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The danger of being swamped by confident idiots

 The danger of being swamped by confident idiots – The AIM Network 8 November 2016

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Five years ago, who’d have thought Donald Trump would be the leader of the free world? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but if there’s any lesson here, it’s that too many people prefer fiction to the truth. Conspiracy theories have gripped the public imagination to such an extent that a dangerous novice stands at the White House lawn.

Acting as a mirror for America’s anger, prejudices and grandiose delusions, he relies on the public consuming a diet of lies, conspiracy and misinformation. Working back from whatever outcome would “make American great again, Trump proposes ideas and solutions on the fly – building a $25 billion wall, or deporting 11 million immigrants – seemingly unconcerned with how implausible, dangerous, or just plain stupid these ideas might be. An egomaniac who believes his own latest thought bubble is good enough to become policy for the world’s most powerful country, may soon learning how to operate the nuclear codes.

But evidently, stupidity knows no borders. Closer to home, we have One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s still enthralled by the vintage conspiracy theory that Jewish International Bankers control the world. He may have read Pauline Hanson’s ironically titled book, The Truth, in which she supports the crazy paranoia about the “New World Order”.

Since that déjà vu moment, when her quavering falsetto echoed through the Senate chamber, informing us that we’re in danger of being swamped by Muslims (not Asians), her support has quadrupled.

Mysteriously, the conspicuous failure of Asians to overrun us, hasn’t dampened Hanson’s confidence, or fatally wounded her credibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why is this so?

An answer may be found in the Dunning-Kruger effect: the curious phenomenon of “confident idiots” emboldened by their own ignorance, rather than cautioned by it.

The 1999 Dunning-Kruger study found those armed with low metacognitive skills grossly overestimated their own competence in metacognitive tasks. Those with test scores in the 12th percentile estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

And so, according to David Dunning, those with intellectual deficits are often “blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.

This hasn’t passed through history unremarked: Recall Shakespeare – “a fool thinks himself to be wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

As Dunning states:

“Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack…”

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all humans. Beleaguered by an impressive array of confirmation biases which evolved to allow us to survive in a bewildering world of imperfect knowledge, we’ve adapted in ways which compensate for the gaps by applying greater certainty. The effect is something to be conscious of and to guard against.

Misbeliefs, according to Dunning, arise from cherished ideals, “narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated”.

“And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed”.

Scorn of scientific expertise represents the hallmark of the “confident idiot”. Climate change denial has become the bellwether of a conspiracy theory epidemic, which has taken hold of many otherwise intelligent people. Luminaries such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt think climate change is part of a one world government conspiracy, aided and abetted by the United Nations, our own Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. But somehow they are apparently embarrassed by Malcom Roberts assertions that’s it’s all a NASA cover up. Alternatively, Donald Trump thinks the global warming hoax was created by “the Chinese to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive”.

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Increasingly, the ability to discard inconvenient truths, to suspend belief in scientific fact, and to succumb to half-truths and spin, becomes a necessary skill-set used to choose whatever belief butters our bread, or suits our biases. Google provides an easy way of aligning the world to suit one’s prejudices: using the wrong-way round research method of finding the argument to suit the conclusion. Just by falling down a hole in the internet, crackpot theorist’s such as Flat Earthers, 9/11-Truthers, Chem-trailers, and Anti-Vaxxers, can find all the “empirical evidence” they need.

Science is not above reproach, or immutable. But its limits are well established enough. Adhering to established scientific fact should be a prerequisite for participating in public debate. Political correctness might have gone too far, but it’s consequences pale in comparison to scientific incorrectness.

Hopefully, Donald Trump won’t become President of the United States and we’ll look back on his candidacy as a grotesque caricature which appeared briefly, and then floated away, like a blimp at New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the 50 million or so US citizens who’ll vote for Trump represent a more widespread malaise in critical thinking.

Muslims or Mexicans aren’t about to “swamp” us anytime soon. But we needn’t consult our tea leaves or call a psychic to recognise the danger posed by the Dunning-Kruger effect, and to wonder why we’re not doing more to mitigate the influence of confident idiots.

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The Open Secret of Religious Instruction in State schools

The Open Secret of Religious Instruction in State schools – ONLINE opinion 19 October 2016 #RE #SRE #Baird

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It’s long been an open secret that educators and politicians turn a blind eye to proselytising in faith classes.

In spite of numerous media reports highlighting proselytising in the Connect series of special religious instruction (SRE) lessons, Premier Mike Baird has pledged to continue with SRE, based purely on his own personal faith. Listen to him tell Werrawee Anglican Church:

“I’m not going to distance what I believe from who I am, and, in that context, I think, SRE should remain as part of our schools and will remain as part of schools while I’m there.”

And his Education Minister Adrian Piccoli stubbornly refuses to release the $300,000 report by ARTD consultants, investigating various concerns about SRE and ethics (SEE), despite holding on to it for nine months.

Advising on “the nature and extent of SRE and SEE” in NSW schools, a source from ARTD consultants said the report was an objective analysis, which no-one would be happy with. That could be why the state government has filed it under the rug.

Responding to inquiries about Connect lessons proselytising, the NSW Education Department Director, Jason Miezis (on behalf of Minister Adrian Piccoli), advised on 20 July 2016:

“Given that parents/caregivers have indicated their preferred religious persuasion for the child on enrolment, proselytising should not occur in school authorised activities”.

In other words, parental consent equates to a child being considered a Christian.

So, proselytising – soliciting a child for a decision to change their religious affiliation – should not occur.

The problem is, we’re talking about 6 and 7 year olds.

And, if the fallacy isn’t plain enough, the authors of Connect themselves remind instructors that most of their audience is not yet Christian. That’s why they’re proselytising! The NSW Education department earns the “Computer-Says-No” award for deliberately missing the point.
Additionally, the letter from Miezis states the department is perfectly happy for SRE volunteers to inform students of local church run activities.

“How about asking your parents if you could come along to kids club or kids church. (This would be a good time to hand out flyers.) (Connect Upper Primary, B2, Lesson 17, p. 181)”.

“Hand out the flyers for local church services if you have them (Connect Upper Primary, C1, Lesson 10, p. 100).”

But, in contrast, the recent Queensland education department review found the above were examples of possible proselytising.
Disturbingly however, it found no legal obstacle to proselytising.

“…legal advice provided by faith groups has indicated the view there is no legislative basis for prohibition of proselytising in the EDPA or EDPR [the relevant Education Acts]. The Department’s Legal and Administrative Law Branch supports this view”. (Page 6)

And nothing further has been done about it. While Education Minister Kate Jones has taken commendable steps forward in addressing age inappropriate and outdated materials in faith classes, the failure to address proselytising is curious.

Even more curious is the way the advocates of bible classes claim proselytising doesn’t occur, before rushing off to obtain favourable legal opinions to safeguard it.

Educator’s find themselves entangled in a Gordian knot. Scripture classes are by their nature evangelical. Making disciples is the unambiguous mission of evangelical Christians. For example, Connect’s own youthworks website says making disciples is why they exist.

When challenged, they will point out SRE is “preaching the gospel”. And so, reviewer’s must either tell evangelists not to evangelise, or allow faith classes to proceed on the basis of soliciting children to Christianity. In a nutshell, evangelising is allowed. Thus, parents should be aware that, as in NSW, consent to SRE is viewed by government as a license to convert their child to Christianity.

The Queensland review muddles the issue further by attempting to distinguish evangelising from proselytising. The Oxford online dictionary defines evangelise as: “convert of seek to convert someone to Christianity”, or “Preach the gospel”. To proselytise is to “convert of attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief or opinion to another”.

The following examples from the lesson materials illustrate how this is a distinction without a difference. Following allegations of proselytising, the authors of Connect preface the concluding prayer as follows:

“This is how Christians talk to God. If you would like to pray with me please join me. If you don’t then please lower your head so we don’t get distracted while praying this short prayer”.

And the prayer follows:

“Dear God, thank you that Jesus dies on the cross so I could be part of your family. I am sorry for wanting to live my own way, but now I want to live your way. Please forgive me and help me to learn more about you. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer in your head, welcome to God’s family! You’re a Kingdom Kid”.

Another example:

“The Bible tells us there are two kinds of people; the people who have faith and will live forever with God, and those who say no to Jesus.
“We need to decide which type of person we want to be. Will we follow Jesus?”

It hardly matters whether you regard these as proselytising or evangelising. Such muscular, coercive entreaties to join the faith, are plainly inappropriate for primary age children. Why are such brazen and explicit attempts to induct children into “God’s family” even necessary if they are already observant Christians?

Parents who think they’ve signed their child up to a harmless introduction to the bible, should think again.

Breaking the Gordian knot involves removing evangelical SRE classes from state schools altogether. Replace them with comparative classes run by state school teachers, or remove them entirely.

The NSW Education department earns the “Computer-Says-No” award for deliberately missing the point.

No need or reason demands them given the multitude of churches and faith based schools in our country. But for now, it’s up to parents and principals to navigate contradictory and deceptive policies surrounding special religious instruction.

We’re left to wonder when State governments will honestly deal with the uncomfortable truth about proselytising, and whether Minister Piccoli will ever release the $300,000 taxpayer funded report.

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Review Signals the Beginning of the End for Bible Classes

 

Review Signals the Beginning of the End for Bible Classes – AIM Network 28 September 2016

 

The recent Queensland government review of the “Connect” Religious Instruction (RI) materials bring to light several reasons why, ultimately, faith-based classes will cease in school hours in the Sunshine state.

Also, given Connect’s lessons are widely used, the New South Wales government would be wise to take note. However, driven by his own Christian faith, Premier Mike Baird has committed to maintaining special religious instruction (SRE) while he’s in office. He’s supported by Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, who stubbornly refuses to release the $300k report by ARTD consultants, investigating various concerns about SRE, despite holding on to it for nine months. A source from ARTD consultants said the report was an objective analysis, which no-one would be happy with.

In contrast, Queensland Education Minister Kate Jones deserves credit for instigating the review and following up its recommendations. Stung into action after Windsor State School principal Matthew Keong scrapped the Connect RI program because he found 39 examples of “soliciting” students to Christianity, the review lists numerous examples of “outdated and inappropriate content”.

Disturbing material includes the “grooming” of seven-year-olds to form “special friendships” and keep secrets with instructors. Also, lessons discussing whether disabled people are being punished by God, using dead animals as sacrifices to God, and using tomato juice to simulate the drinking of blood.

Beset by controversy, recent media reports highlight Youthworks Connect lessons featuring vampires and beheadings. Concerns have been raised by the sin and salvation messaging, which denigrates children as sinners akin to dirty towels, and menaces them that they’ll die if they’re selfish.

A statement from Ms Jones admitted there had previously been “no consistent oversight of materials being used for religious instruction in Queensland state schools”. Consequently, the education department will forthwith exercise greater control over lesson content.

Enrolling in RI will become explicit and opt-in, mitigating a common cause for complaint that many students are placed in RI by default, without parental consent.

Enrolments plummeted by nearly half when it became Opt-in in Victoria, and three years later RI was removed from school hours due to lack of interest and “to focus teachers and students … on the core curriculum”. (It’s still available at school out of hours).

There’s no reason to think this pattern will not repeat itself in Queensland. And the momentum towards change becomes irresistible when we consider some of the other concerns.

Australia’s slipping performance in literacy and numeracy – as noted in our PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and NAPLAN results – reinforce the consistent findings of educational reviews – that the curriculum is overcrowded.

One of the architects of our school curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

Furthermore, studies undertaken by Stanford University professor, David Labaree, show that add-on programmes targeting social issues such as alcohol abuse, drug use, and racial equality, have little, or no effect.

Our priorities in education are reflected in how we measure it. If we’re going to measure our education system on literacy and numeracy, then we need to sharpen our focus on those key areas.

But, as our society becomes less religious and more diverse, the push to revive our Christian tradition becomes ever more aggressive and desperate. State school RI programs have become more fundamentalist and proselytising.

The “right” for faith groups to teach religion like “any other subject”, has been championed by Australian Catholic University fellow, and Australian curriculum author, Kevin Donnelly.

But alas, RI is not taught like any other subject.

Instructors are not required to have formal teaching qualifications. According to Queensland Teacher’s Union President, Kevin Bates, classes often become unruly requiring the supervising teacher to step in and retain control.

RI Classes bear scant resemblance to knowledge based classes, such as politics or economics, which provide a comparative reading of competing ideologies. In contrast, these entreat children, (identified as mostly non-Christians by Connect’s lesson materials), to recite prayers and accept the message of Jesus.

Youthworks own website says making disciples of children is “why we exist”. Disturbingly, the publisher of Connect even obtained legal advice to suggest that proselytising is allowable unless aimed at converting a child from one RI approved faith to another. The review agreed with this advice, but disappointingly, failed to make any specific recommendations forbidding proselytising.

And so, in the short term, schools will continue to divide up classrooms for evangelical bible lessons. The project reeks of social engineering and discriminates against nonreligious families and those who do not belong to the faiths on offer. There’s simply no necessity to teach religion in public schools.

Australian parents retain the freedom to bring up their children in whatever faith (or lack thereof) they choose. Under-patronised churches, built for that very purpose, stand within a slingshot of most state schools. We even have independent faith-based schools as an option.

RI allows approved faith groups to co-opt state school classrooms for up to one hour a week. Children who don’t participate must be offered other unspecified non-curricular activities. Wasting time, in other words.

The “Every Day Matters” policy of QLD’s Education department seems startlingly at odds with a curriculum where bible classes take up nearly a full term of a child’s primary school tenure. Rather than continuing with the same policy and praying for a different result, schools will eventually discard contested and non-core courses, and focus on reading, writing and numeracy.

For good reasons, pressure continues to mount on State governments to move faith classes outside of school hours.

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Music Points to God, Kiss My A***

Barney Zwartz, senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, makes a strange and circular argument that the music of Mozart and others, “points us to God”.  According to Zwartz every music lover is “aware of its link to the spiritual”, and that music points to the “divine rationality and beauty of the Creator”.

But alas, Zwartz is troubled by the fact that many people love music and still manage to be unmoved to faith in God. How could this be? But, the apparent challenge to his unsupported claim is dismissed on the basis of some nice anecdotes of composers who claimed divine inspiration.

Quoting the great Jewish Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti:

“Mozart makes you believe in God – much more than going to church – because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and then passes after 35 years, leaving behind such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.”

I wonder what Solti and Zwartz thought of Mozart’s dirty music. A perennial favourite the 1782 canon in B-flat major “Leck mich im Arsch” (literally Lick me in the arse).

Leck mich im A… g’schwindi, g’schwindi!
Leck im A… mich g’schwindi.
Leck mich, leck mich,
g’schwindi

(‘g’schwindi’ means ‘quickly’)

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The phrase, which roughly translates to “kiss my arse”, was changed by a later publisher to “Let us be glad”.

Another Mozart composition “Bona Nox” concludes triumphantly, “Shit in your bed and make it burst, Good night, sleep tight, And stick your ass to your mouth”.

Rounding out the rear-end inspired trilogy is “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” (“Lick my arse nice and clean”) – (although there is some doubt about whether he composed this later work).

Do these point to God?

Maybe not.

Mozart was famously and often at odds with his own Catholicism. In one of his letters he describes a sojourn his cousin and he had with a priest Father Emilian in Augsburg:

“[Father Emilian] was an arrogant ass and a simple-minded little wit of his profession… when he was a little drunk which happened soon, he started on about music. He sang a canon… I took the third voice, but I slipped in an entirely different text: ‘P[ater] E: o du schwanz, leck mich im arsch’ [“Father Emilian, oh you prick, lick me in the ass”]

But we can thank Mozart for providing the best answer to Zwartz. You think music points to God? Well, I’ll point you to this – “Leck mich im Arsch!”

 

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Legislating 18C Unbinds the Coalition from the SSM Plebiscite

This entry has previously been published as: Trying to Silence Unwelcome Views Only Perpetuates ThemThe Huffington Post Australia 6 September 2016
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The Coalition went to the last election promising not to put before parliament a vote on Same Sex Marriage, nor changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

And so, if the Coalition jettisons its pre-election commitment and supports Corey Bernardi’s bill to amend section 18C then there’s nothing stopping it from similarly considering marriage equality.

The “we-went-to-the-election-with” mantra is mute.

And if it succeeds, the government could quietly cancel what some have described as a $160 million festival of homophobia. Perhaps that’s a little unfair. (The final bill will probably be much more).

Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi has apparently secured the support of up to 20 Senators for a private members bill watering down Section 18C.

The free speech issue does not command the same level of public support as marriage equality.

But it should. It’s in Australia’s best interest to legislate on both amending 18C and marriage equality.

It’s folly of the highest order to imagine we can protect everyone in the country from offence or insult.

Remarkably, most of the commentary fails to acknowledge Section 18D whatsoever.

18D exempts art work, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest from 18C, as long as they are said reasonably and in good faith.

Even though 18D goes some way toward mitigating 18C, it would still require mind readers and psychoanalysts to determine what speech is “reasonable” and in “good faith”.

Whether a recent cartoon by Bill Leak is reasonable or in good faith remains the subject of much ill-tempered dispute.

There’s plenty of things I’d like to say to Corey Bernardi that would offend and insult offend a reasonable person.

And, in the meantime, several QUT university students have their reputations and career prospects in tatters, by charges which will no doubt be ultimately thrown out.

Advocates for retaining 18C in its present form bring up the tiny percentage (3-5%) of convictions as an argument for retaining it; as if the huge numbers of spurious complaints, which choke up our legal process and benefit neither party, represent a virtue.

Don’t be fooled by the super-sized red herring which asks you to reject changes to 18C because most of the free speech advocates are whale-sized bigots.

Even if some of them are, it’s not their opinions at stake. It’s about what the general public – that is, you and I – are allowed to read or hear.

Do we really wish to censor ourselves from such views?

Those with unorthodox views on race or ethnicity don’t appear to have changed their minds in the decades 18C has been in place. We even vote some of them into parliament.

Meanwhile, we’ve cultivated a culture of vilifying people who do or say the “wrong” thing.

The media feeds on and recirculates the outrage until it becomes a many-headed hydra, bigger and scarier and more hateful than the prejudice from which it was spawned. And the media-storm seems to attract more followers to the xenophobic cause than it turns away.

The phenomenon is more advanced in other western democracies, resulting in unfortunate blowback in the form of Brexit and the popularity of Donald Trump.

Give bigots their right to speak. History teaches us that trying to silence unwelcome views only ferments and perpetuates them.

Disagreeable and prejudiced views should not be answered by outrage, rather by well-formed evidence based arguments placing the spotlight on their failures, fallacies and inherent bigotry.

The same logic applies to debate on same sex marriage. While I think the parliament should simply legalise marriage equality, we have nothing to fear from debate.

Sure, it will bring unsavoury views to the surface. And certainly, those views will insult and offend many in the LGBTI community. But would we rather pretend those views did not exist?

Wouldn’t discussing and challenging those views, debating them, and ultimately defeating them, be far more satisfying than silencing them?

Notwithstanding that, SSM has been debated ad nauseam for a long time now. We don’t need a non-binding plebiscite to tell us what opinion polls already have: the majority of Australians support SSM.

Bernardi claimed in March 2016 that redefining marriage is not dinner table conversation outside of the “militant homosexual lobby” and “twitterati”.

But 18C is? It’s hard to imagine tweaking the Racial Discrimination Act is dinner table fare for anyone beyond libertarians, and hard liners.

In response to the suggestion that other priorities super cede changing 18C, Bernardi said the government should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”.

While this leaves us imagining Senators entangled in chewing gum while eating their dinner, there’s no reason or mixed metaphor, which would preclude the government from legislating on both important issues.

Remember the golden rule of eating gum – you must bring enough for everyone.

If Malcolm Turnbull can seize the gauntlet and use the bill on 18C to justify a free vote on marriage equality, he’d achieve the dual benefit of reasserting his own leadership and seeing the back of two distracting and divisive issues.

So, let’s offer a toast to Corey Bernardi, wishing him good luck in removing “insult” and “offend” from Section 18C, thus, bringing marriage equality to the table. Resolve these and the Turnbull regime can move forward.

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Speaking Rashly About Rationalism

I often find myself bemoaning the lack of reasoned debate in politics. Of course we need more rational debate. Yeah, right. This is like advocating nutritious food, or breathing in oxygen as opposed to carbon dioxide. I also soberly recommend conventional forms of transport rather than shooting oneself out of a cannon.

We all think we’re rational. But in truth we’re members of an evolved hominid species prone to a plethora of biases which colour our thinking, distort what we perceive, and misguide our choices. We’ve come a long way since we were stromatolites hugging ocean floors nearly 4 billion years ago, but the use of reason remains an evolved and learned behaviour.

But isn’t this just the sort of thing a member of a rationalist organisation would say? I’m biased. And what’s so rational about me anyway? Membership doesn’t come with a corrective for human biases.

Groups such as the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) exist to stimulate the use of reason and evidence in public debate. Using reason not only contrasts with faith-based beliefs, but also with partisan politics and ideologies.

The recent debate about 18C is a curious case. According to those wanting to repeal or amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s folly to try and protect people from offence or insult. In recent debate, matching the opinion to the source rarely evokes surprise. I’m not shocked, for instance, that Guardian columnists have come down roughly 100% against Corey Bernardi’s push to water down 18C.

That’s even including an insightful piece by Gay Alcorn who not only acknowledges the problems with 18C require amendment, but titles the piece “The debate about 18C doesn’t have to be a left-right slanging match”, before proceeding to negate her own argument by refusing to endorse Corey Bernardi’s move because, it’s well, Corey Bernardi, and he’s not our friend.

 

It is dispiriting that we have nobody with the grace and skill to bring people together to discuss all this, to try to work it out, without demonising supporters and opponents as bigots or left-wing hand wringers.

Bernardi must be pleased with his latest attempt. He is getting lots of publicity, lots of air-time, and a platform to present himself as freedom’s saviour. But his bill is unlikely to go anywhere. Given his prosecution of it, that’s no surprise. It doesn’t deserve to.

 

In “The defence of free speech is limited for the anti-18C brigade”, the Guardian’s Richard Ackland lists the alleged base motives and or hypocrisy of all the supporters of amending 18C. While he makes a reasonable point that the arch-conservatives seem only concerned about their own form of free speech, the point, like the title of the article, is limited. It’s only a criticism of those particular individuals, and does nothing to undermine their argument.

The article is notable for asking the following oft repeated question:

 

What is it, precisely, that people are constrained from saying?

 

Richard gives us his answer based on an alleged incident which occurred in Bentleigh.

Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut… [and more of the same]

OK. Sounds pretty bad. But no-one is actually defending morons who say such things. The question is whether they should be thrown in jail.

What for instance would Richard say if the comment was in response to?

 

Go fuck yourself. You make me puke, you white cunt

Could both parties prosecute each other? That’s when we’d endure the pitiful explanation that it’s OK to vilify white people because they’re on the right side of the power imbalance.

There are plenty of answers to Ackland’s apparently unanswerable question. We walk on eggshells when we discuss the problems in Aboriginal communities, especially about issues which may be the fault of aboriginals. We can’t talk freely in criticism of Islam without accusations of racism or Islamophobia. The latter is especially concerning since it displays a singular determination to make an issue of race, where it’s not in evidence.

In Waleed Aly’s column for Fairfax he wrote about 18C and unsurprisingly concluded the real agenda of its advocates is to oppress minorities. Wow, that’s a real shocker. His argument suggests, unfairly, in my opinion, that the advocates of amending 18C are completely ignorant of 18D, which exempts several types of argument from prosecution under 18C unless they are unreasonable, or not in good faith.

Well, if Waleed can read the minds of his imagined adversaries then I might have a go at reading his. He seems to be applying the evidence to suit his own viewpoint, rather than the other way around. There’s no mention of the QUT case. There’s none of the acknowledgement, present in Gay Alcorn’s article, for example, that the legal profession is hardly uniform in support of maintaining 18C. Indeed, many legal minds consider the law hopelessly subjective, unconstitutional, and in need of repealing altogether. I hazard to say, many of these have even heard of 18D.

Note, Section 18C is too broad and too vague, and should be repealed, published in The Conversation and the ABC, by law lecturers and affiliates of the Liberal party, Lorraine Finlay, Augusto Zimmerman, and Joshua Forrester:

 

It is no answer to say section 18D provides exemptions to 18C. 18C already creates uncertainties about how vague terms like offend, insult and humiliate will be applied in any given situation. Section 18D compounds these uncertainties.

For example, all exemptions in 18D must be done “reasonably and in good faith”. This has been held to impose a “harm-minimisation requirement”. But what does this mean? Reasonable minds may differ whether a statement was a heartfelt opinion or an insult that could have been expressed more sensitively.

 

The argument that 18D is the unknown saviour of 18C fails to survive even modest scrutiny. But then, I’m biased by my pre-existing view: many of our laws infringe upon free speech. Our defamation laws, our postal laws, our security provisions – they are all too cognizant of obtaining the specific outcome they intended, without necessary acknowledgement of other basic freedoms.

Still, I can’t help thinking there should be more progressive voices in favour of amending 18C. Progressive freethought groups should know that free thought means little without free speech. The point remains valid even though it’s currently the hobby-horse of a certain Coalition Senator.

I’d like someone in the Australian media to surprise me with an argument outside the partisan norm. Surprise me. Please.

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Fallacy of the Atheistic Regimes

Straw Man:  20th Century Atheist regimes are responsible for the worst massacres in history.

This argument has become a thought terminating cliché which serves both as a cautionary tale of what happens when we turn away from God, and also as an attempt to equal the ledger in discussions relating to religious violence.

This argument erroneously presupposes we accept that atheism was pivotal in causing violence in the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century.  Accordingly, ‘atheistic regimes’ are supposedly an example of the dangers of ‘atheism’ in practice.  Where we might have previously said, Communist Regimes, or Totalitarian Regimes, for the purposes of argument we rebrand them Atheistic Regimes, employing a rather transparent form of Humpty Dumptyism in order to pin the blame on atheism.  The argument is used a return argument, a Tu quoque fallacy, to divert attention from religious violence.

Nazi Germany

Firstly, as an absolute knockdown, Nazi Germany was not even an atheist state.  Germany was a 95% Christian country when it went to war in 1939.   As Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out the first Treaty signed by the Nazi regime was with the Catholic Church exchanging political influence for control of German education.   Hitler ascribed his victories to divine Providence, and encouraged his own personal deification. Soldiers had ‘Gott min uns’ (god on our side) inscribed on their belt buckles, and party members took the following oath under God – “I swear in the name of almighty God, my loyalty to the Fuhrer?”  Hitler was explicit: Nazi Germany was, and would always be, a Christian nation.

Historians such as biographers John Toland cite Hitler’s Catholic background in having an influence on his fervent Anti-Semitism.  Following meetings with Hitler, General Gerhard Engel and Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber wrote that Hitler was a believer in God.  The references to Hitler’s contempt for Christianity in the memoirs of some of his confidantes seem to be the root of the association of Nazism with non-belief.  However, these references are at odds with his public announcements, and the memories of some of his other contemporaries.  Although his personal religious views varied throughout his life, Nazi public policy contained a consistent commitment to Christianity.  The Party and developed Positive Christianity to do to further its own needs, which involved a hard line reinterpretation which was particularly Anti-Semitic with a trajectory towards deifying the Fuhrer himself who was said by Hanns Kerrl, Reichsminister of Church Affairs, to be the “herald of a new revelation”.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, pg 307.

“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

Hitler did not act alone.  Using propaganda he fanned the flames of popular Christian Anti-Semitism, its perceived relation to Bolshevism, and promoted a policy of racial purity and Arian superiority.  As a scapegoat for the humiliation Germany suffered at Versailles, Jews were reviled as subhuman, commonly held to be treacherous creatures, undeserving of pity; beliefs which made the final solution possible.

The views of Hitler on Jews are hardly unique or unchristian – his own views are a product of the centuries of Christianity which preceded him.  Consider the 1543 Anti-Jewish Pamphlet by Martin Luther ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ wherein he referred to Jews as “poisonous bitter worms”, “miserable and accursed people”, “brood of vipers” [Matt. 3:7], “truly stupid fools…”, “they are nothing but thieves and robbers”, “great vermin of human ordinances”, and “these lazy rogues.  Anti-Semitism has its roots well before Nazism, as Martin Luther’s recommendations in dealing with Jews indicate:

“First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.  This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…”

“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”

“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”

“Fifth, I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”

“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.”

“Seventh,…letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow..”

The pamphlet ‘Jews and their Lies’ was displayed Nazi Nuremberg rallies, and the scholarly view is that it had a major influence on German attitudes to Jews from the Reformation to the Holocaust. (refer: Wallmann, Johannes. “The Reception of Luther’s Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century”, Lutheran Quarterly, n.s. 1 (Spring 1987).

So the arrow flung at atheism for Nazi atrocities might, at least in part, be redirected towards historical Christian Anti-Semitism, not to mention the other drivers of Nazism – Nationalism, humiliation at Versailles, Racial purity, Utopian ideals, Fascism, and the cult of personality of Hitler himself.   Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime, atheist country, and nor was it motivated by atheism.

Communist States

But what of countries that have embraced atheism as a national creed – The Soviet Union under Stalin, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia?  The atrocities of these regimes were not primarily motivated by atheism but by the crushing of dissent in fulfilling the utopian creed of which atheism was but a tenet.  To blame atheism is a Fallacy of Division:  when one reasons logically that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts.  Atheism, as a part of Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s regimes, cannot necessarily be judged as equivalent to the whole regime, and the specific causes for the violence require further investigation.

Reflecting on the primary goals of Communism as described by Marx and Engels in redistribution of wealth and changes to the social, political and economic order, atheism was but a secondary consideration.  The Soviet State under of Stalin was epitomized by the paranoia and power crazed nature of its leader resulting in purges of all potential opposition.  The perceived necessity for the government to control its’ subjects by force seems to have provided the leaders with the tools to prolong their own grasp on power; men who would be tyrants tended to obtain and keep power. One might make the case that Communism is a failed political system which appears to result in totalitarianism, murderous despots, and failed economic reforms.  20th Century Communism, like Nazism, is based on a utopian vision for society where human rights are sacrificed for the common good, where the end justifies the means, and where totalitarianism usurps the will of the individual.

Abandonment of faith in God in favor of worship at the altar of science or reason is also often invoked as part of the ‘atheistic regimes’ fallacy.  Since atheism does not necessarily entail ‘blind faith’ in science, or anything else, this point is a straw man, but even so the argument is ahistorical.  In China the Great leap forward was a disastrous economic experiment which caused millions of deaths through famine resulting primarily from inept planning.  The agrarian reforms of the Soviet Union also featured bad science and a reliance on Communist dogma with the same results – famine, and millions of deaths.  Nazi Germany featured pseudo-science driven policies such as eugenics and racism aimed at purification.  Pol Pot relocated urban dwellers to the country in order to tend farms and work in forced labor projects resulting in widespread malnutrition and death.  Science was subordinate to socialist and communist dogma, and the policies pursued were often unscientific.  Scientists did just fine in totalitarian states unless they challenged authority in which case they were killed, forced into exile or put in prison camps.

Pol Pot was not an atheist. A Thervada Buddhist, he believed in irrationalities such as karma, amd that heaven was guiding him in his efforts to transform his country into a Communist utopia.  Cambodia was Buddhist and the Khmer Rouge adopted and mirrored elements of Buddhist thought such a dhamma, and the renunciation of material goods and sentimentality.  Hitler was a Christian influenced by Martin Luther, Stalin was an altar boy educated in a seminary, and Pol Pot was educated at a Catholic School for 10 years and then at a Buddhist one.  If correlation is all that matters we could easily draw the conclusion that religion is crucial to causing the atrocities of these regimes.  Alas, the causes are to be found beyond considerations of belief or non-belief.

Correlation does not prove causation

A correlation between Atheism and the despotic communist regimes of the 20th century does not imply causation.  Proponents of this view seem to make the connection due to their own pre-existing biases, reasoning that without Christianity (or other faith) as a controlling force these regimes cut the cord to morality.  There is no evidence to support the view that the irreligious are less good than the religious.  The rich history of religious violence, continued in the present day by ISIS, Boko Haram, Christian militias in central Africa, and many other religious groups demonstrates how myopic this view is.  Atheists are drastically underrepresented is US prisons at 0.07%, compared to 1.6% of the general population (2008).

Progress

One observes that attitudes to violence have changed dramatically in the last century.   In previous centuries capital punishment was common.  Divinely ordained monarchs were not squeamish when it came to dealing with their enemies.  The revered Queen Elizabeth I had 71 of her subjects hanged, drawn and quartered, many on the basis of their religious affiliation.  The guilty were dragged by horse on a wooden frame to a public place where they were hanged by the neck until almost dead, then placed on a table, disemboweled, their sex organs were removed and burned, after which they were finally decapitated.  The corpse was then hacked into four pieces, which were placed on display in different parts of the city or country.  The crime of treason, often identified by religious affiliation, was often punished in this gruesome manner; the Christian doctrines of peace and mercy were apparently no obstacle.  The torture chambers in the Inquisitions featuring some of the most sadistic and morally repellent punishments devised by men – the Rack, the Heretics Fork, the Pear, the Strappado, Judas Cradle, the Breast ripper, the Garrotte, Breaking on the Wheel, and of course, burning at the stake.  These were not undertaken in the grip of passion, or with a temporary loss of sanity, they were premeditated crimes, reasoned and thought out based on the practical application of scripture.  The parallel with totalitarianism is self-evident: the ideology demands compulsory adherence on pain of torture and death.  If the absence of faith in God severs the moral urge in humans it is curious that we seem to have become progressively more adverse to extreme violence over time, concurrent with an increase in secularism, humanitarian attitudes, and democratic governments.

20th Century violence not the worst

Steven Pinker, in his magnificent The Better Angels of our Nature, provides ample data that violence is declining historically.  We are becoming more peaceable when we measure violence in proportion to the world population (which is surely a more accurate measure than by total numbers of deaths given the dramatic increase in the global population).  When understood in proportion to the total global population, the 20th century does not represent a high point of violence in history, and in fact its second half has been notable for a lasting peace.  The Crusades, unambiguously religiously motivated, resulted in 1 million deaths out of a total world population of 400 million, proportionally higher than the Holocaust.  The carnage resulting from the religious Thirty Years War was double that of World War I, and about the same as World War II, when compared as a percentage of world population.  This data takes some steam out of the belief that the last century featured extraordinary violence requiring a special explanation.

Perspective – Utopian political systems and Totalitarianism

The large death tolls of the 20th Century are better understood in comparing the rise of utopian political systems rather than their religious affiliations.   As countries have shifted away from political systems such as Nazism and Communism, abandoned totalitarianism, as they have embraced universal human rights and became secular liberal democracies we have had a period of comparative peace.  There are also a myriad of other specific reasons explaining the violence of the 20th Century.  It is simplistic to characterize societies as if they are driven by a single idea, even those led by genocidal despots feature a range of ideas and interests represented in an ideology.  Fascism co-existed with Catholicism in various countries, and Cold War allegiances were driven by the political system rather than the religious affiliation. Weapons became more destructive, capable of killing en masse early in the 20th century allowing for higher death tolls than before.  Ethnic cleansing, military juntas, political instability, sectarian violence and other reasons have all contributed.

Atheism does not demand State Atheism

‘State Atheism,’ the official promotion of atheism as an enforced belief by government (employed by Communist regimes), must be distinguished from mere ‘atheism.’  Most modern atheists support Secularism not State Atheism.  There are no new atheists I am aware of who argue for atheism to be state sponsored and enforced on pain of loss of liberty, torture and death.  This highlights a crucial distinction between religious ideologies and non-religious ones.  Christianity suggests an evangelical requirement on believers, and if it were actually true that an eternity in Hell awaits non-believers then one would indeed be doing good by forcing others to conform to its’ doctrines.  Fervent believers in Islam are also determined for the religion to be practiced by all.  Harsh punishments, including the death penalty still exist in many parts of the world for apostasy and atheism.

State Atheism represents a totalitarian ideology abhorrent to most modern atheists, humanists and secularists, and is an indictment on the collaboration between utopian ideologies and totalitarian political systems, not atheism itself.  Atheism necessitates only a lack of belief or disbelief in god(s); it is not necessary to adhere to an ideology seeking to enforce compulsory belief on all.   This is where the straw man of the ‘atheistic’ regimes argument is erected.   Atheism is conflated with State atheism, symptomatic of the apologetic habit of measuring aspects of atheism in contradistinction to aspects of religion, as if they are diametrically opposed to one another with equivalent but opposite qualities.  Atheism is broadened into a tapestry of irreligious ideologies often including such things as scientism, social Darwinism, eugenics, Communism and totalitarianism.  The new atheists are not arguing for State atheism, any more than they are promoting theocratic rule.  Pluralism is an ideal common to atheists, one that stands in stark contrast to totalitarianism.

Key Points

So in summary the Fallacy of the ‘atheistic regimes’ argument encounters the following decisive objections:

  1. Nazism was not atheistic
  2. It is a Fallacy of Division to equate atheism with larger political systems which might include it as a tenet
  3. Atheism was not the prime motivator of the violence undertaken the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the 20thcentury
  4. No evidence suggesting decline in religious belief, or atheism, leads to an increase in violence, although plenty of evidence suggests the opposite
  5. The 20thcentury was not the most violent in history
  6. The cause of violence and the passage to non-violence is better understood in terms of the rise and fall of utopian totalitarian states
  7. Atheists do not support or promote State Atheism

Facing these objections the straw man falls.  Atheism does not suffer any guilt by association with Communist dictatorships and tyrannical despots.  Their delusions of grandeur, false ideologies and lust for power were far more urgent motivators than the influence of a lack of belief in God.  It might be comforting for the apologists of religion to rationalize the violence done in its name by invoking the fallacy of atheist regimes but they are forced to ignore history to do so.  Historians don’t think atheism is the cause of 20th Century violence – they point to the specific range of drivers in each case.  The failure to make elementary distinctions, an incurious and cherry picked view of history is symptomatic of starting with a conclusion and then trying to furnish it with evidence.

 

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Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

Critics of atheism and or naturalism/materialism often present the dichotomy of naturalism and supernaturalism as a false choice. Naturalism entails the closed system of the known universe and supernaturalism represents the realm beyond or outside the physical world. Theists too easily dismiss naturalism and materialism as unproven, since they cannot disprove immaterial worlds and other dimensions, thereby seeking to grant religious beliefs in supernaturalism additional power. As I will show, this is a mistake as it unfairly manipulates the argument by a focus on what naturalism denies, rather than what it affirms.

The false dichotomy is represented by an either/or choice between:

  • Natural

OR

  • Natural + Supernatural

There are two reasons why this is fallacious:

  1. Supernaturalism is arbitrarily granted equal epistemological status with nature
  2. Limitless versions of Supernaturalism are available

Definitions

From Dictionary.com

The distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism has been something of a vexed question, and for the purposes of argument it is clarified as follows:

Naturalism

  1. the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.

Supernatural

  1. a being, place, object, occurrence, considered as supernatural or of supernatural origin;
  2. that which is supernatural,or outside the natural order.

Essentially the natural and supernatural are flipsides of the same concept. The supernatural is defined as outside or transcendent of nature. Naturalism entails a formal belief that nature is all there is. This is mostly perceived as a strong positive belief that the universe is a closed system with nothing beyond or outside of it. For the purposes of this discussion it will be useful to understand naturalism as simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist. This might be termed weak naturalism. Just as an atheist might be termed a weak atheist since he lacks belief in God, but does not necessarily positively disbelieve in all god(s).

Since the strong interpretation of naturalism effectively rules out anything beyond the natural, the theist is able to seize the opportunity to corner non-theists into a position they may not actually hold. A non-theist does not necessarily claim that the known universe is all encompassing, or that his lack of belief in God(s) demands that he also refutes any possibility of the supernatural. In order to create the false dichotomy the non-believer is conscripted, using naturalism, in to the position of denying any other knowledge or realm apart from the natural.

Since the definition of naturalism precludes supernaturalism, if we were able to identify another realm, perhaps an immaterial one, this realm might then by virtue of its discovery become part of the naturalist position. Therefore something is amiss. The distinction becomes meaningless if naturalism is equated precisely with our current knowledge. This is known as trivial naturalism. It must have a distinction in kind so that supernaturalism is not only unexplained by nature, but also has causes outside of nature or belong to systems with different laws, or is explained by the mental powers of immaterial Beings. Thereby, if discovered they would still be classified as supernatural.

This is dependent on the definition of nature. When we talk about nature we are discussing the observance of natural laws and cause and effect in the world. What exactly makes them natural? If God created the world would not acts of God within the world he created also be natural, as long he did not contravene the laws of nature he created? This question would be difficult to answer, and thankfully we can leave it to one side, since we are only concerned with the natural world as we know it. The distinction of supernatural refers to something operating beyond or outside of these laws, and would therefore be anything that is not controlled by the known physical laws of the universe.

Philosophically, the nature-supernature distinction is problematic because generally a ‘distinction’ relies on a comparison between two known entities. We know virtually nothing about allegedly supernatural entities, and can offer no verified examples for comparison. The supernatural is primarily a negation of natural – its’ definition dependent on overcoming, overriding or sitting outside the causation observed in nature. The supernatural cannot be defined as one thing, or one realm. It is the unknown not-natural which is as yet an undiscovered set of things, as far as we know potentially an empty set, and potentially an infinite set.

False Equivalency

In terms of practical knowledge, the natural world and the supernatural are not equal. Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world. In fact, there is no comparison whatsoever.

The universe exists; beyond philosophical ‘mind in a vat style’ equivocations one could hardly mount a convincing case that it does not. The nature of the physical universe and the physical laws which govern it are documented so extensively that we are able to make accurate predictions about future events, predictions about the movements of planets, tides, and the weather. Humans can perform complex medical interventions to improve our longevity, understand and control the spread of disease, utilize natural resources to provide food and shelter, create vehicles to navigated long distances and a myriad of other things too numerous to mention. In stark contrast the evidence in favor of a supernatural realm is confined to speculation, religious doctrine, ghost stories, and unverifiable claims of revelation.

Theists who seek to assert equivalency are on shaky ground. They might propose that since we do not know everything about nature we cannot disprove supernaturalism. This is a mistake. Inability to rule it out does not count as positive evidence in its favor, and indicates nothing about the probability of the supernatural realm.

Theists may argue that since we do not have an answer to some of the fundamental questions about existence itself, an answer might or must be obtained in realms that are as yet undiscovered. Again, lack of an answer to a fundamental question about the natural world, does not necessitate any evidence in favor of a theory that provides a non-natural answer; this is a non-sequitur.

Mysteries, such as the vast and uncharted universe, dark matter, our inability to traverse to distant galaxies, to enter black holes, or to understand what happened prior to 10-43 Plank time, and the unresolved aspects of abiogenesis, lead some to reason that since we don’t understand a great deal about existence then we must subscribe to an open mind about the supernatural, eventuating an apathetic attitude of giving it an even chance of existing. Since we don’t know a lot about fundamental reality we cannot say with great confidence that complete realms aside from the natural exist. This openness to new information is quite reasonable but should not lead to the conclusion that a transcendent reality, supplementary to the one we know exists, is equally likely to the hypothesis than the universe is a closed system. The lack of any evidence of a supernatural or immaterial realm is at least a prima facie case that it is more improbable than probable. Our imperfect knowledge of the natural world does not indicate a probability or equal likelihood of supernatural realms; this is a ‘super-nature of the gaps’ style argument (refer: God of the Gaps). Our inability to solve the fundamental questions of existence do not equalize theories with knowledge, or speculation with what is demonstrable by evidence.

Many versions of Supernaturalism

The supernatural realm is conspicuously absent a well-defined set of properties. The religions who agree with each other that this realm exists disagree spectacularly on what it entails. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions assume a supernatural realm exists but posit different entities within it, and different Beings governing it. Some propose Heaven and Hell as repositories of human souls. Some disallow any contact between the supernatural realm and the natural realm whilst others allow a myriad of interventions from angels, Gods and devils.

The contradiction ever present in theology is the argument that we cannot have contact or knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but we must have faith regardless, or obtain to knowledge through faith. Transcendental arguments of revelation through faith are numerous (see the Witness of the Holy Spirit) and yet they are unsupported by a consistent “known” nature of the supernatural. A singular or common standard does not apply and the alleged “experience” is reported in various different ways. The various versions of the supernatural are consistent with speculation rather than knowledge, and lead to an infinite number of possible worlds in the supernatural realm since there is no possibility or means of reducibility.

The False Dichotomy

The choice can be better outlined as follows:

  • The Known Universe

OR

  • The Known Universe + Christian Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Islamic Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + Hindu Supernaturalism

OR

  • The Known Universe + reincarnation, spirits, ghosts

OR

  • ….and on to infinity

Where the theist argues we must make a choice between two scenarios he is making a grave mistake. The actual choice is between the extant universe and an infinite number of possible worlds that we are prevented from having any knowledge of.

We should not be cornered into accepting such a speculative set of beliefs. The burden of proof is on the Theist to mount a case in favor of a well-defined supernatural realm. Once that is achieved we could properly compare the likelihood of one to the other.

Evidence

The Theist is forced into jumping back and forth to either side of the evidential coin. Arguing, on one hand, that the supernatural is beyond our power to observe it by definition; that seeking to use our senses and perceptions and the tools of science to measure what is undetectable, due to its existence beyond the bounds of nature, is an exercise in futility; a category mistake.

On the other hand, they are unlikely to want to concede there is no way of knowing there is a supernatural realm or of determining what exists within it. The doctrines of their religion are based upon knowing these things. Not only do religions claim the realm exists they also proscribe a conception of what it might be like. The concept might include a deity, angels, various levels of either heaven or hell, activities, waiting chambers such as purgatory, and any number of other properties. The religion will often describe how the realm relates to our purpose in life, and how we should interpret the will of its deity or deities who reside there.

The theist is then forced to argue that we do in fact have knowledge of the supernatural dimension through non-evidential means. It’s worth considering the dictionary meaning of ‘evidence’ does not limit it to any type (on line Dictionary):

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid

It then becomes apparent that it is the Theist who makes a category mistake by assuming a category of knowledge not available to them. If revelation, knowledge through faith, and witness of the Holy Spirit truly provide knowledge of the supernatural then they are evidence. This evidence could, therefore, be weighed in accordance with its consistency, verifiability and its ability to make predictions. As ‘evidence’ of another realm, or of God, we should reasonably expect the provision of knowledge relevant to humanity, or greater truths not available in this world, which might provide great insight in to the meaning of life, and the fundamental questions. At the very least we should expect a consistent description of the supernatural realm, the nature of the Beings therein, and the content of the experience. In contrast to these expectations, Theists seek to exempt such experiences from the measures of evidence.

Bearing in mind the definition of evidence mentioned earlier, the theist effectively claims to have unique access to a type of evidence outside of evidence itself; a logical impossibility. Analogously, we cannot claim there are possibilities beyond what is possible. We cannot logically do the illogical.   Alternatively, they may counter this statement by saying they have evidence but it is only available to those who have faith. It can only be accessed by those committing to faith, and even then it is not demonstrable or verifiable to anyone without faith.

Conclusion

Naturalism does not entail a simple choice between two options. The supernatural realm entails an unlimited number of possible worlds. Not only do the proponents of the transcendental need to demonstrate the properties of another realm, they also need to demonstrate a means of detection. If alternative realms are proposed to be undetectable any claim to their existence is self-defeating. If they are proposed to be detectable and interactive with this world then their veracity should be demonstrated on evidence. Evidence cannot be discounted as, by definition, it constitutes the way in which we know things. It is not a knock down argument for theism to claim that naturalism or materialism cannot be proved; the unproved is the denial of the supernatural realm, whose probability is not helped, but hindered by its own unknowability and inscrutability. The false dichotomy is clear: the natural world is clear to see, the supernatural is undiscovered.

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Debunking the Witness of the Holy Spirit

From Aquinas’ sensus dei through to the modern Christian apology of Plantinga and Craig, God’s existence has been affirmed through the manifestation of his holy spirit. God has graced humans with a sensus divinitatis (a special sense) providing the individual with certainty of God without recourse to evidence.   John Calvin:

 

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget

 

The large numbers of people oblivious to this sense presents a problem for the sensus divinitatis. Alvin Plantinga’s modern variant of the argument provides an airtight explanation – this sense is defective in some people due to sin.   Well, how convenient!   One unproven doctrine props up another one.

 

Reformed Epistemology, a continuation of Calvin’s sensus divinitatus, proposes properly basic beliefs which are self-evident. We perceive them directly, as we would when we see a tree, or taste an apple. Plantinga admits the perception needn’t be similar to other perceptions, but maintains the concept is the same. Some beliefs must be properly basic, not requiring grounding in other beliefs, thereby providing a foundation for other knowledge.

 

The key question is whether the personal experience of the holy spirit provides an acceptable standard of evidence to justify forming belief?   There are various strong objections to be made to the witness of the holy spirit.

 

  1. How can any subject KNOW their perceptions are authentic?

The wide range of metaphysical beliefs demonstrates people are capable of drawing different conclusions from the same world (evidence).  As above, many theistic religions make precisely the same argument for a witness of the holy spirit.  Not all of these claims can be true, as several are competing. Many “witness” type claims have been discredited.   Modern Branch Davidians led by the notorious David Koresh who believed he was the prophet who would father the next messiah. They were even other Branch Davidians who claimed to have the ability to raise the dead. Their witness of the holy spirit was obviously false in this case.   Sathya Sai Baba of India made a lucrative career from convincing others of his Divine nature by working miracles, faith healing and predicting the future. The BBC’s The Secret Swami exposed his fakery, fraud and probable paedophilia. India has quite a tradition of fake gurus. Countless spiritual leaders and faith healers were later found to be charlatans.

2.   Human fallibility is evidenced constantly throughout history.

Our species has held many beliefs as knowledge without sufficient evidence that later turned out to be spectacularly false – earth was flat, quintessence, the stars determined out fate, earth was the centre of universe, belief in witches, lighting and weather was god’s wrath, sacrificing animals and children influences god.  A thousand years ago it seemed entirely reasonable that the Earth was the centre of the universe given observation that the moon and the stars appeared to rotate around it.   Many of the modern discoveries of physics have been counter intuitive to our natural expectation – evolution for instance. If we should distrust even commonly held beliefs if they lack sufficient evidence, then we certainly question our personal intuitions.

  1. Personal fallibility; which perceptions are true and which are not?

How does a subject determine without any doubt that God is real, when they are aware of being deceived on other occasions? Everyone has been deceived by their senses in one way or other. Those suffering from mental illness or experiencing effects of mild altering substances, have perceptions that differ markedly from reality.

 

  1. Why is the content of the experience lacking?

 

To have an actual witness of the Holy Spirit implies a genuine experience of the person – God. There clearly should be substantive descriptions of the nature of God as revealed through this experience; his Holy nature cannot remain hidden if we claim to bear witness to it. Believers would note common features or properties of God that they could relate to each other. Such an amazing experience would surely entail some sort of knowledge otherwise one must ask how they know what they are bearing witness to? How compelling would this testimony on the witness be? I had an experience with person X but, alas, know nothing about person X, nor can I describe any detail of the experience with person X, nor can I produce any effects demonstrably caused by person X, but trust me, I know for certain that person X exists. This is not a witness of anything.

  1. Personal experiences lack verifiability.

 

Knowledge is justified on the basis of sufficient evidence, testable by third parties. If our evidence is merely a feeling or instinct within our consciousness, the qualities required for third party analysis are absent. To accept the witness of the holy spirit implies agreement that all other untestable claims have equal justification. The outcome is a relativist world where reality is entirely subjective. Not only a patently false description of our world, the acceptance of untestable propositions as valid truth claims would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.

 

William Lane Craig argues the witness of the holy spirit is an intrinsic defeater-defeater, immune to counter evidence.   Even if presented with irrefutable evidence pointing to the non-existence of God, Craig would maintain faith due to the overwhelming power and conviction provided his witness of the holy spirit. But note how he responds when a non-Christian theist makes the same claim:

 

Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth.
Craig dismisses without argument other claims of self-authenticating witness of God, “They really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.” This invalidates any claim of a witness of God, including Craig’s own. There is no explanation to satisfy the special pleading invoked in favour of Craig’s God as opposed to everyone else’s. If it is acceptable for Craig to dismiss the claims of others, then it must be acceptable for others to dismiss his own. From his own logic one thing is clear; if there is any legitimate argument for the existence of his God, above any others, it is demonstrably not the witness of the holy spirit!

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Beyond Empiricism

It’s not surprising after several millennia of culturally enforced piety that many people believe in transcendence; contact with phenomena beyond the empirical world; and not just the faithful.
‘There must be something…’
…‘This can’t be all there is.’
People say things like this all the time, as if an assumption becomes a deductive truth. Conversely, some claim that limiting the world to naturalism reflects a form of faith itself, often labelled as scientism or dogma. This would imply a burden of proof on the naturalist to provide evidence (not faith) there is nothing beyond the natural world. Since this is demanding the impossible, it is an unreasonable demand. But is it equally unreasonable to reject the presumption of a non-empirical realm?

Cultural myths cast a shadow of otherworldliness upon our psyche. Even for non-believers it is natural to speculate on an afterlife. Offering an antidote for grief and a defeater to mortality, the cognitive bias that informs these beliefs seems watermarked into our consciousness. Wishful thinking is embedded in the phraseology of our language. Instead of dying we would much rather pass on or go to a better place in the next world, because death is not the end, but merely the beginning.

James Whitcomb Riley’s He is Not Dead:

I cannot say, and I will not say,
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land.
David Searls:
Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.
G.K. Chesterton
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility… But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.

Throughout history we witness the collaboration between assertion of the transcendent and an alibi for its absence. Unlike the sun at noonday which we can actually see, we can see no transcendence; not a blaze nor a blur, no shining or shapeless visage, no splendid confusion; only a crestfallen nothingness that leaves the assertion unfulfilled.

What if we accept the natural world is all; abandoning the afterlife and its promise of eternity? What sort of nihilism entails from this belief? Nietzsche articulates the insecurity entailed in his famous God is dead passage (from The Gay Science):

How could we drink up the sea?
Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun?
Whither it is moving now? Whither are we moving?
Away from all suns?
Are we not plunging continually?
Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?
….Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?
…God is dead.
God remains dead.
We have killed him
To abandon faith is to slay humanities’ dearest illusions. Marx postulated real happiness depends on this excision:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Both Marx and Nietzsche understood implicitly the human need fulfilled by religion, and so they sought its replacement. Giving up the addiction to superstition and consolation was never going to be easy, and even now, after a century of gradual secularisation and a movement away from faith in many western countries, the supernatural still has its appeal. There is something in our nature that desperately clutches on to it, like a child to a parent.

The allegation of scientism, a word which has become a snarl word for excessive reductionism, is made against those who deny a mystical dimension. Since science cannot disprove a spiritual dimension, it must admit its possibility; and presumably its accessibility. Reza Aslan:

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science
The argument rests on the unknowability of metaphysical claims; since they are beyond the purview of science they cannot be denied by science. Yet, how are they to be understood by any other fields of inquiry if they cannot be known? Rather than just supposing that there is something beyond the impenetrable boundary of the universe, shouldn’t we be considering whether there is or isn’t? It is of course quite a grand claim after all.

Cosmologists theorize that the universe is a closed system. The sum total of our existential knowledge is the observable universe, and what operates within that universe does so invariably according its nature. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p109:

It has likewise no impulse to self-preservation or impulses of any kind; neither does it know any laws. Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress….
Nature is defined by the forces and entities that operate within it; it cannot observe laws, those laws are what we invent to describe its fundamental nature. Understanding the depth of Nietzsche’s point is appreciating that we should not expect miracles, or divine interventions; these are simply impossible. The natural order is impervious to prayer, worship, chance, and the wishful thinking of men.
If there is a supernatural or otherwise non-natural dimension outside the universe then it has stubbornly evaded detection. To presume its’ existence despite this, must surely entail an obligation to provide some evidence in support of it. We do not have to accept that people can communicate beyond the grave, or encode messages from deities, or are themselves reincarnated famous historical figures, or similar outlandish things.
If there is a path to knowledge beyond empirical inquiry then we should surely have some demonstrable effects of this knowledge. We should have solved some problems by non-natural means, and sought to harness its power. We should be able interrogate the veracity of supernatural claims. However, while attempts have been made, nothing has been proven. No-one has claimed James Randi’s prize.

If there is another type of reality beyond the universe we currently have no way of knowing anything about it. It is therefore impossible to know whether there is anything there, and if there is, what that thing or set of things might be. From a pure logic point of view it would be staggeringly unlikely that we should be able to guess what exists in another dimension or world without any relation to it.

And yet many people do predict what things might exist in an after-life, and the ways in which people might transcend the natural laws of this world. There is a wild assortment of transcendental beliefs; ghosts, gods, vampires, psychic abilities, magic, reincarnation, spirits, witches, goblins, fairies, werewolves, incubi and so on. How do we assess the validity of each of these claims based on having no knowledge or measurable relationship to them? Based on zero evidence, all we have to go on is the coherence of the claim. And perhaps this explains something. Those who describe the transcendent in contemporary literature seem to place high stock in wrapping the message in compelling, sometimes breathtaking language. Roger Scruton:

…the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world.
sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.
Whilst they sound nice these statements are simply assertions without proof. This language carries over to the consideration of the transcendent as an activity in the observance religion and spiritualism. Through these meditations we can achieve greater insight into life, or enlightenment. The perceived value in religion is often expressed in phrases such as “pointing to the transcendent”, “its eternal, tranquil watchfulness,” or looking for the “sacred light of truth at the edge of the world.” Without question, there might be some introspective benefits to be obtained by these contemplations. But we should admit that they necessarily involve an effort of imagination and speculation to create an artificial experience. There is no real communication between this world and another one.
The search for genuine spirituality would assuredly be enhanced by a focus on achieving the individual experience rather than the fictional creation of other world-ness. Since we can have no knowledge, it is futile to accept faith in supernatural beings in a way that presumes precisely that somehow we do have knowledge; and that the supernatural being has an exacting and unambiguous plan which must all followed for our entire lives. Not only is it futile, it is counterproductive as we could be investing our time and intellects more wisely.
Kierkegaard’s paradox is essentially the human belief that we can know, what is by nature, unknowable, in relation to belief in God. We can somehow transcend our own rationality to perceive something without knowing how we perceive it. It is only a paradox if we choose to believe that there is something there that we cannot know about. Otherwise, it is not a paradox, it is a contradiction. One may object that if we perceive something without knowing how, we should be skeptical as to how we can know it. Other precedents for this type of knowledge include the hallucinations of those using illicit substances, and the delusions of the mentally ill. Even if we could argue that this knowledge is provided through some other means we are unconscious of, or only subliminally aware of, there is no way we can support the conclusion. Without accessible knowledge we have no way to verify or determine that this belief is justified. It is a license to claim the existence of any supernatural or natural entity. Greater care and diligence should be exercised before accepting of these type of beliefs, particularly considering that belief in God and observance of religion is to many people the most important and influential belief in their life. We cannot know what we cannot know. However we want to dress it up it is a case of special pleading, and we cannot rationalize our way to knowing what is unknowable. What is an existential mystery for Kierkegaard is also market opening for charlatans and cons.

To consider how the self might die, and then continue on to another reality is at odds with our medical knowledge. Sentience is a product of our brain. Our mind works because of the physical workings of our brain, which can be measured and studied in the realm of neuroscience. When the human body dies, the electrical impulses in the brain cease. There is no more consciousness; there are no more thoughts; there is a point which we can medically detect that sentience and life is gone. It seems incongruous that the mind will somehow kick start again without the brain, to allow a continuance in some other reality. In the event that it could, it would seem to indicate that the physical operation of the brain throughout life was an unnecessary redundancy, or a ruse to deceive us. Likewise it is problematic to imagine consciousness transferring to some other controller, our soul for instance, and still remaining a product of the same self. In addition, the soul remains undiscovered. If it is residing somewhere within our bodies, it is undetectable by the instruments of modern medicine. So in postulating transcendence or an afterlife, we do not even have a reasonable hypothesis for how our own identity continues to exist, never mind a clear idea of where that identity goes.
It is not unreasonable or dogmatic to reject belief in a non-empirical realm. There is no evidence, and it is only guesswork to speculate about it. Those who disagree are free to provide their evidence, and their explanation of how they know. It is clear that we must neither assume the existence, nor non-existence of a non-empirical realm. Though we should feel no obligation to award warrant for those who claim to hold knowledge of things that they are patently unable to demonstrate through evidence