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Piers Morgan’s silly attack on atheism, backed up by hapless Philosopher

Philosopher Nikk Effingham makes some monumental philosophical gaffes as he weighs in on the Twitter “debate” about the existence of God between Piers Morgan and Brian Cox. (Text of article below)

Here’s Piers Morgan’s tweet which succeeded in raising the hackles of atheists.

“Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang. They just say ‘nothing’ but they can’t explain what ‘nothing’ actually is. No human brain can, which is why I believe in something that has superior powers to the human brain.”

In answer to Piers supposedly penetrating question Brian Cox offers:

“Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not?”

To this Effingham offers:

“Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations?”

Disturbingly, a philosopher is making a fairly obvious false comparison, confusing science with reality. Science is a method of inquiry – not commensurate with reality itself, and as a series of disciplines investigating reality, it has no bearing whatsoever on what that reality ultimately is. Further, there is no means of inquiry which can demonstrate that all things must have explanations.

He also misses the point. The “why is there something?” question can be turned on it’s head. Why do many assume that something came out of nothing? Why is nothing the default scenario?

And then this howler:

“What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.”

I wonder if this statue is made of straw. Effingham confuses a specific thing (statue) with existence itself. The universe is not a specific article exhibiting a likeness or connection with humans. Quite the opposite.

His point is reminiscent of the classic intelligent design argument which was once so convincing. If you find a watch laying in the ground one immediately senses the need for a designer. For centuries it was accepted folk wisdom that this logic should apply to humans and the world around us. Alas, Darwin found a better explanation in evolution.

Effingingham also makes a silly false comparison between scientists believing in their theories, and religious belief in God. As though most religious believers are simply proposing a hypothesis they think is likely, rather than the reality, which involves devoting themselves to a whole platform of tenets, commitments and rituals which assume the factual truth of the existence of their own specific God, usually to the exclusion of all others.

And this is what frustrates many atheists. Why are apparently intelligent people fooled by bad arguments?

In the absence of explanation for existence we:

  1. Demand there must be an explanation B. Find an explanation from our preexisting belief system B. Rationalise that the answer must be God

Piers Morgan’s argument is preposterous: The human brain can’t explain “nothing” so there must be something superior to the human brain.

Non sequitur. Nothing is suggested by what human brains can’t explain. In the absence of knowledge we used to think evil spirits caused storms. None of the enduring mysteries of existence have so far been explained by God.

The fact that we don’t know, equals an insistence to suspend belief. This suggests atheism and agnosticism. It does not suggest we should just conclude that God did it.

 

 

Piers Morgan and Brian Cox debate the existence of God: a philosopher’s take

Nikk Effingham The Conversation

Piers Morgan started a Twitter debate about God. “Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang” starts a recent tweet posted by the journalist-turned-television presenter. Morgan then moves to the existence of a higher power. A quick scan of the replies shows that the mere suggestion is enough to raise hackles.

Morgan’s tweet is a “cosmological argument” – one that argues that there must be an ultimate cause or explanation for the existence of the universe and that it must be God.

When focusing on causes, the idea is to question what caused, say, the Big Bang? If science finds that it’s a physical cause, we’ve gone nowhere, for what brought that about? And if the cause is non-physical, it must be supernatural. When focusing on explanation, the question is what explains the sum total of all facts? If it’s a scientific explanation, such as the fundamental laws of nature explaining everything, then what explains those laws? And the argument goes round again. If the explanation is non-scientific, then God isn’t far behind.

Piers Morgan: enquiring mind. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

I doubt such arguments prove God’s existence for sensible objections abound. For instance, in response to Morgan, scientist (and television presenter) Brian Cox – who, as any fan of his radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage will know, is not philosophy’s biggest fan – nevertheless turns philosophical and suggests that perhaps nothing explains these things.

Another objection to this kind of argument is that God isn’t a good explanation because what would explain God?

Or consider one last objection. We might say that a prior universe was responsible for the Big Bang, and before that one, there was another. And so on, forever. Because this chain of universes has been around forever, the suggestion is that they need no explanation.

Problems with the objections

To each objection there are rejoinders – if there weren’t, philosophers like myself would be doing it wrong.

Can scientific phenomena really have no explanation? Isn’t science based on the idea that all things have discoverable explanations? Even particles popping into existence in the quantum foam have an explanation for their existence (namely, the laws of quantum physics) even if they have no specific cause.

And maybe it’s OK for God’s creation of reality to be inexplicable. Some people – “libertarians” – suggest that people’s free choices have no explanation. If our choices were wholly explained (for example, by our brain activity) there would be no free will. So even if scientific explanations always need explanations, God’s actions don’t.

Read more: The psychology of believing in free will

What about the eternally existing chain of universes? Imagine you stumble across a perfect statue of yourself. Wondering why the hell it’s there, is it really satisfactory if someone says it just happens to have been there for all eternity? I doubt it.

Good arguments needn’t be proofs

The literature on the cosmological argument is vast. It’s an open question whether the crucial premises are true or not. So it isn’t proof of God’s existence. But that doesn’t mean the cosmological argument is a bad argument. To be good, an argument doesn’t have to conclusively and undeniably prove its conclusion. Good reasoning needn’t be impervious to doubt.

Brian Cox: ‘no personal faith’. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

Intelligent, well-informed adults can be justified in believing different things. Two physicists might disagree over a correct fundamental physical theory. One might say it’s superstring theory. Another might believe it’s loop quantum gravity. And both can be justified, even though they have the same body of information to hand. Indeed, they can be justified even though at most one of them is right. Being justified in believing something doesn’t mean it has to be true. Sometimes rational trains of thought can lead us astray – such is life.

And it’s not just science. Veteran politicians disagree even though they’re privy to the same information. Politics also shows that non-experts can similarly disagree. People who haven’t waded through all of the available information nevertheless get to have justifiable political views. Liberal democracy is founded on the idea that voters make sensible, justified decisions when they vote. You don’t need to be the West Wing’s fictional Nobel Prize-winning president, Jed Bartlet, in order to justifiably believe that lower business rates could work out well, that railway nationalisation is the way forward, or – in short – justifiably have a political opinion.

New atheism and Brexit

The, often outrageously rude, debate on Morgan’s Twitter feed shows that people tend to want religious arguments to meet some crazily high standard of proof. This is not unusual – it characterises a lot of New Atheist debates. But it’s an unfair burden. Churchgoers aren’t simpering morons just because they can’t prove God exists in the same way that we can prove to anyone that there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

So Morgan may not be telling atheists why they have to believe in God. Rather, he may be making a claim about why he is justified in believing in God. Those things are different. It’s implausible to believe that 140 characters is going to change the mind of every atheist. But if Morgan is just giving us an insight into his own belief structure – claiming only that his faith is justified – then, since the jury is out when it comes to the cosmological argument’s crucial premises, he’s on solid ground.

In the same way that a scientist may believe superstring theory in lieu of conclusive experimental evidence, or how politician Jeremy Corbyn can think that nationalising energy is sensible even though questions remain (for don’t questions always remain?), Morgan can be justified in believing in God.

This lesson isn’t just one for religious debate. The world (and the internet, especially) would be a better place if we worried less about whether someone was wrong and more about whether they’re justified. As new technologies allow for evermore public clashes of views, such as with the often vicious Brexit debate, realising that intellectually sophisticated adults can be justified in believing diametrically opposed things has never been more important.

 

 

Don’t always accept the prevailing wisdom, its usually wrong

… especially in regards to freethinkers!

 

As published in The Rationalist Journal June 2018

 

One of the key reasons we identify as rationalists, sceptics, or free thinkers, is because we value reason and evidence-based inquiry. We oppose government policy based on superstition, prejudice, or pseudoscience. We oppose charlatans exploiting the gullible. We advocate against magical thinking, fake news and the increasing acceptance of science-denialism. We emphasize the antidote to magical thinking – virtues of reason, science and evidence-based policies. We want to interrogate truth claims, and challenge the prevailing wisdom – after all, most of us know that it’s usually wrong.

And so, it’s disappointing to read articles by local rationalists and sceptics denigrating some of the exemplars of the freethought movement because they supposedly (amongst other things) exaggerate the importance of science and evidence. According to James Fodor “Not So Simple”, and Tim Harding, “A Step Too Far”, the following luminaries – Richard Dawkins, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss and Peter Boghossian – can all be lumped together, and termed pejoratively as “crude positivists”; guilty of propagating such horrors as “strict evidentialism”, “scientism”, and “pragmatism”.

Both Fodor and Harding are local free thinkers who are thoughtful and insightful in the commentary, but, in this case, I think they have succumbed to the prevailing orthodoxy which labels public atheists, and science advocates, as a little too strident, blinkered, and prone to exaggerate the importance of science.

Of course, it’s still fashionable to make glib criticisms of freethinkers – in particular, the movement identified as New Atheism. Efforts to discredit the New Atheists began soon after publication of their books, the End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Because of their uncompromising and devastating attack on organised religion, New Atheists became controversial figures themselves, attracting a multitude of ad hominem attacks from the religious apologists they were actively debating. One conspicuous example was Alister McGrath’s, The Richard Dawkins Delusion – Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine, containing ad hominem in its title. New Atheists were accused in pejorative terms of being religious fundamentalists, attacking a narrow interpretation of religion, dogmatism, reductionism, gross materialism, Islamophobia, and scientism. In these emotion-charged debates, mud has been thrown and evidently some of the mud has stuck.

While it’s understandable that some free thinkers would want to dissociate themselves from the bad press, we needn’t go so far as to drink the Kool Aid of religious apology. Invoking words like scientism to demonise the promoters of science is the stock-in-trade of religious apology. But there’s no doubt these criticisms have caught on, perhaps becoming accepted generally. I intend to show these criticisms are based on a narrow caricature of New Atheist views, which necessarily simplify and abbreviate their arguments.

James Fodor labels the above mentioned freethinkers with the “crude positivism” moniker, without feeling any obligation to provide any specific examples or quotes. Evidently, the prevailing view is good enough and no further justification is required. Rather, Fodor makes his case by describing the ways crude positivists allegedly frame their arguments, as follows:

 

  • Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  • Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social science, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge or a distinctly inferior sort.
  • Pragmatism: science owes its’ special status to its’ unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status

 

Evidentialism

Arguing against promoting “strict evidentialism”, Fodor admits that, as an abstract principle, beliefs should be informed by evidence. But he has concerns about how crude positivists apply this maxim in practise.

For example, a crude positivist might refuse to accept the claims of evangelical Christians that they have experienced God in their own lives. Fodor says that “nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something they regard to be ‘evidence’” But he alleges that crude positivists fail to make good arguments as to why this evidence is insufficient, simply demanding that theists provide evidence – especially scientific evidence. Fodor, is of course right to say that we need to explain what constitutes good evidence. However, the New Atheists have been relentless in outlining what sort of evidence would be sufficient for over a decade.

Notice how specifically this extended quote from Peter Boghossian’s, The Limits of Knowledge, answers Fodors’ objection in advance:

 

The problem is that everyone thinks they form their beliefs on the basis of evidence. That’s one of the issues, for example, with fake news. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or just surfing Google, people read and share stories either that they want to believe or that comport with what they already believe—then they point to those stories as evidence for their beliefs. Beliefs are used as evidence for beliefs, with fake news just providing fodder.

Teaching people to formulate beliefs on the basis of evidence may, ironically, trap them in false views of reality. Doing so increases their confidence in the truth of a belief because they think they’re believing as good critical thinkers would, but they’re actually digging themselves into a cognitive sinkhole. The more intelligent one is, the deeper the hole. As Michael Shermer famously stated, “Smarter people are better at rationalizing bad ideas.” That is, smarter people are better at making inferences and using data to support their belief, independent of the truth of that belief.

What, then, can we skeptics do? Here’s my recommendation: Instead of telling people to form beliefs on the basis of evidence, encourage them to seek out something, anything, that could potentially undermine their confidence in a particular belief. (Not something that will, but something that could. Phrased this way it’s less threatening.) This makes thinking critical.

Philosophers call this process “defeasibility”. Defeasibility basically refers to whether or not a belief is revisable.

 

Another example: in a debate with William Lane-Craig, Lawrence Krauss outlined the sort of evidence he thinks is necessary:

 

Evidence is falsifiable; evidence is something I can test.

 

Krauss goes further, mopping out some misconceptions regarding probability and how it relates to evidence:

 

First of all, a probability greater than 50% is not evidence of anything. It’s evidence that there’s a possibility that a construct might be right. There’s also a possibility that it might be wrong. For example, in my own field of dark matter detection, one of the things I work in, there was a recent discovery of several events. And the experiment [unintelligible] that may be due to these dark matter particles, two events, where we predict none. You find out the probability of that being due to pure accident, is one part in ten: a 10% probability of that being a mere accident, 90% probability of it being, perhaps due to dark matter. The experiment, however, did not claim evidence for dark matter because we don’t claim 90% evidence is good enough, especially for an extraordinary claim.

 

In, A Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris provides detailed arguments relating to a myriad of Christian beliefs and why their evidence is insufficient. He does not simply refute them by obstinately claiming they are not “scientific” claims.

There are many more examples, but the point is made. Clearly, the ideas of the above named freethinkers are more complex and nuanced than generally supposed. Indeed, they are not so simple!

It’s also worth noting how our society operates on a universal, well understood idea of evidence. Experiential supernatural claims are not universally accepted as knowledge. Sam Harris has pointed out that when a person claims, for instance, to be the incarnation of Elvis Presley they instantly pay a price – in ill-concealed laughter and derision – for admitting to such a belief.

The separate-domains argument, to which Fodor refers (and happily does not endorse), makes a mockery of the concept of evidence. Evidence, is defined as the information which provides warrant for justified belief. An assertion is not evidence by itself – it must be supported by the information which constitutes evidence. If sufficient information exists, then it must be relatable and go towards sufficient warrant for belief. This is true by definition, since evidence contains information, and information must be capable of informing. Alas, those claiming such other forms of evidence are unable to produce the requisite information which would allow them to justifiably use the word “evidence”. Further, if these claims were imbued with another legitimate form of evidence, then we should find greater general acceptance that these are knowledge claims. The (strict or otherwise) evidentialist would have no problem – as it is evidence they seek!

Imagine if our law courts adopted the “other-realms” view of evidence. Barristers could leap to their feet demanding the court consider “other forms” of evidence which magically prove their case. “Objection, your Honour! My client has had a personal experience which proves that a ghost did it!” There are sound reasons why our legal system fails to support such ludicrous claims, and no-one suggests our courts are guilty of crude positivism.

Our current malaise is not caused by the insistence on evidence, it’s the increasing determination of political actors to ignore the evidence. While neither Fodor or Harding, to their credit, endorse such nonsense, rationalists and sceptics should remain unequivocally in favour of science and evidence, rather than pouring more fuel on the magical-thinking bonfire.

Scientism

Joining the chorus of new age prophets, philosophers, and religious apologists – James Fodor and Tim Harding accuse the defenders of science with “scientism”. This term is carelessly lobbed at freethinkers whenever they suggest an incompatibility between science and faith. The preeminent evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins has earned this epithet on numerous occasions. But, even in his case, it is dubious as to whether he thinks that the “only legitimate form of … knowledge is … science”.

In a debate with philosopher Stephen Law, for example, Dawkins said, “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”.

Not exactly scientism, in my opinion, however, this brings to mind Sam Harris, who actually does think that science can advise us on moral issues!

Charges of scientism arose following his claims in The Moral Landscape that science will one day be able to solve ethical problems. His claims rely on a presupposition that the well-being of sentient creatures is a natural, and incontrovertible, value and measuring stick for morality. I don’t think we can achieve agreement on objective moral values in this way, nor I am convinced that the presupposition of “wellbeing” must be universally accepted. I’m sure Fodor and Harding would agree that the presupposition of wellness is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Nonetheless, The Moral Landscape remains an influential and useful contribution to public debate, offering a way of framing morality in a distinctly nonreligious, utilitarian manner.

But the allegation of scientism relies on the common view is that science can have nothing to say about morality or ethics. Nothing? Is this incontrovertibly true, or another example of a conventional-wisdom dogma? Consider recent developments in cognitive psychology noting that primate species including humans have evolved with similar moral inclinations based on filial relationships. Consider also the possibility that future neuroscientific and medical discoveries may establish that humans do indeed possess inherent and universal moral inclinations and ethical instincts. Wouldn’t it be of interest to know what these are? Gaping holes exist in our understanding of consciousness, and how it relates to human decision making. It is difficult to predict how a better understanding of our brain and our own human nature may influence future discussions on morality. Perhaps, the assumption that science should be silent on morality is not as ironclad as some appear to think.

The accusation of scientism is, to some extent, a result of different interpretations of science. For instance, Richard Dawkins has an elastic understanding of science: in his view science includes all philosophic reasoning, history and all empirical knowledge. Sam Harris similarly sees science as commensurate with knowledge:

 

In the broadest sense, ‘science’ (from the Latin scire, ‘to know’) represents our best efforts to know what is true about our world.                

Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 64

 

So, when they say the word “science” in the broad sense, they often mean “knowledge”. Yet, many are liable to take them as excluding other genuine forms of knowledge such as history, philosophy and social science.

But evidently, even seasoned rationalists and sceptics are unaware of this problem, and therefore argue that we must be extremely wary of promoting a narrow view of science. And then, distressingly, they seek to support this view, by highlighting the limits of science.

To that end, Tim Harding quotes an oft-mentioned argument proposing Galileo’s explanation of gravity was founded upon reason alone, rather than the scientific method.

Considering the question of whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, Galileo imagined two objects, one heavier than the other, connected by string, which are dropped from a tower. Assuming heavier objects fall faster Galileo imagined the string would soon become taut. But, the linked objects would together be heavier than the two objects individually, thus, creating a perceived contradiction, which allowed Galileo to hypothesise that in a vacuum the two objects would fall at the same rate.

In an article in Sceptic Magazine, Gary Bakker answers this argument in devastating fashion by pointing out that Galileo’s discoveries would not be considered knowledge unless they were verified by subsequent testing.

Interestingly, the example of a scientist like Galileo seems strange recalling his treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Standing accused of trespassing onto the sacred ground of theology, Galileo’s discoveries directly challenged Scripture. What was he accused of, if not Scientism?

The historical trespass of science into the rival domains of theology and philosophy provides a useful perspective on present-day accusations of “scientism”. The concrete is not yet dry on the demarcations between science and the humanities. Who can say precisely where they are, and where future discoveries will take them?

Philosopher Stephen Law sums up the use of scientism well:

 

“ In the hands of some – including many theologians – the charge of ‘scientism!’ has become a lazy, knee-jerk form of dismissal, much like the charge of ‘communism!’ used to be. It constitutes a form of rubbishing, allowing – in the minds of those making the charge – for criticism to be casually brushed aside. No doubt some things really are beyond the ability of science, and perhaps even reason, to decide. But there’s plenty that does lie within the remit of the scientific method, including many religious, supernatural, New Age, and other claims that are supposedly ‘off-limits’. However, because the mantra ‘But this is beyond the ability of science to decide’ has been repeated so often with respect to that sort of subject matter, it is now heavily woven into our cultural zeitgeist. People just assume it’s true for all sorts of claims for which it is not, in fact, true. The mantra has become a convenient, immunising factoid that can be wheeled out whenever a scientific threat to belief rears its head. When a believer is momentarily stung into doubt, many will attempt to lull them back to sleep by repeating the mantra over and over. The faithful murmur back: ‘Ah yes, we forgot – this is beyond the ability of science to decide…. zzzz.’“

 

Pragmatism

Fodor and Harding then argue against pragmatism – the belief in the utility of science to produce practical results – because is insufficient to recommend it as a complete picture of reality.

Fodor and Harding appear to suffering under the misapprehension that popular science advocates think they have reality completely figured out. Fodor argues that because scientific theories have historically sometimes worked relatively well in practice, only to have been found to be incorrect as an accurate model of reality, that (his view of) science cannot “alone always provide us with accurate descriptions of reality”. I’m not sure which crude positivist is supposed to hold this view.

He mentions Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos. But even against those who might insist that science does have all the answers, this is a comically fallacious counter argument. Reprising the logic of Gary Bakker, what fields of endeavour updated these incorrect models of reality? It certainly wasn’t philosophy. Was it French poetry? Or, was it Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas after an afternoon of levitating around St Peter’s Cathedral?

Despite allegations to the contrary, scientists are well known for exercising caution in claiming new discoveries. Virtually no-one argues that science represents an absolute or complete description of reality. What’s more, this triviality doesn’t discredit science at all. If science “alone” falls short, it is not as if we witness to other fields of inquiry riding in to the rescue. And yet, Harding proffers “philosophies of mind and metaphysics” as ways of filling in the missing pieces. Does anyone really imagine metaphysics is going to solve the fundamental questions of existence? How will we test the answers? Dare I say…science?

The popular trope that scientists have become over confident and intellectual bullies, results in the desire to take them down a peg or two. Pejorative terms arise out of this idea. It’s true that occasionally scientists do make questionable claims about the superiority of science over other disciplines, but these deserve sensible and measured debate, rather than name-calling. Leading free thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian have made questionable claims over social media. My argument is not that eminent figures in freethought should be immune from criticism. But rather, when we do criticise freethinkers we should use carefully constructed arguments combining reason and evidence.

After all, there is a conga line of well-funded advocates who oppose the Enlightenment values of science, reason and evidence. They promote worldviews which are antithetical to scepticism, rationalism, or humanism. They might propose, for instance, that evidence and science are secondary considerations subject only to a divine will. Or, that the world is only intelligible because of supernatural forces. Or, that we need to focus our efforts on returning society to a prior golden age. And that western democracies will collapse without continued subsidising of supernatural and religious beliefs. Such advocates, do not need or deserve our support.

Stigmatising the promotion of science by labelling it “scientism”; and, erroneously denouncing leading rationalist by making up pejorative labels; are actions antithetical to the ideals of the free thought community. Labelling people such as Stephen Hawking and Sam Harris in pejorative terms has the unfortunate side-effect of discrediting everything they’ve said or written, and diminishing the freethought community as a whole. We are damaging our own brand. The spectacular contribution of science, and the scientific method, is something we should be championing. What we need to focus on is developing the most persuasive arguments to champion the use of evidence and reason in forming beliefs, and in governing societies. That’s our mission. Let’s not lose sight of it.

Warning Scripture replaced by new type of Theism

Published on The AIM Network – Warning Scripture replaced by new type of Theism – 20 April 2017

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peopledontwanttohear the truth

Placating the Reverend Fred Nile and the various religious lobbies is no easy task, but the NSW Government has taken to it with Yes Minister style obtuseness and Baldrick-like cunning. Maintaining its cuddly relationship with Scripture enthusiasts, the government has spent $300k on a comprehensive report, waited 18 months to release it (just before Easter), and then refused to accept most of the recommendations.

Particularly brazen, was both the refusal to include Ethics on the enrolment form, and continuing to prevent non-participating students from proceeding with curriculum learning while Scripture was conducted. Both, the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, and the NSW P & C Federation expressed disappointment and mystification at this outcome.

So, in the wake of this ongoing debacle – and like the phantom from Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol – I’d like to offer the advocates of Scripture a disturbing glimpse into Australia’s atheistic yet-to-come. Christianity is in freefall in Australia: the 2016 Census result will show non-belief overtaking Catholicism as the most popular category. Soon, classes in Secular Humanism and Rationalism will appear in Victorian schools as part of “Learning about world views and religions”. Although these classes will be educational rather than evangelical, it’s not hard to imagine an increasingly irreligious society acquiescing to a more muscular approach to teaching nonreligious worldviews.

Imagine the following inverse scenario: State governments have become beholden to irreligious lobby groups, demanding to protect their freedom to promote their naturalistic belief systems. Perhaps we even have an antitheist holding the balance of power.

And now that the metaphysical wheel has come full circle, we atheists will band together, gather up our copies of “God is not Great – Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens, and begin offering evangelical classes in a new type of Theism. Yes – Antitheism! Just like Scripture, classes will be deceptively marketed as “educational”, and a benign “introduction”, but in practice they will be all-out, Hitchens-like assaults on religion, aimed at ridding children, once and for all, of the human susceptibility and credulity towards the supernatural.

After enduring a century or so of state school Bible-bashing, it’s about time. We have developed a non-believer’s version of the Lausanne movement – the Christian group committed to entreating children into fellowship with Jesus, based on research showing that if they don’t embrace the Lord before the age of 13 they likely never will. Our secular version will scare the bejesus and Jesus out of young children, warning them off celestial tyrants for life.

You’re not a teacher? Don’t worry, we’ll give you the Antitheism crash course, some angry YouTube videos, and a sober pep talk on the importance of brainwashing other people’s children.

We’ve had plenty of time to plan the rise of evangelical antitheism. While Scripture classes segregated us from our friends and frittered away hours of our childhood, we were in the other room, brooding quietly– imagine Damien from Damien the Omen – and secretly plotting revenge.

We envisaged the sort of spine-tingling, dystopian future that would chill the blood of any good Scripture teacher. Same-sex marriage is law. Evidence-based laws and regulations with appropriate limitations allow abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research. And with religious exemptions removed from anti-discrimination law, no-one has to lie about their sexuality or pretend to believe in ancient myths to secure employment.

Finally, in state schools, Bible classes have made way for supercharged Antitheism, administered with the same deceptive policies which currently fail to regulate Scripture. Who approves and vets lesson content? No-one.

Parents who fail to be vigilant enough to opt their children out, will find them automatically enrolled into Antitheism. And – accidents will happen – even devout children will suddenly find themselves being told matter-of-factly that there is no God. There’s no heaven or hell either, kids. And by the way, we disapprove of your superstitious parents.

Kids will be Hitch-slapped with the absurdity of the Christian idea that our lives are governed by a God so powerful, he created an unfathomably vast universe with trillions of planets; and yet, is such an inveterate gossip and all-knowing busybody, that he insists on listening to the prayers of every single person on the planet.

Supplanting current day Scripture classes presenting the Bible as “factual” and “historical”, our classes will pillory the “good” book as a litany of fables and comical morality tales. No kids, people did not reside inside of whales, joyride upon Dinosaurs, nor live for 600 years before deciding to have children. Koala’s did not wave goodbye to Noah and leap from tree to tree all the way to Australia without leaving any trace anywhere else.

Morality cannot be derived from myths. Anthropology has shown that Adam and Eve did not exist, thus original sin is bunk. Prohibitions against murder appeared in civilisations predating Christianity and Judaism, well before the supposed Mt. Sinai summit of Moses and God.

That will bring us to the end of term, and our “God is dead” Sombrero party, climaxing spectacularly with the smashing of a lolly-filled Pinyata of Christ the Redeemer.

But we won’t repeat some of the more desperate Christian SRE classes, such as those encouraging instructors to bring in dead animals to dissect, simulating beheadings, age-inappropriate vampire lessons, comparing kids to dirty towels in need of cleansing, and threatening young children or their parents with death.

Nonetheless, Scripture advocates might justifiably recoil from this dread atheistic future. But this future is not inevitable. Take it as a warning of what’s in store unless we change our ways. Perhaps, after all, there is something to be said for a non-discriminatory and comparative approach to teaching religion in state schools. And perhaps, hopefully, the idea of obtruding unverifiable beliefs onto children may seem a little less appealing.

In Defence of Santa: Why he’s just as likely to exist as Jesus

In Defence of Santa – The AIM Network 24/12/2016

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By now, the elves are wrapping the toys. The reindeers are running test flights. Santa is busy double-checking Xmas lists, and plotting the logistics of the world’s greatest overnight delivery.

But a new UK board game, Santa vs Jesus, has blighted the festive season with unwelcome sectarian dissension, presenting Xmas as a pitched battle between Jesus and Santa. Cries of “insult, blasphemy” ensue: the satirical board game is accused of falsely equating belief in Jesus with belief in Santa Claus.

My blood boils at this sacrilege. Yet another example of politically correctness gone mad, and elitist intellectuals tainting our most cherished institutions. How dare they demean the good name of Santa Claus? On behalf of children everywhere, let us rise up and defend Santa’s honour. If not for own sake, for the sake of our culture, of our civilization, and by God, for the real meaning of Christmas.

That is, what Christmas really is: an end-of-year celebration, retail bonanza, and family reunion. A shop-til-you-drop procession of tinselled shopping malls, parking rage, office parties, Kris Kringles, twinkling streetscapes, Die-Hard and Love Actually re-runs, culminating in the once-a-year family get-together with the usual disputes and rows – all of the above made tolerable, joyous even, by stupefying quantities of sugar and alcohol.

Arrogantly, anti-Christmas-carol activists poke fun at the Santa story. How could anyone believe a jolly fat man at risk of early-onset-diabetes has the stamina and wherewithal to deliver gifts to every child in the world? Claiming that Santa is only Coca-Cola’s amalgamation of the yuletide characters of various traditions, these immoral, believe-in-nothings only demonstrate their blindness to the value of culture and tradition. Can they prove Santa isn’t real? No.

Frankly, I’m agnostic about the existence of Santa. But just because infrared technology fails to find any trace of an enormous toy shop at the North Pole, doesn’t mean I should rule him out altogether. Sure, I’m sceptical about Santa even fitting into most chimneys and I’ve never seen a flying reindeer. But “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, as they say.

And, since when must omniscient beings lower themselves to mere terrestrial standards of empirical proof? Why should the lowly and common measures of evidence be applied to Santa alone? Indeed, using the arguments applied to other contemporary deities, belief in Santa is more than reasonable.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

As St Anselm argued: given we can conceive of the greatest possible being – and, we accept that a being which exists, is greater than one purely imagined – then, that greatest being must exist. Thus, if we accept the premise that Santa is the greatest gift-giver, then, by irrefutable logic he must exist. Never mind that this also applies to the greatest sophist, the greatest idiot and the greatest obscurantist. They exist also, and often employ St Anselm’s argument in favour of their own articles of faith.

And, as we know, faith is an element of proof in itself. Have faith and ye shall be rewarded. Where a deficit of proof exists one can legitimately insert “faith” to bridge the gap. Then – Poof! – the object of faith reliably appears!

Behold, every year, millions of children put their faith in Santa and the Christmas team dutifully delivers. After days and days of breathless anticipation the big day comes… Then, hurrah! Squeals of delight, and yelps of excitement attend the feverish unwrapping of real, actual gifts. Ask any child how convincing this is.

Further, Santa is ubiquitous during the festive season, appearing on television screens constantly. News services track his progress from the North Pole. Parents everywhere use the supervising presence of Santa to wring some good behaviour out of their otherwise insolent offspring. Either Santa exists, or most of the adults in the world are complicit in a global Santa hoax conspiracy.

If this still fails to satisfy, allow me to borrow one of the planks of Biblical scholarship. The “criterion of embarrassment” states that if historical accounts are embarrassing to their author they can be assumed to be true. Now, consider the story of a ridiculously attired and morbidly obese man who supposedly travels all around the world on flying reindeers delivering presents to children he somehow divines as good. Embarrassment galore! Increasingly, scholars dispute the validity of this criterion – justifiably so, considering debate in the Australian Senate.

Austere scientific thinkers may have trouble accepting the Santa narrative. But remember, this is a moral tale not a scientific one, not meant to be taken literally. It’s about favouring “nice” over “naughty”, “good” over “bad”, by rewarding the good children with presents and lumbering the rest with smelly coal.

But, as all parents of young children know, this begs the question as to how children actually behave. The problem of evil. Given Santa’s omniscience and superpowers, how do we explain the continued reign of terror by these frightening midgets? Free will hardly suffices to explain temper tantrums, impudence and addiction to video games, rivalling that of present-day Australian tennis stars. Seeing as the incentive of gifts has conspicuously failed, and since global warming has curtailed Santa’s access to coal, a more interventionist policy is warranted. It’s unsurprising that the world’s major religions moved to slightly harsher penalties such as an eternity of roasting and re-roasting in the flame-pits of hell. Likewise, it’s easy to see how the religions of Abraham condemned the whole of humanity as corrupt and fallen, requisite of salvation.

And so, a radical new plan emerges. A new prophet will arise – Santa Junior – an elfin messiah of the children. He will be seized by secular powers and gruesomely tortured to death, signifying Santa’s gift of redemption to horrid little monsters everywhere. And then, showcasing Santa’s full repertoire of magical powers, Santa Junior will be sensationally brought back to life. Although this somewhat negates the supposed sacrifice, it caps off the story nicely. And, if this doesn’t work, Santa will equip his sleigh with intercontinental ballistic missiles and commence laying waste to play centres and schools. So please, give Santa some respect. And kids, if you don’t like the sound of apocalyptic Santa, you had better actually be good from now on.

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’)

20140528_diary130_mozart_leck_mich_am_arsch

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!”

 

mozartamadaeus

ATHEISM: TERMS, DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS  

In discussing atheism various terms are often employed as if their meaning is known by all. Further, the meanings of various terms are often conflated or muddled to suit a particular worldview. The following outlines some of the key terms. It’s important to recognise the distinctions which exist between different positions, and not to fall in to the trap of assuming, as many people do, that one position infers another. Such as an atheist is necessarily a materialist. Or that a naturalist’s are never theists.

Atheism

An Atheist either lacks belief in or disbelieves in god(s). Refer- Oxford Dictionary. Within the atheist position are a number of sub-positions which follow.

Despite the wild claims of some, Atheism isn’t a religion. Since it simply involves the negation of Theism, it’s understandable that the adversaries of Atheism take the opportunity to straw man it into equivalence with religion. Though, the advocates of Atheism are often also advocates of other positions listed below.

Weak Atheism 

A weak atheist lacks belief in the existence of God(s). This is a metaphysically weaker position than making the knowledge claim no god(s) exist. Weak atheism is also known as Negative atheism.

Positive atheism 

  • The positive disbelief or denial of the existence of god(s). Positive atheism is also known as Strong Atheism.

Wide atheism 

  • The denial of the existence of all gods.

Narrow atheism 

  • The denial of a particular conception of god.  Most Theists are typically narrow atheists about other gods such as Zeus, Shiva, or Thor. The Abrahamic religions specifically deny the existence of other gods.

Anti-Theism

As its name suggests, Anti-theism involves active opposing Theism, usually on the basis of an Atheist metaphysical view, and the proposition that religion is on balance a harmful influence on the world. The New Atheists are also Anti-Theists. Anti-theists tend to be strong atheists, at least in reference to the major world religions.

Anti-theism seems to be becoming the new bogey word of the religious apologists. The conflation between atheists and anti-theists is evident in a reluctance of some atheists to embrace the term, even movement atheists, combined with the apologist’s tactic of using it as a rhetorical bat.

Agnosticism 

Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Gnostic

The opposite of agnostic, a gnostic believes we can have knowledge of whether metaphysical claims are knowable. The word must be distinguished from Gnosticism, the group of ancient religions which shun the material world. Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means pertaining to knowledge.

Theism

  • The belief in the existence of god(s).

God

There are various definitions of God. Western conceptions of god include the omni properties of omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and all good. Richard Swinburne offers the following:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Spiritual

This word can mean any number of things, often associated with the human spirit and the soul. Generally, it’s concerned with the aspiration to higher levels of awareness, fulfilment, or meaning within life, as opposed to material or physical things. Often invoked as a general term in relation to religious belief, it has also become a quasi-metaphysical position widely adopted by the non-religious, or by non-observant believers, to describe a state of belief in a spiritual realm or a source of meaning for humans.

Combining Terms*

In developing a position, particularly as a non-believer, we may wrestle with our level of certainty that certain things don’t exist, or with the epistemological justification for ruling them out altogether. As such, various combinations are used to clarify ones position.

*Agnostic Atheism

This position accepts both that we cannot have knowledge of whether gods exist and that we don’t believe they exist. An Agnostic Atheist will therefore tend to be a Weak Atheist.

*Gnostic Atheism

Lacking belief or disbelieving in the existence of Gods and believing we can have knowledge of such metaphysical items.

*Gnostic Theism

Theists are typically gnostic, believing they can have knowledge that god exists.

*Agnostic Theism

Believing that god exists and also believing that we cannot have knowledge of this.

Naturalism 

Naturalism is the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.  (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Supernaturalism

Not all things that exist are natural. There are some entities, forces, or phenomena that exist beyond the spatial-temporal world that science investigates.

The distinction between naturalism has been problematic as it’s difficult to assign a “nature” to the unnatural speculation of supernaturalism. See The False DichotomyRichard Carrier has postulated that supernatural might be defined to only include mental processes which are unexplainable by natural forces.

Methodological Naturalism

According to this view the most effective way of acquiring knowledge is through the methods of science, not from logic, deduction or conceptual approaches. Using observation, hypothesis, and empirical disconfirmation is the best way to study the world, and obtain knowledge. Methodical Naturalism is concerned with the means to acquire knowledge—rather than a metaphysical view about the ultimate constituents of reality. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick) (Also, refer to Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Materialism

Materialism is the view that all things are made of matter and nothing else. While materialism appears to overlap with naturalism, especially ontological naturalism, we should see it as an explicitly metaphysical thesis about the ultimatum constituents of reality, but not as much a view about what the best methods are for acquiring knowledge of that reality.  Some of the Greeks, for instance, arrived at the materialism conclusion through a priori or more conceptual reasoning.

Eliminative materialism

This view denies our intuitive understanding of the mind and proposes that some or all of the mental states we normally refer to don’t actually exist. The eliminative materialist believes that with the expansion of our scientific inquiries, there are often concepts such as “demonic spirits,” or “celestial spheres,” that cease to find a place within our theories.  Some terms, like “heat,” we keep, but only by radically revising what we think the ultimate physical constituents of heat are.  Other terms are too embedded in an old model of reality to be effectively salvaged.  The label applies primarily to a position about minds, but we can see the implications for God and many religious concepts. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Reductionism

A reductionist believes complex systems and phenomena can be reduced and explained entirely in terms of their parts and their causal interactions.  Reductionism in philosophy of mind can be contrasted with emergentism, or epiphenomenalism.  According to these anti-reductionist views, mental states, qualia, consciousness or other phenomena are produced by physical processes, but they cannot be explained entirely in terms of them.  For a variety of reasons, theists are often anti-reductionists, but reductionism itself as a thesis about explaining objects in nature is distinct from atheism. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Belief

Belief: the acceptance that something is true with or without evidence or proof.

Faith

Faith: the acceptance that something is true on trust with or without evidence or proof. See The Perils of Faith

Knowledge

In everyday usage, knowledge is understood to be sum of what is known, and comprises facts, information and skills.

In Philosophy, theories of knowledge have been propounded for centuries. The most well-known hypothesis is true, justified belief.

Secular

Not involved or requiring religious, supernatural or spiritual matters.

Secular doesn’t necessarily entail a denial of religious beliefs, or the demand that society or individuals should abandon religion. It’s important to appreciate this distinction. Secular is most often used in connection with the desirability of a separation of church and state. Many Secularists also subscribe to pluralism, and religious freedom, championing freedom to practise or hold one’s preferred metaphysical beliefs without coercion.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge with regard to its methods, validity and scope, and distinguishing between justified belief and unjustified belief. See Oxford Dictionary.

Pluralism

Pluralism is a belief in allowing the co-existence of more than one belief system, political party, ideology or interest group. It’s a system whereby society isn’t governed by one overriding principle or ideology.

Religious Freedom

The principle, that individuals and groups in society should have the freedom to manifest their chosen religion. This freedom includes no religion, and to change religion or “apostasy.”

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty might seem to be exactly the same thing as religious freedom, but it’s more focussed on protecting the right to observe and practise religious beliefs and traditions, in particular when they come in to conflict with secular law. It’s often invoked as if it’s a natural right, to help sway a debate towards allowing a religious group to privilege their own beliefs on the basis of conscience. For instance, in India polygamy is permitted within Islamic groups, on the basis of religious liberty. In other places in the world sharia law is used exclusively by the Muslim population, even given significant differences to secular law.

Model-Dependent Realism

  • A theory of knowledge posited by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design. Reality can be described by models, or several overlapping models, where the absolute “true reality” of everything is an impossible ideal. This model is applied to relativity, quantum mechanics and theories of everything.

 

AND FINALLY…

If there are any concepts you think I should be including here, or if you disagree with my definitions and comments I would be keen to hear from you.

Defogging the Enchanted Glass

enchanted glass

 

 

For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

 

            Sir Francis Bacon, 1640

 

In the murky depths of the human mind, faith and reason both participate in forming beliefs. But they don’t necessarily overlap or share the same epistemic value in forming knowledge. I’m inspired by Nick Trakakis thoughtful account of his struggle to reconcile his faith with philosophic inquiry in Why I Am Not Orthodox, ABC’s Religion & Ethics, 7 December 2015. Trakakis concludes that faith commitment to the main forms of organised religion is “incompatible with the pursuit of truth and wisdom”. The idea that faith contains epistemic value is the mirage of organised religion.

I want to challenge the understanding of faith presented in the responses to Trakakis article: Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Benjamin Myers, 9 December 2015, and Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Richard College, 22 December 2015: both from ABC’s Religion & Ethics.

Blaise Pascal paradoxically described faith as providing the “heart” with “reasons” which elude “reason”:

 

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.

 

By definition, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Faith is defined various ways, but always entails a lack of evidence. Faith always walks hand in hand with doubt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines faith generally as “trust”, and notes religious faith has several models: “affective”, “cognitive” or “volitional”.

Affective faith is a state of confidence and trust.

Cognitive faith refers to certain knowledge of God provided directly through revelation. Cognitive faith arms itself with Reformed Epistemology, an alternative epistemology where claiming direct knowledge of God is a legitimate form of evidence. The cognitive faith of reformed epistemology is excluded from this discussion because it attempts to fundamentally alter the generally accepted rules of evidence and verification. It even endows humans with a cognitive faculty for detecting God, the sensus divinitatis, of which no evidence exists. Unless there’s some reason or evidence to regard reformed epistemology as a legitimate arm of knowledge, then it remains an article of faith itself.

Volitional Faith is the choice to believe sometimes characterised as intellectual assent.  Faith can be either a type of act or a type of assent. So both affective faith and volitional faith involve trust and confidence in a proposition.

Philosopher Matt McCormick defines faith as:

 

 Faith: Belief without sufficient evidential justification.

 

Faith is offered in defence of believing in what we have insufficient legitimate reasons to believe. Faith should not be used as a substitute for evidence. To use it as justification for belief is a category mistake which assumes the existence of a faith-based category of knowledge which is unavailable.

The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as:

 

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

 

If faith could actually contribute something tangible towards accepting a belief, it would constitute evidence. Since faith, by definition, is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence, the concept that it’s an actual reason for belief is self-negating and self-referential. It’s breaking the rules of epistemology to insert faith on the evidential scale as if somehow bridges the gap between incomplete evidence and knowledge.

Faith is an attitude towards evidence, rather than a form of evidence in itself. Faith does not provide “fullness to reasoning”, it simply pumps up the tyres of belief beyond what is epistemically justifiable. Faith has no epistemic content to apply to the proposition.

Failure to understand this leaves us imprisoned in an epistemology where the unknown and the unverifiable share the same status as verified knowledge. We lament the results of this failure over and over in debates about evolution, climate science and other areas where pre-existing beliefs and mythology clash with science.

Once we liberate knowledge from its foggy prison we can consider the merit of applying the same discipline to religion. What happens to religion without the supernatural? Can we reconsider religion without its myths? Is there a non-theistic future for religion?

The “Faith” of the Gaps

The God of the Gaps argument uses gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for God’s existence. A parallel can be drawn in the use of faith to plug the gaps in theories of knowledge. To Benjamin Myers, faith and reason are indelibly connected. Further, Myers claims faith is foundational to reason. But his claim that we “cannot get started without faith” is flawed. The reality is that we cannot get started without evidence.

Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s argument that we should accept Christianity on faith alone. (I note Clements self-defeating claim to have dozens of cogent arguments in reserve). But we simply cannot consider Christianity without processing a substantial sum of information describing the beliefs and doctrines of the religion. These make certain claims about the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, human nature, and our purpose in the world. One cannot fail to consider how credible these claims are. One cannot switch off inbuilt mechanisms for applying our critical faculties to the story, and contrasting it to knowledge of history, cosmology, anthropology and so on. It’s true that we might choose to adopt belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. But that’s not the same as starting with faith alone. The proposition contains basic information which constitutes evidence. So we’re not starting with faith, but evidence. It’s more accurate to say that we’d be starting with insufficient evidence and heaping faith on top of it, like coals onto a fire.

To start with faith Myers argues we need to adopt a change of disposition to one of “basic trust”. Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s comparison of faith to getting drunk at a party.

 

You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question….Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire…

 

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that most people don’t just get drunk without thinking about it anymore. Drink driving laws have put paid to that. And even prior to modern sensibilities about alcohol consumption, it’s quite silly and untrue to say we only apply reason to questions of the divine. But the insistence on applying a “disposition” of trust helps us acknowledge that this is what “faith” is: an attitude, a belief – not a form of evidence.

Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the problem of propositional knowledge Myer’s outlines. The assertion that there are things which first must be accepted without proof is based on the philosophical problem of defining knowledge. But alas, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument in favour of faith. Myer’s point is valid only to the extent that philosophical theories of knowledge are inadequate. Theories of knowledge fail to provide an agreed evidential foundation for what we regard as knowledge.

If I take my knowledge of a thing A, based on the evidence for it B, I should also logically require evidence for B. But now I am stuck in an infinite regress unless I can prove some item of knowledge which is foundational. A foundational type of knowledge might be considered our first direct perception, or an article of faith. Thus, so the argument goes, we must start by assuming something is true.

But equally, we acknowledge the substantial progress made in science, technology and other areas of knowledge without an apparent foundation. Our expectation that knowledge must have a foundation may be unrealistic, especially considering the traditional definition knowledge – as justified, true, belief. Gettier problems demonstrate the expectation of perfect knowledge is unrealistic given they rely on our own imperfect perception. Things that seemed justified and true have long turned out to be false on closer inquiry. Virtually nothing is known with absolute certainty.

When, for instance, we view a red car, our perception and knowledge is often incomplete. We recognise the image and the attributes of a motor vehicle, but we don’t appreciate the object in its totality. We don’t know what brand of oil is used. We mightn’t know all of the parts of the car. Many things inside are hidden from view. We wouldn’t perceive all of the molecules and atoms which make it up. In addition, we may be deceived by an illusion, or by mental illness, or a failure of eyesight.

But, in practical terms, we can use the red car to go to and from work, to pick up our kids from school, and to go shopping. It’s not an article of faith that our red car will reliably assist our lives – it’s based on reasonable evidence. Yet our knowledge of it is far from perfect. But even so, there’s no reason whatsoever to place “faith” as the foundation of our red-car knowledge. And though we’re satisfied by our practical knowledge, we cannot justify how our knowledge of the red car is founded.

The “Faith” of the Gaps is the unjustified insertion of faith as the foundation of knowledge. This theory not only suffers from a lack of any substantive argument, but must overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that faith is not an article of evidence but an attitude towards it.

The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours

sunlightstainedglass

Crucially, the limits of knowledge don’t dictate that we must take things on faith. The nominated candidates for faith are almost always an extremely narrow set of metaphysical, religious beliefs for which no verifiable proof or disproof exists. It’s hardly coincidental that the advocates for elevating faith are the same people who advocate the unverifiable beliefs.

Myers quotes Augustine from The Advantage of Believing:

 

If it’s wrong to believe something we do not know, I’d like to know how children can obey their parents and return their love and respect without believing they are their parents. There’s no way this could be known by reason. We have a belief about our father based on the word of our mother…

 

It’s not the case that children rely on faith to determine who their parents are. Children have many good reasons to conclude that their parents are their real parents. Their mother has cared for them ever since they can remember. Their parents might share physical similarities. Their parents claim to be their parents. And their siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all agree. The foundation is not trust, but reasonable evidence. They could even get a paternity test if necessary!

Augustine continued:

 

… But we do believe, without any hesitation, things that we admit we can’t really know … We could give lots of examples to show that nothing in human society would be stable if we decided not to believe anything except the things that can be held with absolute certainty.

 

From the premise that we believe many things which cannot be known with “absolute certainty” it does not follow that we must therefore rely on faith. As Sigmund Freud said in The Future of an Illusion, “The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours.” The human cognitive bias towards absolutism tricks the mind into imagining the problem as a false dichotomy: Faith or reason. But that’s a false choice. We base our beliefs and knowledge on a varying scale of reason: a scale varying between no evidence, some evidence and an irrefutable amount of evidence.

Do we, for instance, know anything with absolute certainty based solely on faith? And tellingly, how would we test any claim that we do? By using evidence? How do we choose which beliefs to have faith in without evidence? Why not choose Poseidon, Mithras, Apollo or any other God to place our faith in?

Faith is not a category of evidence

awillioam jameswill to believeIn William James famous lecture given in 1896, The Will to Believe, he argues in “defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”

James is influenced by the human need for necessary knowledge:

 

…the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge.

 

He argues absolutism is a requirement of knowledge because humans need it.

But simply because humans want or need it, does not make it so.

The underlying a priori assumption that because humans need certain things, the world and its objective reality must necessarily comply, is clearly a product of religious belief itself. One only assumes such a thing if we consider humans pivotal to creation itself.

His most persuasive point is that evidence regarding a beliefs truth or falsity is sometimes only accessible to believers. Pointing to St Augustine’s oft quoted “Unless you believe, you will not understand” James contends that we must first use faith to welcome in the object of our faith, and only then can we achieve further knowledge.

If this is true then it stands to reason that it applies beyond religious belief. But the testing of a hypothesis or holding a provisional belief in one, isn’t the same as intellectual assent. Do the scientists investigating “string theory” actually believe in it? From reading about them recently it seems they do make an investment in belief to some extent. To be precise, they hold a provisional belief. Provisional means subject to testing and verification, sitting somewhat short of accepted knowledge. Scientific history is full of surprising discoveries made whilst trying to prove something else. By no means is it demonstrated that any particular knowledge relies on holding a belief in it prior to discovery or verification. And wondering if something is true is hardly the same as believing it.

And how can we ignore the internal contradiction of arguments made for faith on the basis of evidence and reason? We’re asked us to accept an attitude of “basic trust” to propositions such as the existence of God or Christianity, without sufficient reason and evidence, by accepting the offered reason and evidence. On what epistemic basis do we consider such arguments? If they are lacking in evidence do we just insert an attitude of faith? And if so, how can we ignore the obvious circularity in using faith to justify faith, and the internal contradiction of using evidence to justify faith?

Distinguishing Faith and Reason

faith-and-reason

Richard College, Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nik Trakakis, ABC Religion & Ethics, 22 December 2015, provides an interesting discussion of the “the epistemology of disagreement”.

The founding premises of our beliefs are informed by “gut intuitions”. These intuitions are influenced by such things as our genes, early life experiences and traumatic events, socio-cultural influences, the structure of one’s language, geographic and political context, and religious instruction. Experimental psychologists have scientifically identified these tribal influences as producing cognitive biases.

Referencing William James The Will to Believe, College contends that “underlying pre-rational passions and volitions” inform which “truth-claims are more or less on the table”.

College’s “gut intuitions” are the human fogginess in the enchanted glass. There’s no doubt that human beliefs are informed by reasoning which is unduly influenced by non-evidential factors. But it doesn’t follow that abstract concepts such as reason and faith are artificially conjoined by human folly.

College contends:

 

Faith and reason are not hermetically sealed rival domains – the so-called disjunction of Athens and Jerusalem – requiring us to either suppress one and champion the other (hence the alternatives of hyper-rationalism or fideism), or try to find a way of breaching the abyss between them through some kind of uneasy balance.

 

College’s argument mirrors James argument that because humans use faith to form beliefs, then faith must be indelibly bound to reason. ie. because humans practise it, it must be so. But acknowledging the human propensity to prematurely form beliefs by using cognitive biases, such as wishful thinking, does nothing to suggest that those biases contribute to the epistemological status of the hypothesis. What humans believe has no bearing on reality. The scientist’s test is not made more likely of success because he has a hunch it might be true. Just because humans are prone to make these mistakes, doesn’t imbue them with virtue. Humans are inclined to apply faith to hypotheses with insufficient evidence. Acknowledging this unremarkable fact should not compel us to enjoin the magisterium of faith and reason. To the contrary, it should stiffen our resolve not to conflate them.

Since the world exists independently and objectively, then reason ought to be the most efficient and effective way of ascertaining knowledge of the world. Perhaps reflecting centuries of near universal religiosity, philosophers attempting to define “reason” often presume it only applies to humans. Despite this, we see other animals in nature displaying the use of reason, albeit at a more primitive level. Reason is a variable faculty in humans, as it is in nature. We easily envisage the possibility of alien life forms using reason much better than we do. We expect man-made technology to assume and even outperform the human capacity for reason some time in the future. Reason is an abstract concept which needn’t be limited by humans.

We ought to use the concept of reason to find the best path to knowledge. We must distinguish reason and human reason. To accept reason as subject to the passions of humans is to limit the human project. And to succumb to the rationalisation that evidence plus a dash of faith constitutes reason, is gaming the system to achieve a preordained result.

The faith claims of religion aren’t susceptible to reason’s weighing of evidence because they contain none. Artificially moving the concentric circles of the two domains over one another may provide hope for holders of unverifiable beliefs, but that hope is a mirage.

As Trakakis argues, the problem with religious faith is assuming we know the truth to start with. We’re not open to honest enquiry if we assume to know the truth on faith, as if faith constitutes an article of evidence in itself.

Can we imagine religion without God?

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Having separated faith and reason let’s now attempt to reunite them again. There’s nothing wrong with faith per se: my argument merely notes faith is an attitude of trust not an article of evidence. If we cannot have faith in God, what then do we put our trust in?

In western societies the supernatural claims of Christianity are waning. In the post information-explosion world, faith is no longer enough to perpetuate extraordinary claims which continue to elude proof. The question becomes whether religion can survive and in what form. The diverse and changeable history of Christianity suggests that it may live on.

The beliefs of Christianity have changed continuously from the 1st and 2nd century until now. The original belief in a heaven on earth was reinvented to a supernatural one when the “imminent” second coming failed to arrive. From Judaism to Gentile Christianity to Medieval Christendom, from Protestantism to Enlightenment secularism, to the myriad modern Christian sects – the doctrines of Christianity have been debated, revised and reinterpreted. Christianity is nothing if not resilient.

That’s why it’s possible to envisage the religion which will replace Christianity is Christianity itself: a new form which reimagines theology by placing faith entirely within the realm of reason. Consider how much stronger faith would be when unshackled from fancies and clamped-on-hard to the real world.

Rather than providing “fullness to reasoning”, faith can become an attitude of trust to reason. Not, mind you, the elevation of human reason to exalted status, or the reification of reason to the point where it’s harmful, but simply a trust in using evidence to form knowledge whilst acknowledging the limits of knowledge. In a religious sense, trust can extend to using reason to seek wisdom – the wisdom necessary to properly define and fulfil the mortal human project.

By following reason rather than faith, the metaphysical claims of a deconstructed Christianity would become natural rather than supernatural. The Sermon on the Mount loses none of its force if we accept a non-divine view of Jesus. The tale of the Good Samaritan may or may not be based on a real event. In terms of its use as a parable in the modern age, it’s truth is neither here nor there. Also, regarding Jesus as a mortal teacher and a moral compass allows the sort of mutability envisioned by Sigmund Freud. The existing teachings and values of Christianity can change according to their utility and relevance.

The power of mythology is not its perceived truth, but the power to unify. Myths have defined societies from prehistory to the present day. Today, we witness the myths of religion replaced with conspiracy theories and a fragmented set of social networks. Modern humans participate in a wide array of disparate preoccupations including social networking, meditation, reality television, online gaming, personal development, political causes, literary pursuits, sporting and social clubs, weight loss schemes, personal fitness and so on. Replacing the sense of community of religion with their own narrow values and aspiration these are pseudo-religions. No doubt modern society would benefit from the rituals and healing of organised religion under an umbrella of shared values. But in modern pluralist society, unity cannot be achieved by exclusionary religious groups practising a narrow set of beliefs. Whereas once unity was achieved by universal conformity and punishment of dissent, nowadays, it could only be achieved by a broad and inclusive philosophy.

Reprising the earlier discussion of provisional beliefs, there might be a way for Christians to maintain some theistic beliefs without offending reason. It’s not unreasonable to admit the mystery of existence whilst entertaining a notion of a creator-God. Provisional beliefs in cherished aspects of Christianity could survive, whilst acknowledging alternative theories and competing views occupy equal status. Embracing uncertainty, and admitting the limits of knowledge, will become tools to regulate beliefs.

The dogma will go. Consider how few of the 613 Mosaic Commandments of the Old Testament – including edicts such as “Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder” – remain relevant today. Add to this the disproven stories, such as Genesis, Noah’s Ark, and the Exodus, and it’s not hard to imagine postmodern Christians taking a more agnostic attitude to the metaphysical and doctrinal claims derived from The Book.

A new Christianity may become a melting pot of Christian humanism, secular humanism and a philosophy. Christian humanism has a long tradition dating back to Justin the Martyr and other 2nd century writers. Using the teachings of Jesus and selectively using other parables from the Bible, might form the basis of a non-theistic Christian ethics.

This is not to say that Christianity will simply become secular humanism. Humanism is a broad and loosely defined movement derived from both Christian and secular influences. As an ethical philosophy focussed on humans eschewing the supernatural or transcendent, humanism isn’t as broad in scope or ambition as Christianity. But the rituals and institutions of Christianity could transform humanism into a theological project. One can readily imagine the commingling of the rituals, philosophies and ideas of both resulting in a new type of religion.

Rather than a set of fixed beliefs and creeds, the “religion” becomes a collection of ideas aimed at remodelling and convalescing humankind. The religion would more realistically produce ideas on how to improve the human condition – ethically, spiritually and philosophically. The consensus of human knowledge would form a basis for human betterment.

Capturing the essence of what is human and how to describe human nature would inaugurate such a project. An unsentimental, naturalistic picture of humans and our natures is by no means a finished project. Since our scientific understanding of human nature is incomplete, our philosophic meditations on human nature will necessarily be provisional. The study of human nature cuts across many fields. Any progress made in solving the “hard problem of consciousness”, in understanding the origins of life, and describing the elements within the universe, will all contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe.

Our knowledge is still in its infancy. We are no wiser on the best of way to live than were our ancestors in Aristotle’s time. We aren’t even much wiser than the humans who blew their handprints in red ochre on cave walls 25 thousand years ago. We’ve had thousands of years of erroneously assuming we are the centre and pinnacle of creation, the lone species for whom a divine purpose has been set out: preparing ourselves for a mythical life after death. We need to unlearn all that.

Lloyd Geerings Christianity Without God describes a pathway for Christians to reconcile and combine the cultural heritage of their religion with humanism. Geering argues humanism is a product of Christian thought, and describes the continually changing nature of Christianity. Daniel McGuire’s 2014 book of the same name argues for a “moratorium on god-talk so that together we could explore alternatives to earth’s current social, political, economic, and ecological distress”.

We’ve seen emergent Christian movements such as Peter Rollins, Ikon assemblies, offering a religion without religion using transformative art. One of the most admired Christians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a series of letters from prison speaking of a “Religionless Christianity”. Though Bonhoeffer demurs from religion, not from faith, his focus on the provisional nature of belief has been taken up later post-modern Christian offshoots such as Jesuism, Christian atheism, and Paul van Buren’s Death of God movement.

 

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God is not given). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.

 

In the Netherlands, 42% of Protestants don’t believe in God, and 1 in 6 pastors are agnostic or atheist. One of its ministers, Klaas Hendrikse describes God not as a deity but as an expression of human experience. In his book, Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor, Hendrikse argues that God is a word for what connects people: “Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that God”.

The existential mystery is central to the religious urge. To echo the Tasos Leivaditis poem, Violets for a Season (quoted by Trakakis), we stretch out our hands toward the infinite like lost children. The handshake with the infinite never happens. But the hope of finally grasping hold of the keys to our existence is nevertheless exhilarating. Many modern non-theists foresee a day when religion will no longer exist. Personally, I doubt it.

I recently watched a moving documentary about the devastation caused by the Chinese Sichuan school collapse. Many parents lost their children in the disaster.

In one moving scene we see a mother at dusk, on the 5th anniversary of her daughter’s death. She lights a sky lantern. Rising slowly, its red glow gradually animates an expression of inconsolable despair on the mother’s face. She clasps her hands in prayer. Family members cling to each other all looking upwards.

 

My beautiful daughter. I have to believe that you are happy in your life in heaven. When I look to the sky you are the brightest star.

 

Other than with religion, how else could the mother reconcile the immensity of her loss? The mother cannot cease being a mother. If there are better ways of soothing human despair than this, and there must be, then we have so far failed to find them. Acknowledging the obvious self-delusion does nothing to invalidate the urge to ancestor worship and false consolation embedded within our psyche. If we intuitively practise religion in certain situations, then we must at least acknowledge the deep human need for worship.

In his influential Kenyon college commencement speech, What is Water, David Foster Wallace asserts that “there’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. A good reason for religious or spiritual worship is that anything else will “eat you alive”. Worship money and you’ll always be poor. Worship appearances and you’ll always be ugly. Worship power, and you’ll be weak. Worship the intellect and you’ll never be smart enough. Wallace’s message acknowledges the human need for meaning, communion with others, and to exercise control over our mind. His overall message is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see.

Humans have long tried to exercise dominion over the Earth. But the organ we need to subdue is the one inside our own craniums. The mind of man remains an enchanted glass. We can only attempt to tame its lavish appetites by continually refilling it with evidence. And once the glass is clear and the beams of light travel straight and true, what we see might seem so obvious we’ll wonder how we never noticed it before. The deus ex machina of religion, the phoenix arising from the ashes of dogma, is doubt and uncertainty. Reason and evidence are the best hope of revitalising the religious project.

 

 

 

 

Mark ‘No religion” on the 2016 Census

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The Church and its weakening grip over Telstra and taxes

The Church and its weakening grip over Telstra and taxes – ABC’s The Drum 14 April 2016

News that Telstra has apparently bowed to pressure from the Catholic Church and backed away from public support for marriage equality comes at a time many Australians are reconsidering the role of religion in our society.

Telstra and other corporations had lent their logos to a full page ad run by Marriage Equality Australia in May last year.

The Archdiocese of Sydney wrote to these corporations “with grave concern” about the marriage equality campaign, highlighting how the Catholic Church is “a significant user of goods and services from many corporations”.

Telstra quietly capitulated, saying it has “no further plans to figure prominently in the wider public debate”. According to the Australian, a “person familiar with the company’s decision” said Telstra did not want to “risk its commercial relationship with the church”.

Using its buying power to effectively threaten a boycott is a high handed and cynical move on the part of the Church. Perhaps this sort of behaviour helps us to understand why antipathy towards organised religion seems to be increasing in Australia.

Nearly two in three Australians think tax breaks for advancing religion should go, according to two recent surveys.

According to a new poll by Ipsos, 64 per cent of Australians favour scrapping tax free status for churches and basic religious groups. Less than 20 per cent said tax breaks should remain, and 16.5 per cent were unsure.

More than half (55.1 per cent) of those surveyed disagreed that advancing religion is of public benefit. Only 20.7 per cent said they agreed, with a further 24.2 per cent saying advancing religion may be of public benefit.

The results provide a stunning correlation with last week’s Essential Report, where 64 per cent of those surveyed disapprove of the tax free status of religious groups. Significantly, 39 per cent “strongly disapprove”. Disapproval was consistent across all major parties, with the Liberal/National Party voters recording 63 per cent, and those aged 55 years and over at 73 per cent.

If antipathy to religion and its special treatment continues to grow, the pressure on governments to respond accordingly will eventually become irresistible.

Public opinion has undergone a seismic shift. Rather than ask why remove tax free status, Australians are now asking, “Why not?” The thought that only one in five Australians think advancing religion is beneficial to the public must be deeply troubling for religious advocates.

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Slurs Are A Poor Counterfeit For Reason

Slurs Are A Poor Counterfeit For Reason – The Huffington Post 25/02/16

CORY BERNARDI

(image courtesy The Huffington Post Australia)

In the current charged atmosphere fuelled by cultural issues such as same-sex marriage, it’s unsurprising to see some erecting invisible force-fields around their beliefs. Senator Cory Bernardi claimed the Safe Schools anti-bullying campaign attempted “to indoctrinate kids with Marxist cultural relativism”.

Bill Shorten branded Bernardi a homophobe. Slurs are a poor counterfeit for reason, as are conspiracy theories. As we’ll see, relativism is a charge that likes it both ways.

Bernardi described Shortens jibe as “a really sad indictment on the modern character of political debate”. Whilst true, this is not coming from the saviour of reason.“Bestiality” and “Burqas” are words inversely associated with that comparison. When he joined the Coalition front bench as a comparative young man, some feared his star had risen too soon — he’d become an anachronism before his time.

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