Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Free Will and (Divine?) Foreknowledge

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Various defenders of academic philosophy  are offended (see, eg Jean Kazez and Daniel Fincke)by the contempt expressed by some for the idea of  “Divine Foreknowledge” as a topic of serious philosophical investigation (especially when funded by the “notorious” Templeton Foundation).  But while I think the question of whether and how some entity having potentially complete foreknowledge of one’s behaviour may or may not be reconciled with some concept of “free will” is actually not without interest(and so agree with much of what Fincke says in his more extended rebuttal), I still sympathise with those who call the proposed study into question.


Use of the word “god” and reference to foreknowledge as “divine” are red flags for hard core “atheists”, and legitimately so as they  imply something beyond what is apparently being addressed in the study and thereby appear to be sneakily endorsing an unstated (and unnecessary) assumption. The unqualified use of that loaded term for a hypothetical fully informed entity is unfortunate, and combined with the source of the funding it does, in my opinion, at least bring the study into question if not into outright disrepute.


Is Religion Above the Law?

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

What intrigues me about this is what appears to be the choice by various Supreme Court justices to use quite naive language to express questions which cannot fail to have occurred to anyone who has really considered this issue at any time over the past several centuries.

Are we really just now noticing for the first time that language assigning legal protection to the idea of freedom of religion is inherently problematical?

Surely that has always been obvious  – both because of the lack of any definition of what, namely religion, is being protected, and because of the difficulty of defining a protected freedom to engage in activities which may include the restriction of other protected freedoms of other people.

Why do you believe in God?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

This series from the New Statesman may (or may not) provide some of the insight I have been looking for into why intelligent decent people can adopt traditional-sounding religious positions. The answers I have been able to get from personal friends are generally not persuasive and it seems that to get something more satisfactory would require a level of probing that would feel unduly intrusive.

Faith, Belief, and Unbelief

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

John S Wilkins of ‘Evolving Thoughts’  is exploring some definitions to facilitate a discussion of the philosophical landscape around the issues of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and so on.

One point I took issue with in his first post was his statement that “To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief” which seems to me to be putting the existence of agnostics in conflict with the “Law of the Excluded Middle”. Although in colloquial speech we may often say “I don’t believe it is raining” with an implication that we actually believe it is not raining, this is a) really just a colloquialism, and b) not the same wording as “I don’t have a belief that  it is raining”.

I expect Wilkins’ further discussions to be interesting and possibly illuminating, but I am actually more interested in understanding what drives people who profess apparently (to me) unfounded beliefs, than in clarifying the language of those who do not.  Commenter Sarah Collett, referring to her own Christian belief (Mormon background)  says “I believe in Christ. . .  . I do not know if Christ is divine. But I choose his philosophy”, and on her own site she expresses some of the challenges of what I would describe as sharing faith without belief.

Clearly, by “believe in Christ” Ms Collett cannot mean “believe that Christ is divine” (since she asserts one and denies the other), and it struck me that to “believe in Christ” in the sense of choosing his philosophy does not even have to imply “believe in the existence of Christ as a real physical being”. He or it could be just a concept, and to “believe in” something or someone is not necessarily to believe the proposition of its existence as a physical entity. “I believe in fairies” may ask to be interpreted that way, but for “I believe in you” to be taken the same way would be . . . well . . . at least redundant. In fact, “I believe in you” is not at all an existence claim regarding the listeners, but rather a statement of trust or faith in their ability or willingness to do something that the speaker values. Perhaps it would be less confusing if such occurrences of “belief in” were all replaced by “faith in” or “trust in”, but that is unlikely to happen and the best we can do is try to be aware of the possibility that they aren’t tied to a physical existence claim.

With such a sense of “believe in” it seems not unreasonable for someone to say something like “I believe in Him who I do not believe exists” (or even “who, I believe, almost certainly does not exist”) – and in fact I suspect that many high-ups in the Anglican communion are pretty close to that position.[Note (added Aug 5 2011): as are also apparently a substantial fraction of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church]

Those who might mock such a faith are answered quite effectively by Ms Collett’s clarification that what she is relying on Christ (be he person, god, or myth) to provide is not anything physical but just moral guidance from what she assumes to be “his” philosophy.

It seems to me that Ms Collett’s sense of what “belief” means is as valid as any other, and that it is unfair of Wilkins to dismiss her definition as “begging the question” – (isn’t that really what all definitions do to some extent anyway?)

But when she says “I find that belief is only valid if it is accompanied by some choice” and “What does an atheist choose to manifest his belief that there is no God?” I think she is making an error in the other direction.  Actually maybe a couple. There is really no reason why belief in  the truth of  a proposition must always lead to some action, and the lack of any such implied action does not make the proposition irrelevant or meaningless. For example “2+2=4” is a useful proposition which I believe to be true, but it calls on no action from me except when combined with other facts. Similarly “there are no gods” does not force any action upon us, and contrary to Wilkins’ reply to Collett, it does not even require that we refuse to act as if we believed its negation. For example Wilkins says that “if an atheist has a positive belief that there is no god, that will necessarily <emphasis added> affect the way they live (for a start, they may not pay any attention to religiously-based prescriptions about sexuality or submission of women)”, but if I was surrounded by co-tribalists who would stone me and my family to death should I fail to beat my wife for crossing some forbidden line then I probably would beat her if she did accidentally cross it (and I suspect that she might well be thankful for that) even if, in the privacy of my own mind, I had no truck with the mean and foolish beliefs of my community.

In fact it is true that atheism per se provides no moral guidance, but what many who fear it fail to note is that that does not preclude those who lack gods from finding such guidance elsewhere (either from external sources or by consulting their own internal “conscience”).


Bible = AllBooks, Divinely inspired? – Isn’t everything?

Religions, cults and wacos

Monday, July 11th, 2011

John S Wilkins’ piece on Religions, cults and wacos reproduces a couple of cartoons from Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur which make an amusing and important point about the various levels of respect accorded to different words for superstitious belief systems.

There is some attempt in the comments following Wilkins’ post to explore more seriously what these terms actually mean, but it is largely immaterial to the main point of the piece.

For the most part, when re-inventing common words as technical terms, be it in mathematics or sociology, we are free to do as we will. There is no problem with differences so long as each party makes clear what their terms mean, and  none can claim to be more “right” than another unless both agree to work within the conventions of some academic body or discipline.  Absent that context, I would opt for traditional usages rather than give in to the ignorant abuses of the 20th century (which would for example have activists rather than cops “flaunting” their authority at a demonstration/riot). In that spirit I would suggest that a “cult” often refers to a practice or belief which is not necessarily exclusive (eg cult of the virgin mary is compatible with cult of john the baptist, cult of the little princess, or cult of the nazarene). A “sect” on the other hand, as suggested by the etymology, should refer to a subset or section of a larger group – and it is far more likely to be exclusive. Typically (at least until the language got butchered – and even then the distinction was more subtle than absolute) we follow, practice, or participate in a cult, but belong to a sect.

Of course the word that really matters is “religion” since that is the one which is most likely to scandalously command special treatment in the law. And actually, for legal purposes, I would be less scandalized by the special treatment of “religions” if they were objectively defined – perhaps even exactly as described in the cartoons.

Creationism at the Royal Society

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

This would be old news but for the fact that the Royal Society’s president at the time was Martin Rees – who might now be seen by some as finally getting his reward for letting it happen.  On the other hand, Rees does seem genuinely bemused about the award so perhaps, in his mind at least, there is no connection. Many evangelical atheists object that Reese’s accepting the Templeton prize lends credibility to the foundation – something I wouldn’t have given much credence to except for the fact that someone called Mark Vernon is crowing exactly that.

New Atheism=The Tea Party?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

I do not self-identify as an “atheist” let alone a “new” one and certainly not a wildebeest (with which I only identify in the context of computer software). But having read a bit of what is written by some of those that do, and although I do find some of it excessive, I find the claim by Jacques Berlinerblau that they all “disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced” to be a grossly offensive lie. Such nonsense contributes nothing of value or integrity to the public discussion.

The Sine Qua Non

Friday, March 18th, 2011

. . .for inclusion in an interfaith convention is to have a representative to whom one delegates moral authority, be (s)he priest, rabbi, imam, or “secular chaplain”. But that excludes all who reject such immoral authorities whether they be true atheists or true christians (or Jesus himself for that matter).

Origin of Religion

Monday, February 28th, 2011

How Did God Get Started? by Colin Wells in  Boston University’s  ‘Arion’ magazine gives a part of the story but fails to address some key questions.

Value of Religion

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The great debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens was a bit of a bust – with Blair citing the roles of moderate religious leaders in “bringing together” Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (without any acknowledgement of the fact that religion itself was the defining characteristic of the warring classes).
Other discussions such as this one may have a bit more depth, but the real question is not what value religion may or may not have had in the past but whether it has any positive net utility going forward – and either way on that, whether there is anything useful to say or do about it.

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word “unsupervised” from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a “scientific” theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  “unpredictable” must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word “unsupervised” was indeed just plain wrong. (more…)

“The Belief Instinct”

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering’s “The Belief Instinct” is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations – which lead him to identify “adaptive illusion” as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this “marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating“. He says he does not like the mix of  “experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors“, but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering’s thesis then a “possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame.” And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either “begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public” or be subject to “sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception“. There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Muslim Reactions to Violence

Monday, January 10th, 2011

What a contrast between this and this!


Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Apparently, religion is no more likely than any other kind of group affiliation to be associated with either charity or emotional well-being.

So the argument that religion provides a positive contribution in these areas may like saying that baseball is the medical panacaea because baseball players are healthier than the population average – even though this may only be due to their getting a bit more exercise than the overall population average (but a lot less than they would if they had played soccer instead)

Bishop Explains Christmas as Myth

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

In his annual Christmas message the Rt Rev John Davies, Bishop of the Church in Wales diocese of Swansea and Brecon, complained about atheists timing their contrary message so as to “coincide with two of the church’s greatest festivals, Christmas and Easter” and claimed that their criticisms were in any case based on a misunderstanding.

Al Sharpton vs Christopher Hitchens

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

This old debate (which came up when I looked up Al Sharpton in response to Obama’s use of his name in contrast with James Dobson) is quite good, but Hitchens’ failure to take up Sharpton’s (repeated) invitation to raise things to a higher level is disappointing. (more…)

Obama Speech on Religion

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

This comes from before he was president. But note that (at 2:30 on the tape) he says “politics involves compromise” and perhaps that is being applied also to the very principles advocated in this speech.

The Inheritors of What?

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

A new book by Eric Kaufmann entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century is Posted in biology, religion, sustainability | No Comments »

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online

Monday, November 15th, 2010

The Myth of Separate Magisteria | Big Questions Online.

The main problem (aside from its pretentious name) with Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” as a resolution of the “conflict” between science and religion is the fact that many religions fail to respect the purported boundary. Sam Harris (and followers like Susan Jacoby) would like to make a counter invasion, but they are wrong. (more…)

Killing Blasphemers on the Peace Train

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

This is apparently old news, but I was previously unaware of it. I recall being shocked when Cat Stevens was treated as potentially dangerous after his conversion to Islam. Now not so much!