaurs. That is why the skin on their legs has scales... Why their bones are hollow... Why they lay eggs, and why they develop a tooth to help get out of the egg when they hatch just like reptiles.

Modern species, however, evolved in parallel, which is why it so fundamentally wrong to say that man evolved from chimps (and for the record proponents of evolution have never claimed this). Rather modern species of animals evolved from earlier species: Thus man and chimp evolved from the same ancestor.

But the crocoduck argument keeps getting brought out, like that one malformed example of hand made pottery your friends kid made, the one with no opening at the top and five spouts that doesn't hold water without it spraying out through a thousand tiny little holes. The one they keep trotting out to proudly show you and expecting you to say how wonderful it is without pointing out that it doesn't work and is full of holes.

But we do have proofs of biological shifts, and not just in the fossil records. In australia we have very famous living examples of the state that existed when reptiles started to evolve into mammals...

They are called monotremes (actually that is their taxonomical "order"), they are egg laying mammals and Australia has two types of them.

The first is the echidna, sometimes called the "spiny ant eater" they look a little like hedgehogs and fill a similar niche but are so drastically different in biology that they cannot be related.

The second is the platypus... My favourite because it is so incredible even compared to the crocoduck.

The platypus, has a duck like bill (actually just shaped that way as it's not a beak but is in fact bone covered in soft skin, it's body is covered in fur, males have a poisoned barb making them the only poisonous mammal ever discovered, they hunt for prey in muddy water by detecting the electrical impulses of the muscles of their victims like a shark, and the females not only lay eggs but express milk through the pores of the skin as they have no teats.

When the first examples where returned to europe, they were claimed to be a hoax... After all God would never make such a strange animal, would he?

Monotremes stands as a testament to the path evolution took from egg laying reptiles to warm blooded live birth mammals. They are not fossils, they are surviving forms and they survived exactly where evolution said they should survive, in those places in the world where conditions did not change, to favour another species  where no environmental condition forced then to completely evolve away from laying eggs.

The echidna and the platypus are not less evolved that we are, they are the result of just as many (if not more) generations. They have taken just as many years to evolve into what they are today as we have, the only difference is they had less pressure to change, less conditions favouring new variations.

Evolution has no goal, but it is not just random, it is random mutation filtered through "environmental pressures". An animal like the crocodile exists apparently unchanged for millions of years because none of the random changes and mutations that they developed as a species served them any better than the systems they already had. From this we can assume that no fundamental changes to the crocodile would give it consistent advantage or such changes are prevented from occurring by other environmental factors.

This is not hard to understand, change happens in increments, each increment must have some survival value compared to the previous state. That last part is critical and often overlooked, it does not mean that each change is objectively good, only marginally better by comparison to what already was.

The Koala is another australian animal, like most australian fauna it is a marsupial and carries it's children in a pouch, unlike most it's pouch points backwards. As the Koala lives in trees this would seem a very poor "design" indeed, until you realise that the Koala is most closely related to the Wombat. Wombats live on the ground and dig tunnels a backward pouch makes perfect sense for them because it stops dirt getting in when they travel and burrow.

The fossil record shows that koalas evolved from ground dwelling animals like the wombats, the habit of climbing trees and eating leaves is the newest part of their evolution, the backward pouch is a legacy from their ancestors. Why hasn't the pouch changed? it still might but while a ground dwelling animal can afford to drop a baby everyone once in a while while the opening of their pouch migrates over thousands of generations, a tree dweller may suffer more during this change.

The koala may never evolve back to a forward facing pouch because the incremental steps may not be better than the current mode, because evolution has no goals only environmental pressures and compounding changes over time.

Another creationist claim you will hear is that you never see an animal with a vestigial limb. No kidding they will claim that the bones in a whale skeleton that used to be hind legs still serve some purpose.

Again the fauna of australia comes to the rescue, this time with the Emu! The Emu has a vestigial arm, not a wing, an arm. It has no flight feathers, it does have a claw, but it also has no muscles or tendons. These limbs do nothing, can not be moved by the emu, cannot be controlled and serves no purpose what so ever.

These are the examples form my own country but other examples exist in both living examples and in the fossil records.

It's hard to see why or how the crocoduck argument survives. It's been described as an argument from incredulity but I think it's better described as an argument from total lack of education.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Thoughtless Insult

Since I wrote my post on the ten commandments I've had several discussions about atheist morality, what it is, where it comes from, etc.

Whenever two groups discuss morality there is a high potential for offense, but it is surprising to see the level so high in a debate when (in general) both sides share so many common moral values.

So I thought I'd write a post covering some of my thoughts on the claims made about and against atheists when it comes to morality, listed here in ascending order of offense.
  1. Atheists have no morality and think there is no such things as right or wrong
  2. Atheists are moral relativists so anything is permissible if the person thinks it is
  3. Atheists believe in social darwinism
  4. Atheists do know right from wrong because god wrote it on their heart even if they dont believe
I'll be clear that I dont think all people of faith makes these claims, but they commonly arise in one form or another when someone is asked what they value about their faith. Rephrased as "God is the source of all morality" or " faith is what tells us right from wrong" and I have lost count of the number of times Psalm 14 "The fool says in his heart there is no god" gets quoted when an atheist attempts to explain their position.

To the people who repeat these claims they are not necessarily intending to be offensive, but they are. The simple fact that atheists do find these claims offensive should indicate that morality is actually something important to and valued by the vast majority of atheists.

Statements like "Research has consistently found that religious people are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, marital infidelity, alcoholism, unprotected sexual activity. ." are often made without citing any supporting evidence.

In fact it's hard to even find any supporting evidence for this outside of repeated claims and anecdotal collections published by pro-religion groups.

While it's true that atheists/secularists are more likely to engage in underage alcohol use and illegal drugs, actual addiction rates are no different between the atheists and theists. This implies that atheists are at greater risk, yet they do not succumb more. If we proceed from the position that faith is even a factor we have to conclude that it is a negative one that weakens people to temptation... Or we take the much more reasonable view that faith is simply not a factor in alcoholism and addiction despite the claims made to the contrary.

The bulk of the reputable research done on the subject actually points the other way as shown in the 2009 paper "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions" by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College. In the paper Zuckerman refers to and cites quite a few different studies that constitute what academics call a preponderance of evidence in support of the idea that atheists show no indication of being more subject to moral/social ills than theists.

Of course this was not new even in 2009, back in 2005 an article was published in Journal of Religion & Society ( with the catchy title "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" that simply compared level of religious belief in modern democracies with various social ills. It highlighted again that modern democracies with the lowest level of religion have the lowest levels of social problems in almost all regards.

The other claims that atheists are moral relativists or social darwinists are just as offensive to the majority of atheists. Mostly because it is wrong, secular humanism remains the largest identified moral/ethical position held by atheists.

However these claims are also offensive because they are often accompanied by extreme examples actively designed to offend.

I heard one debate in which the pro faith representative explained moral relativism by saying "Imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you... the most horrible, painful event in your life... now imagine the person who committed that crime simply claimed that in his culture it was not considered evil so he had done nothing wrong" - the debater in question also tried to say that this was not an appeal to emotion.

Mostly however the claim of moral relativism is offensive because there are three types of moral relativism and each one of them is reflected by religious apologetics to some extent.

Descriptive Moral Relativism - is simply the observation of the fact  that different cultures have different moral standards - Any person of faith who accepts that other faiths should be allowed to practice their beliefs is agreeing with this premis.

Meta-Ethical Moral Relativism - is the contention that good/bad, right/wrong, dont have a universal truth to them and they depend on the social, historical, cultural, traditional and physical contexts - The common example I see for this is the way in which modern christians separate themselves from the crimes of the old testament and gods wrath with phrase like "well that was a different time and different world..."  

Normative Moral Relativism - goes beyond meta-ethical and claims that we should ought to tolerate the moral views of others whose standards contradict our own - This is the moral relativism used to create harsh examples to attack atheism. Most philosophers point out that you cannot get to an "ought" position from a relativistic premis. In reality one of the easiest to find examples of people following this normative line of reasoning can be seen when moderates tolerate extremists of the same religion.

Tolerance of others requires either hypocrisy or moral relativity in some quantity but most people would not identify with the extreme examples of moral relativity offered by religionists who seek to paint atheists as incapable of moral consistency/integrity.

I must admit I was tempted to totally ignore the claims of social darwinism

I could have done for no other reason than the term itself is mostly used today in a pejorative sense, that is to say if used as a derogatory name, Almost no-body actually identifies as a social darwinist now or in the last twenty years. So it is used almost exclusively by it's detractors at best as an example of a hypothetical or historical philosophical position or at worst (and this makes more sense in the debate over atheist morals) as a straw-man argument.

But if claims are expected to stand on their merits then so must rejections of claims.

Social darwinism can be simply described as an ideology that seeks to apply concepts of darwinian evolution to society. It carries the assumption that conflict and competition for limited resources is the best way to determine which social values are most effective.

The "darwinism" part was added only after Darwin published The Origin Of Species - the idea itself predates darwin. And while Darwin indicated a process by which change occurred he did not ascribe any value other than its suitability to survive in a given set of environmental conditions.

It is clear however that ANY value system applied to a system other than direct survivability precludes the adoption of social darwinism.

Religionists will often support the claim by quoting atheists who have said the universe is uncaring and extend that incorrectly, to assume that atheists are uncaring. Atheists however do not simply adopt the values of the universe.

An atheist knows that a house fire is a physical event that will not distinguish between a rabbit in a cage and baby in a cot, however that does not mean the atheist himself holds no such distinction - In fact the atheist is human and has all the instinctive, cultural, and intellectually generated values that that necessarily entails.

The fact that fire does not discriminate in it's victims demonstrates that the universe does not work to an  absolute moral dictum. The fact that humans do discriminate and value some things more than others indicates that we are able to generate morality in the absence of a an absolute dictum.

The final claim is the most offensive. That atheists get their morality from god.

This neatly filters all evidence to supports their claim. Anything anyone does that is good is so because god wrote it on their hearts, anything they do that is bad, is so because we are fallen or imperfect.

I would not (but do not deny that some atheists do) make the counter claim that any reason you have for not believing in god is rationalism and any reason you have for believing in god is insanity.

Both the religionist claim and the counter claim are circular logic, they are only supported by themselves. In the claim religionists redefine "good" as actions resulting from gods influence and "bad" as actions resulting from the fall of man.  In the (equally unsupported) counter argument "insanity" is defined as belief in god and "rationalism" as the rejection of god.

So neither stament has any logical or evidentiary value.

The claim that all atheist morality comes from god can therefore not be tested or supported and the only valid source for such a statement is revelation. They claim special knowledge that cannot be, by it's nature, shared or proven externally.

The religionists who make this claim are attempting to use an absolutely subjective experience, to justify an absolutely objective claim.

Thats why I think the claim is at worst wrong and at best unusable, but I said the claim it self was offensive.

When I argue with other people I always have to accept that they may be right, that they may, in the course of discussions, introduce a new concept or new evidence to support their position that will change the way I think on a particular matter.

But the claim that atheists are moral because god makes them that way dismisses any personal values I may bring to the table, it lays claim to any good thought, good action, or good intention any atheist exhibits. It is a claim that devalues the atheist and his beliefs, a blind judgement without any recourse or appeal.

This level of arrogance is what I find most offensive, this lack of understanding, and this intellectual dishonesty in entering a debate when no evidence or argument will shift then from their position. These claims are not made directly and personally against any individual atheist, but they are made and apply to any and all people who identify as atheist or subscribe to and atheistic morality.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Ten Commandments

When discussing/challenging a persons belief in christianity especially when the morals of the church come into question, the most common come back is to say something along the lines:

"But what about the ten commandments? don't you agree 
they are a really good basis for a moral life?"


I don't agree.

The ten commandments are a thin and flawed set of rules to live by that falls far short of the precepts of most other systems of ethics (including those around prior to Jesus).

Most of the people who cling to them can't even remember all the ten commandments. When I challenge those who claim to live by them, they are able to list only a few like: "Dont kill, dont steal, dont lie, dont covet... um..."  This is not made any easier by the fact there are several different "official" versions depending on what church you follow. But even so, if it is such a great and simple moral code, why is it so hard to remember?

Because the first four commandments have NOTHING to do with morality... They are all concerned with enforcing religious observance, (I'm using the ten commandment read from the King James Bible because its a very common translation easy to recognise by people who dont read the bible regularly).
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Religious practice and ceremonial dogma - none of that is morality. The fifth commandment is not strictly religious but still entirely about authority:
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
This is not a moral precept, but it is perhaps a worthwhile value if your parents deserve it. However it is hardly something requiring devine inspiration. It is also a one way respect, it does not say that a parent has a responsibility to their child or must treat their child well. And given the many examples of children in the bible being mistreated by parents I would think that this commandments biased nature disqualifies it from being a good moral tenant.

That leaves us with only FIVE commandments that directly relate to how humans deal with other humans on equal terms rather dealing with religion and authority figures.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house [wife, servants, ox, ass, etc].
I will grant that killing, stealing, and being unfaithful are all things that should be included in any moral code.

So this is not a bad start... but it's just a start. For example, killing and harming are two different things, so these laws say you could beat people if you like. Threats and intimidation are still ok in the right circumstances. In fact domestic abuse, rape, child abuse, and slavery are all acceptable under the commandment of "thou shalt not kill".

Outright theft is condemned but not manipulation for gain. The bible, for instance, talks about slavery (even of other followers of god), and says that after 6 years you must set them free... however Exodus 21:4-6 actually includes a loophole, give the slave a wife and let him have children! That way he must leave his family or agree to be your slave forever. Not really theft, blackmail perhaps?

And for all those who say the example is poor because "slavery is wrong", please notice the commandments dont say that. The people who followed the commandments didn't think it either. The commandments failed to prevent it, even for a people who took them far more seriously than most people do now.

Adultery is an interesting one because it is so specific "sex with someone other than your spouse". This gives no guidance against sex outside of a relationship, or other commitment. It also does not include anything about the conditions under which marriage may be established or dissolved. Nothing to stop a young woman being given as bride against her will, nothing allow the dissolution of a marriage if one side becomes abusive.

The truth is that these commandments are pretty poor representations of these ideas, in fact they are all stated much better by the Five Precepts of Buddhism.

Not killing is replaced with not causing harm (to humans and animals), simply not stealing is replaced by not taking what is not given (covering theft but also slavery because the service is taken not given), adultery is broadened to sexual misconduct in general (not too much, no rape, dont cause offense with it, etc) and finally do not lie is replaced with avoiding false speech, which would include unwarranted gossip, and deliberate omissions, promises you intend to break...

So what little the ten commandments do say about morality, they don't say very well.

Of course it's worth pointing out that there is no commandment saying thou shalt not lie... You'll notice that commandment nine only talks about bearing "false witness". It is not a general commandment, they actually went to the trouble of narrowing it down to a specific case of law and left other lies un guarded. Although elsewhere in the bible this is corrected, you again would think a commandment from god would be a little clearer.

So we come to commandment ten. This is not an ethical or moral value, it's a thought crime. This commandment is all about suppressing the "yearn to possess what others may have", lets be generous and call it a commandment against jealousy. But it does not censure any action, only the desire. This is telling you what not to want. Do not desire what others have.


Thinking about what others have or at least what you do not have, has been one of the driving forces behind our development as a species, a culture, and as individuals. My desire to learn got me through school, my desire for a nice house got me on the property ladder, my desire for love helped me get up the courage to ask the most wonderful woman in the world if she would marry me (she said yes :).

Desire is not an evil itself - you only have to talk to christians to see that they all desire to do the right thing, they all desire to have gods love, and interestingly they all desire you to have it to.

This cannot in and of itself be wrong, and telling people not to want something others have is going to fail. Full stop end of discussion. The only way to live with number ten would be to not desire anything, not just anything worldly, but anything at all.

I'm not saying desire and jealousy cant and doesn't lead to other crimes, but I'm saying it also leads to some great ideas and great achievements. In fact most people in the US would claim that competition between peers is one of the things that drive innovation and contributes to the power of their economy.

A better statement would be "Feel no ill towards people who have what you do not", it's still a thought crime but at least this is one people can strive towards. It lets people keep their drive and ambition but not at the expense of others.

So now we come to the elephant in the room. When people talk about the commandments, they always seem to skirt around whats missing. The bible is full of horror stories and christianity/the new testament seems, at least in part, to be an attempt to correct or extend the moral/ethical framework into something more workable.

It's interesting to reflect that in the century or so prior to Jesus coming onto the scene, Stoic ethics were well travelled and established. There are a great deal of similarities between the "christian" ethics and that of the stoics. In fact the people who actually write the gospels lived mainly in lands dominated by stoic ethics. Some people have claimed that christianity was basically a revision of an existing belief system to be more in line with the accepted ethics of the time - replacing stoic fatalism with a God who would no longer be swayed by burned offerings...

However the ten commandments are still considered the core value

So what is missing from the ten commandments?
1.  Thou shalt not keep slaves
2.  Thou shalt not beat children
3.  Thou shalt allow that when children come of age they may leave their parents house without debt of any kind
4.  Thou shalt respect women and men equally
5.  Thou shalt not let another suffer for any sins but their own
These are basic and obvious to anyone. and none of them are contradictory to the ten commandments. The last one however is a problem for christians, because the basis of their faith is that we are all guilty for the sins of our fathers and mothers all the way back to Adam and Eve. We are also to be forgiven for these sins we did not participate in, by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus.

I cannot accept that.

I will not punish someone for something they did not do. I will not blame a child for the crime of their parent, I will not send a man to prison for the crime of his brother, and I will not allow someone else to suffer for my mistakes. It is unjust by definition, and even if it is allowed by law, to actually accept such a generous offer is a morally bankrupt act.

So I say again: No.

The ten commandments are not enough, they are poorly phrased, they contain omissions, they are full of dogma and ceremony, they are biased towards authority and most importantly... they failed. The people god gave his commandments to were not good by todays standards, they were not moral, or kind, or generous. They were cruel, they kept slaves, and they sacrificed animals, using the blood of others to wash their hands clean of sin.

Only someone who has never considered the question of how to improve them would think it could not easily be done.

Monday, 5 November 2012

I got a book in the mail...

Actually I get lots of books in the mail thats how I buy most of of them but this was one I did not order. In fact the publisher/printer is probably stretching the definition to call it a book, myself I would call it a booklet at most.

It is titled:
"The way to Happiness - A common sense guide to better living".

I was intrigued... I opened it and started reading... 

I did not read the footnotes or the fine print at first, I went right for the meat! 

The first page of the book clearly and quickly outlined some core reasons why you might not be happy right now, it listed instantly the threats to your happiness, before the book to progressed to list some pretty basic self care, none of which would actually help the existential angst it had just implanted in your mind.

The tips had an interesting bend to them however because they did not just tell you how to live your life but included pokes to suggest other people do the same...

The word "survival" was heavily overused but I assumed this was to keep an air of crisis in the mind of the reader.

It was not a religious book, there was no mention of faith, but I got the feeling that it was only an introduction... a "gateway" book if you like intended to mead me onto bigger things.

On page thirteen under, "[Chapter] 4: LOVE AND HELP CHILDREN" the author made some pretty weak claims about "materialistic" ideas and childhood development, before boiling them down to a claim of letting children grow without guidance or care. The author then dismissed this straw man of materialistic ethics as "easily disproved" but gave only one poor non-sequitur argument as proof.

It was in this passage I started to notice key phrases like "help enormously" and "obtain understanding of and agreement to". Part of me was wondering where I had heard this stilted quasi legalese prose before, and what sort of person would engage a child that way?

I read on... more use of "survival"... page 21... "[Chapter] 7: SEEK TO LIVE WITH THE TRUTH"...

Aaaaaand there it was it was, the page started talking about "false data", "true data", "what is true is true for you" and something in the back of my mind screamed L R H.

I scanned the book and there it was, "By L. Ron Hubbard". I had seen this book before when I was very young, but never actually read it, unlike Hubbards sci-fi which I read and did not find as interesting as Asimov or Heinlein.

I read on, not wanting to judge and knowing that ethical statements need not be well written to be fundamentally valid.

The book however does little to lead anyone to happiness, it seemed to focus on a handful of key points:

  1. There is crisis - you must take actions to improve your survival
  2. The world is split into positive and negative actors
  3. Anyone who is not a positive actor is a negative
  4. Negative actors cannot always be saved or changed
  5. Training and guidance is required to improve
  6. Seek to improve yourself and others
  7. Follow and obey authority
  8. Truth is personally relative if you think its true then it is
  9. Make strong commitment and fullfil them
  10. Faith has it's own logic

In short, it's a perfect primer to get people interested in self help and make them want to be part of a system that will help them survive, where they can follow authority, progress up the ranks and be safe from the destructive impact of the negative actors in the world and where, of course, you can believe what you want.

Which is pretty much exactly what it is for, the book is a simple viral marketing tool, put out to hook people and get them to ask the distributer for more information. Of course the book is clear that it is fully non-religious and non-profit, specifically so that it can be distributed in schools and other government supported institutions such as the military without breach of the separation of church and state laws common to both the US and Australia.

Exactly who put this copy in my letter box and why they forgot to stamp the back with the address where I can get more copies to distribute (and of course find more information) will probably remain a mystery.  

It's actually rather shallow and self serving.

The one thing it does not do is the very simple task of suggesting that the reader sit down, take a deep breath and think to themselves of all the happy, nice, good, enjoyable, and valued things and people in their life.

I learnt long ago that the secret to happiness was being able to recognise it when you already had it and find when you dont.

Fear for your survival, the assumption that you must improve yourself in all things and the need to be both following orders and giving them is the secret to happiness as employed by worker ants and honey bees.


There is a word in common use today that many people should be ashamed to use:


We hear a lot about interfaith councils, about interfaith charities, and interfaith movements.

It is is possible the most intolerant word I think I have ever heard.

I have to be clear I am NOT attacking the good that interfaith groups do in the world - a great deal of very good charity and cross cultural communication gets done under their auspices, but the approach is flawed and in many ways biased.

I first realised this while talking to a methodist minister in the UK. We had spoken for an hour or so on issues of faith, I had interviewed him about his faith, where it began, how it had developed, it's values etc, and had consented to answer the same questions from him about my beliefs.

Near the end we were discussing other faiths and he mentioned that he was on the local interfaith council but that he thought it was a bit of a sham, I was surprised and asked him why...

"Because everyone on that council with the possible exception of the Buddhist monk thinks everyone else is going to hell."

I'll be honest his reply shocked me a little.

Over the past few years I've thought about what he said a great deal an while I think many members on interfaith councils are of more moderate views and probably expect the other members to get pretty good judgment because they were at least acting from good intentions, I do think that any movement, action or body labelled interfaith is a concern.

The reason is simple by identifying themselves as Interfaith they are citing the only or at least in their mind most important thing they have in common... their faith.

If I started a charity to feed starving children I would think a fundamental belief that children need to be fed would be more important than faith in a creator.

If I started a council to help different cultures integrate and get along I would think a respect for, and understanding of individual rights and heritages would be more important than faith in a creator.

But thats not what interfaith implies. Interfaith says "yes we want to work together to save the child, but only with other people who also believe in god"

Interfaith is NOT an inclusive term, it is an exclusive term. Like "Mens Tennis Club" is not considered inclusive because it means all men, it's considered exclusive because it specifically discounts those who are not men.

Anything that is interfaith by definition does not include nearly 1 in 5 Australians (18.7% as of 2006).

What I find most disconcerting is that interfaith groups hold contradictory views, they disagree on fundamental issues of human rights, laws, even separation of church and state. However, they are more willing to meet and seek common ground with someone who may have diametrically opposed political and civil ideas than they are to sit down with an atheist.

A secular movement by definition is one "separate to" any issues of faith. Anyone including people of faith can support a secular charity or join a secular debate on morals, laws, and rights. Because secular just means leave the dogma at the door it does not mean you must abandon your principles.

To use the example of a tennis club from above, a secular movement is the equivalent of a "Mixed Tennis Club" where gender is not checked, or filtered when you go onto the court. No-one thinks that you stop being boys and girls, you just dont assume that it is either a requirement or disqualification from playing tennis...

At this point some of you feel I am being unkind, you will be pointing out that interfaith councils are most often set up to help people of different faiths understand each other.

You're right thats the reason most interfaith councils are established.

And that the problem - Christians and Muslims are happy to meet and find out what other group believes and discover that they many many of the same values, but their understanding and tolerance often stops at other faiths.

Cultural inclusion as long as your culture meets our criteria.

Atheism itself is not a belief system, in the same way "off" is not a tv channel, but it does not mean that atheists or people of "no-faith" do not hold to one or more of the many non-faith philosophical systems; humanism, objectivism, altruism, confucianism, etc, etc. Definitely not faiths but philosophies excluded by words like "interfaith".

I have lost count of the times I have heard someone of faith claim that Atheists have no morals, or that we dont believe any anything at all. Claims actually perpetuated through their religion.

I think if christians want to learn and find out that Buddhists dont worship Buddha, and that Muslims done worship Mohammad (both claims I have heard made) they should also learn that scientists dont worship Darwin or Hawking and that Atheists dont worship satan (another claim I heave heard too often to be funny).

I believe in lots of things like family, love, shared human values, charity, human dignity and even religious freedom. I personally believe that I am responsible in this life for anything I do wrong and have only this life to make up for it.

But you wont here Atheist morality being discussed at an interfaith council.

Like holding a mens forum to discuss human rights... something/someone would be missing and the debates on abortion and body rights might not be as balanced as they could be.

Again I probably come across as a bit strident, but I have read the Qur'an (three translations of it anyway), I have read the bible (King James and new international), I have read a separate translation of the Torah, I have also read books on Buddhism and several Hindi faiths. I make a conscious effort to understand the way other people think and what is important to them.

But while "no-religion" is a larger slice of the demographic pie in this country than, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism combined (or any of the individual sects of christianity outside the catholics and Anglicans)... I dont see a proportional attempt to understand the values that make "no-religion" work.

Again I need to stress that I am NOT attacking any specific interfaith organisation, indeed most of the ones I know deal with cross cultural issues and strive to understand that not everyone is a person of faith, but they are - their world view is inherently biased towards values of faith and despite the best intentions in the world they cannot claim to be truly cross cultural as long as they do not represent a sizeable portion of the cultures in question.

The sad thing is that many people reading this article will think it just a semantic question and they would be right, so why are they not called "inter-cultural", "inter-society", "cross-philosophy", or "shared-value" councils instead?

Because they are formed by religious organisations within a religious perspective and operate from within a religious context, valuing religion and faith more than any other tenant of society. They can try to be understanding, they can try to think outside the book as it were, but until they actively try to include those people with really differing views they will be truly representative or any culture including their own.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fear Drives Them

The other day I had a blog post by Ken Ham brought to my attention, Ken basically describes teaching creation to some 1500 kids at a church event.

It had 2 quotes that really stood out to me:
I just love teaching the children the truth about dinosaurs—that they were made on the sixth day of creation alongside Adam and Eve.
I was able to ask students to name some things that are fiction—meaning “not true.” They called out the following: "Millions of years", "Evolution", "Ape-like creatures turning into humans".
Yes, they know now these things are fiction.
He then goes on to ask the reader to pray for these children and I really wish I could, because if their parents are exposing them to this man then those children will need all the help they can get.

Ham is an intelligent man despite what you might think from his claims, he holds a degree in applied science, he taught science, he is able to run a business, etc, etc.

He is also very, very, frightened.

It's the same fear that drives so many christians to turn to full fundamentalism, the fear that drives them to defend it so vigorously, the fear that stops them from accepting scientific fact, the fear that makes  them stand on street corners and preach, the fear that makes them want to change the education standards so all children will think as they do, the fear that drives them not only to build christian theme parks but to visit them and call it "education".

The fear is... that they just might be wrong.

And that is a terrible fear indeed, especially for someone with a science education like Ken Ham, because he knows that what the bible claims is not consistent with the world we live in. He knows why carbon dating works, that tectonic plates move slowly, he knows that a flood leaves graded sediment, not stratified sediment, but worst of all... he knows that if any part of the bible were considered non-literal then ALL of the bible would come into question. Including the bits about God and Jesus and being saved...

In fact the more you know about science the worse it gets, because if the bible is even a little wrong, then its A LOT wrong.

From believing the bible is the literal word of god to believing it's an interesting book with some good ideas and some very questionable morality plays is not just a a slippery slope, but a straight drop down a shear glass wall  covered in grease.

The three things he cites that children know are "fiction" are very telling:

"Millions of years"

You have to understand that for fundamentalist christians this a scary concept, they dont just think in terms of general salvation, they want to be personally saved, and the concept that the universe has been around for millions or even billions of years means it's just possible they may have to wait a while before that happens.


This is a biggie, and atheists tend to overlook how scary this is for a person of faith. Evolution is a process of change - and change is something that should not be able to happen without the creators design, after all, cars dont drive themselves right? If they did why would you need a driver...

"Ape-like creatures turning into humans"

My personal favourite. Did god love the "proto-man" as much as he loved us? The promise of god and the bible and indeed all religions is that we are special, we are the chosen, the faithful, the few, the true... Non of those statements sounds as impressive when you understand that we all share a common ancestor. Do our closest evolutionary cousins also have a soul? will our descendents still have souls if we continue to evolve as a species?


I think, in the end, that people like Ham and others know deep down that they are wrong. They know the bible does not make sense. They know it is self contradictory. They know genesis is a really poor description of how the world came into being, yet alone the universe... but they attempt to indoctrinate as many people (children) as possible to help convince themselves they are not being self delusional.

Misery loves company and it's easier to tell yourself you not being stupid, irrational, or crazy, when you have lots of friends all agreeing with you.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Protecting Religious Rights

My friends disagree with me.

Not that religious rights need to be defended, we agree on that.

We disagree on how much protection they should have. Because as anyone who read my rant about the "Campaign for civility" could tell, I think that while people should be allowed to believe what they want, those beliefs should be as open to scoff, and ridicule as any other.

My premis was (is) that faiths make claims that are extremely offensive. I used the example of unbelievers deserving to be burned in hell, but I could just have easily gone with the claim that a woman is exactly one half the value of a man.

Someone very close to me after hearing my arguments from that blog post could not understand how someones faith could be offensive to someone else who did not share it...
RF [Respected Friend]: But if you dont believe in the qur'an or bible then why would it's claims about burning in hell bother you?

Me: Because people who accept the doctrine, accept the judgment it contains: that people without faith deserve eternal punishment.

RF: But thats just their belief, it doesn't mean anything... You dont have to take it seriously so why be offended.

Me: Because it can and does impact me. Our values create the laws and policies that we live by.

RF: But even if you feel that way you cant allow something as insulting as that video. People find it personally offensive...

...Aaaaaaand thats were I feel a point needs to be made.

An insult to a faith is not the same as a personal insult, an insult to a belief system, or a politics, or philosophy, or school of science, or model of thought, or even an economic system...  is not the same as a personal insult.

But faith is often given a special protected status in our culture, people will claim that anything that insults a faith can be taken as a personal insult without justification beyond the claim of faith.

For the vast majority of the faithful, this is because religion is the one belief people hold that they claim absolute knowledge.

Religious people dont think god exists they know he does, and they know what god is and what he wants of his creation. Many of my religious friends actually refuse to use words like "belief" because they are too ambiguous. Yet we know different religious systems contradict each other, they cannot all be right... But they could all be wrong.

So at least some of these people who claim an insult to their faith is a personal insult are taking offense about a false belief, a mistake, an error, or a self delusion.

And we let them do it.

As a society, we let religion make outlandish and contradictory claims. We let them make these claims with no evidence. We let them hold to practices and morals that are centuries out of date. We even let them discriminate on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

These values are reflected in society, they are used to justify laws and public policy.

I'll use the example of Islam because it was a muslim protest that prompted my original post:

People have tried to pass anti-blasphemy resolutions to the UN that would essentially make it illegal to say there was no historical evidence for Muhammad (or even to say he was just a normal man)

In the UK there are current attempts to get the courts to recognise sharia law, and multiple sharia councils are cropping up around England to enact sharia without waiting. Where this is really disturbing is that these councils are handing down rulings on legal matters like inheritance, and they are doing so according to quranic tradition - Sons get a full share and daughters get a half share.

These councils are run by people who also hold the belief that woman may be beaten if they dont obey their husbands.

Similar movements exist in the US and parts of Europe.

Personally I think any father who would rise their daughter as if she was worth less than a son is a fool at best. To tell a person they are worth less than another because of their gender is more than wrong it's a breach of basic human rights.

I think therefore that religion must be ready to get as good as it gives.

And its not just doctrine... People have used irrational and emotive attacks for as long as there has been debate, and people of faith are not exempt.

Claims of civility did not stop religionists drawing Charles Darwin with the body of a chimp, in fact it became a visual cliche of the age:

Perhaps more disturbing is that it continues to this day as a practice of those whose faith demands they do not accept any creation story but their own, and find themselves attacking the man to undermine the concept.

And the attacks do not stop at illustrations. Godwin's law remains a common go-to argument for many (but not all) people of faith who use "Reductio Ad Hitlerum" when they find themselves losing an argument on ration grounds.

I've experienced this myself, and have, in perfectly reasonable and quiet discussions been told that without faith to guide me I am no better than Hitler, and only the promise of salvation stops people from stealing raping and killing every day.

It's a claim made in a hundred youtube videos.

As my friend said
"You dont have to take it seriously"
And she was right, I dont have to and for the most part I dont.

I can live with views like that being expressed about me, and I demand only that god develops skin as thick as mine.

If we start limiting speech based on what may offend someone, redacting content from public sources on grounds of potential insult, then many religious works will have to become censored and radical/fundamentalist sermons will be blocked from youtube. In short "religious" freedoms would be the first ones to go...

Friday, 19 October 2012

Campaign for Civility

In one of the worst examples of hypocrisy in recent history, thousands and thousands of muslims have protested outside Googles UK HQ to get a video removed because they found it "insulting" to their faith.

Reports (1, 2, 3) say over ten thousand muslims turned up to pressure google into taking down an anti islamic  video called "The Innocence of Muslims" from YouTube, and organisers say the protests will continue around the globe until they get what they want.

The protestors carried placards with phrases like: - "This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed",  "Prophet Muhammad is the father of civil liberties",  "Google supports terrorism",  "How dare you insult the blessed prophet",  "Freedom of Speech = Hatred of Muslims?" and "Muslims campaign for global civility".

A lawyer called Sheikh Siddiqui, wants christian, catholic, jewish, trade unions, and even conservatives groups to encourage their ranks to join his "campaign for civility".

This protect group is trying to co-opt the term "civility", claiming that it is not civil to attack actions and quotes attributed to the prophet Mohammed. They say the video is so insulting that it is "emotional terrorism".

No-one, NO-ONE, whose personal belief system includes eternal hell for rejecting the claims of that faith can EVER claim the moral high ground on emotional coercion.

They claim it is not civil to attack the character of Muhammad (whose very existence is still a matter of historical debate), but somehow, it is acceptable to hold the view that people who disagree, people who disbelief are of such low character that they are destined to spend eternity in Jahannam (hell)? And to publish that view in a book they claim to be the true and beautiful word of god?

The islamic apologetic argument that Christians, Catholics,  and Jews might be saved because they seek god only through the wrong path does little to hide the fact that all sects of Islam agree the Qur'an says those who reject the islamic faith are irredeemable and damned.
And among them there is he who says: Allow me and do not try me. Surely into trial have they already tumbled down, and most surely hell encompasses the unbelievers. Qur'an 9:49
Do they not know that whoever acts in opposition to Allah and His Messenger, he shall surely have the fire of hell to abide in it? Qur'an 9:63
Allah has promised the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women and the unbelievers the fire of hell to abide therein; it is enough for them; and Allah has cursed them and they shall have lasting punishment. Qur'an 9:68
That is not civil.

That is not polite.

That cannot be considered good "manners" as they should be taught.

It IS insulting

It IS threatening.

... and I'm only talking about hell here, I'm ignoring the verses on the reduced value of women, and the calls to actually harm or even kill unbelievers.

Putting the more "flexible" interpretations of moderate muslims, claims of historical context, etc, all aside for a moment: These claims remain part of their core religious dogma, written in their holy book. The insult is not only allowed but enshrined as the most beautiful of all "poetry".

For ANY group to pressure a company or government to provide special dispensation to that group and censor someones freedom of expression (no matter what you think of the quality or appropriateness of the video) while maintaining a core belief that insulting should be seen for the intolerable double standard it represents.

I reject Islam and Muhammad.

I ALSO reject the "The Innocence of Muslims" as crude and unworthy biased collection of misquotes and mixed contexts.

However, if I am to support the right of people of faith to hold views about myself and others who reject faith as deserving of infinite suffering I MUST reject utterly any attempt by those people of faith to stifle the expression of views that challenge contradict or even insult faith, it's articles, characters, and dogma.

People of Islam, please... Use the same freedom those protestors are attacking... Counter the video, refute the message, correct the perception, but dont, just please dont, try to bury it under a claim of "civility" that you simply cannot defend.

There are several reasons why that video might be banned not least of which is that the actors were lied to about what they were making, but "civility" is not one if them.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

What rights do you really have

I rapidly get tired of people saying that people of faith have a right to their beliefs when engaging in religious debates online.

Really? Putting aside the assumption that a social courtesy constitutes a right... If someone thought something that you disagreed with and made decision in society that you share with them (such as selecting political choices) does they right to internal beliefs demand that you not present alternative views?

I dont think so, if it did there would be no political or social debate and the men that knock on my door to ask me if I've heard the good news would have been arrested long ago.

A right is an entitlement, opportunity, freedom, or resource granted to an individual by a group.

But what happens when rights conflict? If two people have the right to a particular resource that can only be used once then is one persons right being denied by the other person? Or was the right only for the opportunity of use of the resource, not (as people may infer) exclusive use of the resource.

Many rights can be distinguished in this way, when people say they have a right to believe what they want, they actually mean they have the opportunity to believe what they want, but the actual belief is not necessarily protected.

Think about it, how many laws are in place to prevent me from challenging your belief by presenting a counter perspective? In fact most societies have specific laws protecting my right to express my points of view.

I mentioned socially courtesy earlier, because I do respect the beliefs of others, this blog for instance is separate from my other online activities in order to avoid offending people who do not wish to discuss these topics.

However, someone who enters into a debate online has waved any such respect, they dont get to go a few rounds and then simply say "well I have a right to my beliefs" before leaving. This is dishonest and intellectually bankrupt. A simple case of "I'm going to attack your position under the guise of open debate but deny your right of reply".

And given that arguments can be made against actions performed under the flag of religious practices, it can be argued that presenting alternative points of view to people thus engaged is a moral imperative.

People dont really have a right to believe, people get a right to not be persecuted for their beliefs, but all rights of freedom and speech are in place to support the exchange if ideas and people who do not wish to hear conflicting ideas have only one choice open to them - Stay out of the debate.

Friday, 12 October 2012

"Physical Self" vs "Non Physical Self" Dualism

I was following several discussions about the nature of mind and soul online and could not help seeing some obvious fallacies repeated over and over.

People perceive a natural dualism between mind and brain. But then assume that this means the mind, or that at least parts our "self", exist independently of the brain.

They call it our spirit, soul, essence, and other more mystical sounding words, most of which are simply the same idea represented in the language of different cultures. Tea is a nice drink, but calling it Chimarrão, Tee, Te, Teh, Thea, Herbata, Entèh, Tēja, Tsai, Sah, Chā, Shaah, Chahen, Chāy, Tenneru, Choy, or Liptons does not make it more or less than it was when you poured it into your cup.

The claim most often made is that the spirit is the "non physical" part of ourselves and when pressed people often use analogies to energy, magnetism, light, radio, sound, etc which is false because all these are physical in nature. Easily tested because they can all be generated and measured by physical methods.

  • If something interacts with with the physical world it must do so via shared physical properties
  • If something has physical properties it's physical, be it a force or a substance
  • Therefore ANYTHING that interacts with or is impacted by something physical MUST BE physical itself.

The main proof offered, however, for the existence of a non physical self is the inability to physically locate elements of self in our physical forms. People support the argument for soul or mind separate from the body by the thought experiment of taking the brain apart and attempting to identify, by examination, where a particular faculty or memory exists - the use a gross mechanical method to detect a subtle physical property or behaviour.

I'm amazed that this example even gets put forward, it's akin to grinding my iphone into dust and asking someone to sift through it to find the video of my cat that I had stored in it. That failure would not prove my cat video was a metaphysical entity any more than failure to find a particle of consciousness in a dissected brain proves that consciousness is metaphysical.

In the same way playing the video of my cat and hearing it meow does not mean there was a sound in my iphone all along. The sound emerged as a result of a complex set of interactions, consistent, repeatable and (to someone with sufficient understanding of digital electronics) fully explainable. Even the waves beating on the shore generate sound, but we dont think sea water is made of sound or that the sound of the waves exists independent of the water and shore.

Our lack of a similarly complete explanation of behaviours emergent from/generated by the human brain does not mean such explanations are impossible, simply that they are outside the scope of our understanding. The fact however that we have observed and created similar phenomena in electronic systems indicates that the only difference between the examples we can explain and those that we cant is one of scale.

The attempt to mechanically examine for elements of self fails as a test of anything even before we consider the nature of one thing emergent from another because behaviours and faculties are contextual.

For example, my ability to play chess (badly) would not exist without the concept of a chess board, my spatial awareness, my memory of the rules, my personal values (fear of loss, agression, empathy with my opponent, etc), my capacity for logic etc, etc, etc.

So to try to identify what single part of a brain holds my chess ability will fail because it's a combination or interaction of various other faculties that creates that ability.

We could try to identify what parts of the brain are necessary for the skill, and while direct experimentation is not practical - observation of people who have suffered physical trauma to their brain  allows us to make such identifications. We know for instance that hypocampus is a key component in memory and spatial reasoning.

My understanding of chess and my ability to play it, my chess faculty if you like, is an emergent behaviour from a very complex physical system. However, a purely mechanical examination of that system will never expose that faculty or it's atomic components (assuming it can be broken into meaningful particles).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Freedom on speech for cheerleaders

There is a serious freedom of speech issue occurring in Texas right now.

The short and the long of it is that a group of high school cheerleaders from Kountze Texas are being denied the right to put bible quotes on their banners carried during football games.

It's in the courts right now.

The problem is that there are laws on religious expression at public school events. School officials had to make the hard decision to tell children that were not allowed one particular form of expression.

It's not about restricting anyones freedom of speech, it's about making sure that schools are open and tolerant places. Anyone over the age of 12 is going to understand that peer pressure among teenagers can get pretty nasty.

I'm not shocked that the children are complaining about being told what they can and cannot do - Thats what being a teenager is about. What shocks me is the parents getting in on the act.

In fact no restriction on the children's personal expression is actually being applied. They are only being restricted in what they can express as representatives of the school.

One of the greatest mis-claims ever made is that Madalyn Murray O'Hair (the founder of the American Atheists) got prayer taken out of schools in America. But what actually happened was that a group of people asked the courts to rule on removing forced religious observance from schools. Voluntary observance is still totally permitted.

These cheerleaders are not loosing any of their freedom of speech but other children in the school system are having their freedom of beliefs protected - including those who dont share the beliefs of the cheerleaders.

Freedom of expression is only of value if everyone gets it, and that occasionally means compromise.

These people feel justified in their actions, knowing that they may make others uncomfortable, even knowing that of all the possible quotes from the bible:
"I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."
... is not one of the many that could be used and specifically requiring christian faith in order to agree with it.

The problem here is that these cheerleaders honestly think that they are not just expressing a view, they feel they are communicating "gods word", and because others belief that as well they are fighting on legal technicalities and semantics.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Of Ends and Means

The battle over "faith values" has never been very amicable but every once in a while I see some things that makes shows just how nasty it can get.

Recently news broke of a "pro-family" group being sued for using the engagement photo of a gay couple without their permission in a campaign flier.

Think about that, imagine a photo from your life taken out of context edited and then used in material made public actively attacking your lifestyle.

Worse still, the group in question considers homosexuality and atheism as immoral behaviours and beliefs - However you cut it "immorality" is a personal attack, there is nothing general about it.

Think about a blonde couple getting married and then having their engagement photos used to promote the idea that blondes are stupid.

Could you take a part of someones private life who you do not know (the photo in question was taking off the internet) and use that to publicly represent a view that you know would be totally contrary to the values of that person?

Could you?

I dont think I could bring myself to invade and violate the privacy of others in such a blatant way.

To be honest however I dont think this is representative of the values of the faith in question, but more of the individuals who put together the pamphlet. It's just ironic that someone working for a cause that claims the moral high ground should stoop to theft (they took a professionally taken photo without attempting to pay rights or royalties), deception (the photo was edited to change it's setting), and lies (the pamphlet implied that homosexual relationships were preferred by the candidate it was attacking) in order to prove their point.

For the record I would be just as upset if anyone ran an anti-faith campaign using the same tactics.

As I said, the actions fo these people are not representative of faith but they are representative of politics where artificially stimulated emotional reactions are more important than verifiable facts and rational arguments.

The fact that anyone would be swayed by such a document just goes to show that some people are only looking for an excuse to believe a certain way, not a reason to do so. These ends cannot justify the means for a christian group or any other group that grasps the morality of the golden rule.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It's not perfect and it's not easy, but it's a good place to start.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

TAG: You're It, But God Isn't

TAG is shorthand for the The "Transcendental Argument for God".

A complete description of the argument and it's common variants can be found an

Briefly, the argument seeks to establish the existence of transcendental (or absolute) logical concepts, and then to argue that such transcendental concepts necessitate a transcendental mind (or god). The TAG argument is one of the many attempts to prove that god is a logical requirement of the universe.

Simply put:
  1. There are logical absolutes
    1. Law of identity
    2. Law of non-contradictions
    3. Law of excluded middle
  2. These logical absolutes are true, always
  3. These logical absolutes are transcendental, that is, independent of and not contingent on, space, time or matter
  4. These logical absolutes are concepts
  5. Concepts require a mind
  6. In order to be true always there must be a mind always to conceive them.
At this point, proponents of TAG tend to wrap up with "therefore god" or words to that effect, without any attempt to further deduce the limitations or possible scope of the mind in question (or minds as a plurality of metaphysical minds cannot be disproved using this logic).

By writing my thoughts on this I am probably fighting far over my weight but the flaw in the argument is actually quite simple, and it all springs from a simple question.
Does the world obey logic, or does logic describe the world?
Maps do not determine the terrain, they only describe it.

What we call "laws" of logic are descriptions, explanations, concepts of the fundamental nature of reality. But they are not the nature of reality themselves. We assume they are naturally emergent when a mind capable of abstract thought considers reality, which is a fancy way of saying that people should be able to come up with them without being told, just by thinking about it (and more than one philosopher has done exactly that in the long run of history).

The laws of logic are the same as any law of nature, in that they represents reality but do not cause it. We say they are "absolute" not because they are totally true, but because we have abstracted them from all subjective elements to produce an "absolute" or "pure" form of the observed behaviour.

It's a bit like the old question "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?" in a strict scientific sense the answer is "no" because sound is defined as vibrations perceived by the act of hearing. The question however was originally meant simply to illustrate "unperceived existence" and personal perception of the universe - Does it exist for me if I cannot perceive it?

But reality is the state of things actually existing independent of perception or conception - Reality is that which persists when you stop believing in (or perceive) it. It is the shared context in which we all exist, that which is the same for each of us (Note: that is not the same as saying "that which we all agree on".)

Reality therefore and it's nature comes before any concept used to understand, describe, predict, define, or encompass it.

Logical absolutes (concepts) are true, always, because they attempt to describe other things (properties of existence), that are true always. An excellent example of how heated the TAG discussion can ge can be seen here. (many thanks to Atheist Community of Austin for an awesome and informative show)

The entire argument from the theists side relies on semantics to allow a fallacy of equivocation to slip thought the gaps. Basically because there is no clear distinction made between the logical laws and qualities of consistent reality they are attempting to describe, theists then proceed to ascribe the qualities of each to the other, concepts become transcendental properties of reality, and properties of reality now need a mind to contain them.

This kind of confusion is really only possible/easy with logical absolutes because they have been reduced to the simplest possible conceptual truths. If TAG were tried using the concept of gravity, it could easily be pointed out that the details of our concept of gravity change as we learn and observe more, while the actual behaviours we describe remain consistent, separating the two.

The concept and the actual effect are obviously two different things, but logical absolutes are a distillation of other concepts, a reduction down to that which can be considered safely immutable. For them, the simple, enlightening contrast between the idea and the reality is not so evident.

At best the transcendental argument for god is simply flawed reasoning, a failure to critically examine an argument that supports your theory. At worst TAG is a logical slight of hand used to give false hope to people questioning their faith and cast doubt in the minds of others. In either case it not useful as a proof for the existence of anything but the need for better arguments.