"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The birds are singing to Yahweh according to Rabbi Sacks.

Oh Dear! Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has fallen into the “Darwin was wrong about some things” trap to deliver a puerile homily about taking ...
...Darwinian selection to be more than a law about biology, and turn it into a metaphor for life itself, as if all that matters is conflict and the struggle to survive, so that love and beauty and even birdsong are robbed of their innocence and reduced to genetic instincts and drives.

Yes, once again Radio 4’s Thought for the Day has come up trumps as an inspiration for a blog post and for me this one touched all the bases; Darwin, evolution, covert creationism and intellectual dishonesty all in one three minute segment. So where to begin?
Well, Lord Sacks has decided that the account of a revised understanding of the sexual mores of birds in a new book The Wisdom of Birds by ornithologist Tim Birkhead is sufficient to impugn the scientific understanding of evolution because it now transpires that Darwin’s assertion that female birds are faithful and monogamous and the promiscuous males sing to attract mates has proved to be less than universally true. It is now recognised that female birds are also opportunistic in their mating strategies and that some species have females that are as vocal as the males as evidenced by genetic studies of wild populations and observation by ornithologists.
The first thing to say about this is that Darwin was wrong about the specifics of many things, most importantly from an evolutionary point of view he completely misunderstood the true nature of inheritance, ignorant as he was of even the Mendelian laws of inheritance being developed around the same time. This is both understandable and widely recognised by biologists who do not see this as a reason to reject what is arguably the most powerful explanatory scientific theory of the millennium. Given that context, minor observational errors on sexual selection in birds should not be a big issue. Although in fact Tim Birkhead says this of Darwin who, as a pigeon fancier, would most likely have been aware of the truth of the matter.
He was probably playing it safe. In Victorian England it simply wasn’t appropriate for a well-respected gentleman scientist to draw attention to the existence of female promiscuity, let alone to justify it in biological terms.
Be that as it may avian female promiscuity and vocalisation does not lead to the conclusions that Lord Sacks would like to infer with this:
A century and a half ago Darwin argued that birdsong was all about sexual selection. It was males who did the singing, hoping to make female birds swoon at hearing the ornithological equivalent of Justin Bieber, giving the most tuneful males a better chance of handing on their genes to the next generation. Well, it turns out to be not quite like that after all, because scientists have now discovered that female birds do almost as much singing as the males, and it has less to do with sexual selection, than with simply saying: I’m here.
and this:
Not all is wrong in a world where birds sing for the joy of being alive.
Birdsong fulfills several functions not, or only partly, related to mating strategies. For some species it is territorial, a signal to deter members of the same species from invading its feeding and breeding grounds. In flocking birds it can be a means of maintaining colony cohesion and for warning against predators. Singing has to be explainable under natural selection as making a noise can be a risky strategy for a prey species and would only persist in a population if it had other survival advantages: saying "I'm here" just for the sake of it could result in "the joy of being alive" a very short experience. Skylarks for example, while on the wing, will use song as a form of defense against predator birds. By singing, the skylark signals that it is in good condition and will be difficult to catch as only a fit skylark can afford to sing whilst being chased by a predator.
Moreover even if both males and females are singing to attract mates it does not negate sexual selection as both sexes would be advertising their fitness to potential partners which is still true even if strict monogamy were not the expected outcome. Lord Sacks seems to be suffering from the delusion that it can only be sexual selection if the male is behaving like a peacock and the female is a coy recipient of his advances which may say more about his cultural biases than about his grasp of biology. After all, both partners will usually be involved in feeding the brood so fitness, for which singing is a proxy, is advantageous to both birds.
Lord Sacks cannot make any of this mean what he would like it to mean which is birds sing because of God.
[…] like all those psalms that speak of creation singing a song to the creator, and the wonderful closing line of the last psalm of all: Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
Birds sing for survival and not to praise a deity that only human minds can afford the luxury of inventing and no faux pas of Darwin’s changes that. However that does not render the dawn chorus any less uplifting or appealing, in fact the complex twists and turns of natural selection that have granted the birds their vocal abilities are mirrored in our own to appreciate them. Which is a much deeper and richer truth that it may benefit the good Rabbi to contemplate.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Science in the Quran? Maybe if you squint…

Zakir Naik
My youngest daughter appears to have inherited my scepticism of religion yet succeeds in maintaining sincere believers, both Christian and Muslim, as her closest friends. This is an admirable trait of which she should be justifiably proud, as indeed am I, and she achieves this even while having challenging theological debates amongst them. Recently a Muslim friend suggested my daughter and I watch a YouTube debate between Islamic and Christian apologists Dr Zakir Naik and Dr.William Campbell on "The Quran and the Bible in light of modern science" which was supposed to convince us that the Quran is a reliable source of timeless scientific knowledge. Now I have been exposed to Dr Naik before as he is the go-to-guy for Muslims wanting to defend the Quran as a perfect revelation by pointing to Surahs that pre-sage modern scientific theory but although I have read some of his thoughts online this was the first time I had watched him in action. The first thing to say is that the link we were given is an egregiously biased edit of the actual debate with William Cambell's responses amateurishly curtailed to make his arguments fall literally and philosophically short and make Naik appear a better debater than he actually is. This is not surprising as theists of all denominations have been guilty of this tactic, but for the purposes of this post it is irrelevant because neither of the participants actually engaged the real problem, the purpose of that debate being to pitch the Bible against the Quran as to which is defensible through science: but neither are. From my perspective Naik does a pretty thorough job of debunking Biblical claims to scientific integrity, better in fact than many atheist debaters I've seen. But that proves only that Naik is a competent theologian and logician with enough knowledge of science to recognise absurdities when he wants to. However when it comes to defending the Quran his critical faculties desert him and his intellectual dishonesty becomes manifest. Before what appears to be a gender segregated and predominantly supportive audience, Naik cites Surah upon Surah to support what are actually very weak eisogesic arguments for scientific "signs" in the Quran. For example he lists Surahs giving "detailed accounts of the water cycle" but only selectively quotes from them. Consequently if you actually research the Surahs he cites you get the following.
“We sent down water from the sky, blessed water whereby We caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm-trees with their spathes, piled one above the other – sustenance for (Our) servants. Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land. So will be the emergence (from the tombs).” [Quran 50:9-11]
“We sent down water from the sky in measure and lodged it in the ground. And We certainly are able to withdraw it. Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palm-trees and vineyards where for you are abundant fruits and of them you eat.” [Quran 23: 18-19]
“We sent forth the winds that fecundate. We cause the water to descend from the sky. We provide you with the water – you (could) not be the guardians of its reserves.” [Quran 15:22]
“Allaah is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. He spreads them in the sky as He wills and breaks them into fragments. Then thou seest raindrops issuing from within them. He makes them reach such of His servants as He wills. And they are rejoicing.” [Quran 30:48]
“(Allaah) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. When they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a dead land. Then We cause water to descend and thereby bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus We will bring forth the dead. Maybe you will remember.” [Quran 7:57]
“Hast thou not seen that Allaah sent water down from the sky and led it through sources into the ground? Then He caused sown fields of different colors to grow.” [Quran 39:21]
“Therein We placed gardens of palm-trees and vineyards and We caused water springs to gush forth.” [Quran 36:34]
Seven 'divinely revealed' verses that say in no uncertain terms that...it rains...sometimes water comes from the ground...and stuff grows.
This is not science, this is observation which fair enough is where science starts, but science is supposed to be explanatory and none of this is. It may be descriptive of the water cycle but that's as far as it goes and only proves that seventh century Arabs weren't stupid, which nobody is suggesting.
Naik also defends the Quran's description of embryology which is often ridiculed by Christians and atheists alike as being a woefully naive description of the actual process of fertilisation and development of the human embryo.
The truth is that as a descriptive narrative it is not far off. If talks of mixing fluids, a clot of blood, a leach like structure, a formative muscular/ skeletal phase all of which as descriptions are not obviously wrong. But, none of this is miraculous nor was it unknown. Women had been having miscarriages, foetuses had aborted and pregnant women had been mutilated for millenia enough for all of those things to have been observed and described. Again this is not science and in the absence of clear references to meiosis, eggs, sperm fertilisation etc is not explanatory. If indeed these had been explicit the divine provenance of the Quran would not be in doubt.
On most other areas, particularly cosmology and geology, Naik either misunderstands or is just plain lying about the science. His explanations of plate tectonics and mountain formation are laughable as is his characterisation of the big bang. Although, a Quranic reference about "an expanding universe" did give me pause enough to search my own copy for the context of which I'll give you a few Surahs.
51:44 But they were insolent toward the command of their Lord, so the thunderbolt seized them while they were looking on. 51:45 And they were unable to arise, nor could they defend themselves. 51:46 And [We destroyed] the people of Noah before; indeed, they were a people defiantly disobedient. 51:47 And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander. 51:48 And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer. 51:49 And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember. 51:50 So flee to Allah . Indeed, I am to you from Him a clear warner.
Now, leaving aside the fact that like much of the Quran this is actually incoherent it demonstrates entirely how taking one verse out of many in a completely unrelated context can in retrospect be made to say something apparently meaningful. As I pointed out to my daughter on this standard of evidence you could pick any random sentence from any book and draw a parallel to any fact you chose. As a demonstration I linked the current cold snap in North America to this from A.A Milne
The more it snows (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes on snowing (Tiddely-Pom) And nobody knows (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes are growing (Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom)
Which is a clear prediction of the counter-intuitive but scientifically explainable recent effects of global warming. Clever old bear...
There is no doubt that Dr Naik is an excellent debator and skilled theologian. His mastery of presuppositional and (mostly circular) logic is enough I suspect to convince the faithful, indeed it must be given the frequency with which I am directed towards him, but the fact that his title is medical and he is not a science PhD shows painfully to anyone with some grounding in science and frankly no sceptic would take him seriously on the strength of this debate with a Christian apologist also lacking scientific credentials.
He did however give my daughter and I a very entertaining and highly amusing evening as we laughed together at his transparently flawed science and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend his website as a resource for atheists looking for ammunition to use in similar debates.

Monday, 3 March 2014

When Christians talk of slavery...

Solomon Northup
Since the well-deserved success of 12 Years a Slave at both the BAFTA and OSCAR awards ceremonies there has been a renewed interest in the issue of slavery, both in its historical legacy and its modern iteration of human trafficking. The US in particular still has a deal of unresolved baggage around slavery and much of the racism prevalent in the southern states harks back to unquestioned assumptions of white supremacy in an era when to be black was to be owned.
One contribution to the conversation was made on the Thought for the Day segment on Radio 4’s Today programme by Rev Professor David Wilkinson who made the statement (and I may be paraphrasing as the transcript is not available yet) that in the past some people had tried to defend slavery using the bible. In the next breath he appealed to William Wilberforce’s speech to parliament specifically as a parallel to the consciousness raising effect of 12 Years a Slave, but also as a counterpoint to religious culpability for slavery.The problem I have with this is that there is absolutely no difficulty whatsoever in defending slavery with the bible and little evidence of religion being motivated to repudiate it.
So first of all what does the Bible say about slavery? It couldn’t be clearer than in Leviticus 25:44-46
44 ‘“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
So pretty much carte blanche to enslave any foreigner you come across, direct from the deity’s mouth so to speak. Incidentally, that last bit about not ruling over your fellow Israelites is the get out of jail free card some apologists use to argue it wasn’t really slavery, just bonded labour. But what the Bible goes on to say about that refers exclusively to the Israelites, not foreign slaves: they’re yours for ever.
Influenced as he was by Methodism Wilberforce was very much on the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church and possessed a strongly humanitarian view of Christianity. In this the apologists are justified in saying his religion started the process of abolition (at least as far as Britain was concerned) of the slave trade. But what is not mentioned is that the conservative elements against whom Wilberforce was arguing were of the British Christian establishment and equally comfortable with their pro-slavery position. As well they might be…
Ephesians 6:5-8
New International Version (NIV)
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Now this is couched in Paul’s usual apocalyptic assumption that the end times were just around the corner so the slaves would soon be “free” as saved Christians. But, there is nothing in here to suggest that slavery as an institution was being condemned. Certainly none of the canonical gospels have Jesus even commenting on the practice let alone repudiating it.
There is no doubt that William Wilberforce is deserving of the reputation he earned over the abolition of the slave trade and whether his faith informed his humanity or vice versa, though moot, is probable irresolvable but there is nothing intrinsically Christian or Biblical to explain his zeal. One can only assume that like many Christians today he defined his religion by selectively choosing those aspects that chimed with his morality and ignored the rest.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Does science really ignore the possibility of God?

There is a criticism sometimes levelled at atheists who point to the lack of evidence for the supernatural and therefore gods that the reason they see no such evidence is that they are not looking for it. The suggestion is that the world view on which atheists tend to rely, science, is intrinsically antithetical to supernatural phenomena and does not take their possible existence into account for explanations of the world.
This view is illustrated by Tim Minchin’s eponymous character from the beat poem Storm (see link on sidebar) where she is made to say
”Science just falls in a hole When it tries to explain the nature of the soul.”[…] “Shakespeare said it first: There are more things in heaven and earth Than exist in your philosophy… Science is just how we're trained to look at reality, It can't explain love or spirituality. How does science explain psychics? Auras; the afterlife; the power of prayer?”
Theists in general will tell you that the handiwork of God is all around for everyone to see should we deign to take off our reductionist blinkers and appreciate the awesome wonder of their god’s creation. If only we would look at the world in the ‘right’ way, opening our minds and hearts to the obvious God would be self-evident. However I am going to make an argument that possibly even a philosopher of science would find contentious (at least I’ve never heard it put quite this way) that the scientific method far from ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention is in fact constantly testing for it.
Science, it is true, presupposes methodological naturalism
Methodological naturalism is concerned not with claims about what exists but with methods of learning what nature is. It is strictly the idea that all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. The genesis of nature, e.g., by an act of God, is not addressed
which at first sight appear to vindicate the theist’s view that science is ruling anything supernatural out a priori but this ignores the other cornerstones of the scientific method namely falsifiability and the null-hypothesis.
In science a hypothesis is considered to be falsifiable if in principle it can be proved to be incorrect by observation or experiment. For example when J.B.S Haldane was asked what could falsify the theory of evolution he replied ”Rabbits in the Precambrian” by which he meant if a fossil rabbit was found in a geological era prior to the evolution of mammals it would upset the theory.
In practice every experiment conducted or observation made with scientific intent is an attempt to falsify a particular hypothesis but beyond that I would argue they are also, albeit unconsciously, testing methodological naturalism itself because the underlying hypothesis is one of natural cause and effect. A result found or observation made that could not be explained by natural phenomena would falsify methodological naturalism and imply that supernatural events could influence the data.
A null-hypothesis is a statistical concept that states there will be no difference between two sets of observations. For example in a drug trial with a placebo control the null-hypothesis would be that the clinical outcomes will be identical for both groups of patients. An observed statistical deviation between the groups would then tell you something about the effectiveness of the drug in question. For the purposes of this argument I would suggest the null hypothesis that scientific experiments and observations will yield the same results regardless of supernatural or purely natural influences. Over centuries of scientific observations, more than enough to be statistically significant, we have never seen a deviation in an expected outcome due to supernatural activity (Note: I am saying that this null-hypothesis is implicit in the scientific method even if it is not explicit in a particular experiment such as, for example, testing the efficacy of prayer on the mortality rates of cancer patients). This suggests one of two things, either the null-hypothesis is correct and that regardless of supernatural forces the results are identical to those expected from naturalism or, conceivably, there are no supernatural forces. To quote again from Tim Minchin’s Storm
”Throughout history Every mystery Ever solved has turned out to be Not Magic.”
This is not to argue that science has disproved gods or the supernatural but merely to point out that the scientific method is obliquely but consistently testing the hypothesis that is methodological naturalism and as a consequence only ignores the supernatural insofar as, to date, it has either not significantly impacted on observations or shown itself to exist. It is consistent with the rational atheist position that where we do contemplate possible gods they are of the ignorable, non-interventionist, deistic variety rather than the prayer answering, miracle working, null-hypothesis falsifying species beloved of the major religions.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Anne Atkins invokes the devil

It’s been a while since I caught Radio 4’s Thought Sermon for the Day segment on the Today program, but travelling to work this morning I was treated to some delightful drivel from Anne Atkins who to be fair I always find good value if only for the amusing lack of rational content in her contributions.
Anne Atkins
Her latest missive was inspired by the Church of England’s re-working of the Christening ceremony to eliminate the phrase asking godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and substituting it with “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”. Atkins opened her piece with the “good news” that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had “cast out the Devil” but then went on to query why, if absolute good was personified in the existence of the Christian God, should absolute evil not be similarly personified in the form of the Devil? This is of course a very good question that goes straight to the heart of the problem of evil, Christianity’s greatest philosophical nemesis, for if an omnibenevolent and omnipotent god exists there should be no place for evil.
Zoroastrianism, which predates Christianity by some seven centuries and second temple Judaism by two, resolved the apparent disparity by having opposing deities representing good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu) in eternal battle and it is likely that the character of Angra Mainyu became superimposed on Satan during the Babylonian exile demonising a character that in earlier Jewish tradition was considered a loyal agent of Yahweh’s and merely doing his bidding. Mutated by Christian mythology, medieval iconography and Dante’s Divine Comedy we have ended up with the cartoonish Horned Devil so beloved of fire and brimstone Southern Baptist types but seen as an embarrassment to liberal Christians who well understand the theological difficulties such an entity poses.
Anne Atkins reaches out to C.S Lewis to point out that the absurdity of this image has long been recognised.
In every era the Church faces the challenge of presenting eternal truths in the vulgar tongue, and unchanging beliefs in the familiar media of the day. And the devil has been out of fashion as far as memory goes back. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively.
But the lurking implication is that there really is a demonic personality behind the temptation to do evil even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype…and that’s exactly where Atkins takes us
Plato taught that behind every material reality is a greater spiritual reality: his definition of God is the ἰδεα, the form, of the good. Thus good itself has the attributes of personality: mind; affection; and volition. God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out. If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random. If there is morality, there must surely be evil as well as good.
So either she is a born again Zoroastrian or she has totally missed the theological implications of an evil being that her all loving god must necessarily be allowing to exist. But, like all good theists her angst is really all about the necessity of there being some divinely ordained objective morality as without that we are all doomed to nihilism.
 If there is no intelligent force of evil then we live in a neutral universe, I can make choices like a consumer in a supermarket, and ultimately nothing matters.
Nothing matters? Really! Her family, her health, world peace, poverty, the environment, human suffering none it matters unless there is an existential god and his evil twin to make it all meaningful. In order to make this work Atkins has to believe not only in her god but also in a nagging demon on her shoulder tempting her from the straight and narrow.
When new atheists ridicule the superannuated Santa Claus in the sky version of the Christian god we are told that we are fighting a straw man nobody believes in. Sophisticated theologians talk of God as the ground of being or some such blather that we are all too dim to appreciate. But Anne Atkins is not stupid or naïve. I’m sure she is as capable of understanding Alvin Plantinga or Paul Tillich as I am
yet here she is an intelligent woman, the wife of a clergyman no less, arguing against current Anglican doctrine and for the existence of an actual intelligent force for evil, or The Devil by any other name.

Monday, 6 January 2014

I hear what you're saying Frank but...

They say “be careful what you wish for…” a phrase that maybe I should have been mindful of when writing soon after Francis took over from Benedict XV1 as Pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems to be taking a lot of my advice seriously.
Pope Francis Time's person of the year
For the record I don’t think he reads my blog (or even the snarks I send in reply to some of his more fatuous tweets) but his modus operandi since taking office has been spookily in accordance with my suggestion that he focus his message on poverty and income inequality rather than flogging the mantras against contraception and gender equality and it seems to be doing wonders for his personal reputation. He has already been crowned Time Magazine’s person of the year 2013 and become something of a darling to the liberal left while simultaneously enraging the right for his criticisms of capitalism and corporate greed. So what am I griping about?
Well, when he stays within the realm of liberation theology he appears to be sincere and although he is not saying anything radical in terms of catholic doctrine on poverty he walks the walk more than many a previous pontiff. The problem is on those occasions when he does address the social issues that the Church has been so wrong about for millennia he speaks softly but changes nothing. In fact he is quietly reinforcing the misogyny and the homophobia while giving the impression of moderation. For example on same sex relationships…
“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”
…and fine, I don’t want him to talk about it all the time, mainly so that it becomes a non-issue. But by telling us he doesn’t want to talk about it because it is an issue he is entrenching the dogma.
Optimistic liberals will point to the fact that he has removed some prominent ultra conservatives such as Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops as a sign that Church teaching is poised to change but I suspect he is just trying to ease these hot button subjects under the cultural radar by taking the hard-liners out of the limelight.
In case you think I am being unfair to Frank over this, on the few occasions when he has had to respond seriously to controversial events on the ground he has reverted to type, for example by endorsing an anti-gay sermon given by the Bishop Scicluna of Malta in response to a Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise adoption by same sex couples. He has also confirmed the assessment issued under Benedict by the Doctrinal Congregation criticising American nuns' group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ( LCWR), and accusing them of "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life." The assessment called for the organisation's reform to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality which suggests that he is not prepared to allow any liberalising opinions free rein either.
There is no doubt that this Pope is doing a wonderful PR job for the Catholic Church. Outside of the atheosphere very few commenters are stressing the child abuse scandal which has not gone away or been adequately dealt with and I can’t count the number of “lapsed Catholics” I have seen on social media who are claiming to be lured back into the fold by Frank’s fine words. But fine words… high fat dairy… root vegetables etc… he needs to act in accordance with his pontifications.
It would be unrealistic, I know, to expect a revision of Church doctrine no matter how liberal a Papacy he is pursuing and besides unless he is prepared to make some radical ex-cathedra infallible pronouncements the next Pope could easily reverse the direction of travel. So I want to modify my previous advice (well, you never know…). So Frank, here it is. Keep on with the anti-poverty schtick but also stop actively opposing those things we know work to alleviate it; empowerment of women, sex education and easy access to family planning and abortion services. Nobody expects you to hand out condoms with the Eucharist but stop campaigning against programs, like the U.S. Affordable Care Act, that do facilitate access to cheap contraception. Also if you are going to insist on running hospitals around the world, stop imposing Catholic dogma on the professional health workers who staff them and free them to make clinical, not ideological, decisions.
Here’s hoping….

Friday, 20 December 2013

HuffPo mangles moral philosophy to argue against atheism

The Huffington Post has an article by Pastor Rick Henderson titled Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist in which he makes a superficially coherent argument that given naturalism, the default assumption of atheism, it is impossible for atheists to have objective morals and stay consistent to their world view
"Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations: 1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces). 2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics. 3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will. Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value. "
This is all true as far as it goes but is also question begging. Henderson is assuming that only an external conscious agent can give meaning to events and also that meaning requires objectivity, neither of which is self-evident.
"A good atheist -- that is, a consistent atheist -- recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him "good" in the moral sense is nonsensical."
Again the conclusion is already in the premise that to be morally good requires moral objectivity and moral realism. He’s also equivocating as he is allowing “good” to serve as “consistent” and also “moral” which is how he arrives at his contention that there are no good atheists, either an atheist is moral (by objective standards) and therefor is not really an atheist or is consistent in which case not objectively moral.
O.K! In the first place it is true that many atheists live as if morality is objective, even if we know philosophically that it isn’t. Henderson correctly points out that one argument for the existence of our moral sense is evolutionary but denies this confers moral objectivity, which of course it doesn’t, but it doesn’t have to. Most atheists also behave as if they have free will despite there being good philosophical reasons and increasing neurophysiological evidence to suggest we don’t. But evolution doesn’t work that way; our sense of agency and our sense of moral objectivity are probably innate as stopping to philosophise about either would have no survival advantage in the environments where they evolved. It is not being a bad atheist to appear to hold objective moral values.
Secondly, “meaning” is a human construct. It is incoherent to talk about the meaning of events without a conscious meaning making observer but there is no reason why that observer has to be an omnipotent creator god. The benchmark for moral objectivity is as true for gods as it is for us as the Euthyphro dilemma points out. If gods are responsible for morality the subjectivism is theirs not ours but still says nothing about moral realism. We are perfectly entitled to be the arbiters of meaning since, as far as we know, we are the only entity that finds things meaningful. If we ever meet another meaning making sentient species no doubt we will have to negotiate
Thirdly, moral subjectivity does not entail moral relativism as Henderson contends.
[assuming]"…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence."
“Society’s borders” are porous and flexible. Just as we would have to negotiate with an alien species, should we encounter one, we must also negotiate with neighboring cultures. Even if the moral basis of a behavior is subjective outcomes aren’t, which is why utilitarianism is the go to meta-ethic of choice for resolving these conflicts. In fact the only situation where ethical dilemmas cannot be approached this way is when the contentious behavior is religiously motivated.
Lastly, at least for the purposes of this post, the other bit of question begging in Henderson’s argument implies theism fares better than atheism in this respect. But the religious are just as subjective as they have to explain why the moral examples in their scriptures are correct, especially in circumstances where they patently aren’t. The Bible for instance condones rape, genocide, stoning, slavery, polygamy, and infanticide to name a few which would not pass most people's moral intuition. In fact a holy scripture that was morally consistent for all people at all times and under all circumstances would be the strongest physical evidence that such a religion was true, which is probably why there isn’t one.