Category Archives: faith

“Divine commands” and personal conscience

Fifteen years ago I visited Israel and can vividly remember the sight of a rifle-carrying guard on a bus full of school children in the north-east. It brought home to me the reality of religious and political extremism which can drive the ideologically committed to brutal, anti-human acts like attacking kids on a school bus.

israel-school-bus-hamas-attack-300x210

School bus hit by Hamas rocket in southern Israel. Credit: 3Sigma Systems

My theologically inclined sparring mate, Matt Flannaghan at MandM, brought that memory back with his recent blog post Divine commands and psychopathic tendencies.” In the post he’s at his old tricks – going into a frenzy of mental gymnastics to justify divine command theory (DCT) – the idea that if his god commands something then the believer must carry it out – no matter how evil the act commanded. Matt is specifically arguing that DCT implies blowing up a bus full of children is right if that’s what God told you to do.”

Just that quoted phrase seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the divine command morality of religious apologists.

Where are those “divine commands” coming from?

A non-believer like me has no problem with divine commands. I know a god couldn’t possibly tell me to blow up a bus. No god has ever made any command – good or bad – for a very simple reason that gods don’t exist. And, hopefully, when that day comes that I do hear a voice in my head telling me to do something that evil I will not be silly enough to think the voice is divine and must be obeyed.

Hopefully I would recognise that I had a problem and get some professional help.

Yes, some believers may well hear voices like this – or claim to have heard them when facing the consequences of their actions in a court of law. Usually that raises the prospect of a not guilty due to insanity verdict. Worth a try?

But it’s probably far more common that political and religious soldiers, rebels or terrorists, get such divine commands “passed on” to them by their Imams, Priests, and theological, political or national leaders. You know, the ones directly in touch with their god or the fount of racial, political or national wisdom. Come on!! Think about it. What other way could they possibly get a “divine command?” Why else does their god seem to have exactly the same prejudices and hatred as the messenger?

The soldier, rebel or terrorist may well believe in a god (or nation, or race) which is a divine, “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person” (or race or nation). But that is irrelevant – they should really be looking at the messenger – the leader, priest, imam, politician, etc., who is claiming to speak for their god (race, state or nation). If they don’t they are just transferring these divine properties of their fictional god to the very real (and very human) “messenger.”

When can evil commands be morally “right?”

Matt argues that a divine command to blow up a bus full of schoolchildren is only hypothetical and therefore he has no qualms saying that if he did get such a command he would know it was morally “right.” He doesn’t believe it will happen because his god is a “morally perfect person.” But he is conceding that if his god commands such an act he will have to assume that the particular circumstances mean that in his case blowing up the bus of schoolchildren is not unloving, not unjust, not based on false information, and not irrational.”

Why? Because his god is an “omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect person”

But doesn’t that argument create a huge moral minefield for him? As a believer and advocate of DCT he believes that his god is the source of “right” and “wrong.” That if his god commands something (even blowing up a school bus) then it must, by definition, be “good.” Be morally “right.” Who is he to question? Because if he does question the command (supposedly “divine” because the messenger, or the voices in his head, tells him it comes directly from his god), isn’t he attempting to use a different, human, non-divine source for his morality? Hasn’t he just shown his idea that moral truths of “right” and “wrong” come from his god to be a sham.

So someone who accepts divine command morality, either for religious reasons, or for racial, political or national reasons, must accept that, no matter how evil the command seems, it is morally “right.” It must be because it’s divine! So they must follow the “divine” orders.

“Double checking” those “divine commands”

Of course, Matt has managed to fit in another somersault to deal with that argument (after all, that’s what theology is for, isn’t it?). He has set up another moral authority to check the divine commands from his god – just in case! He is appealing to an “impartial, compassionate person (who) would knowingly, after a fully rational consideration of the facts, endorse the killings.” so when he does get commanded to blow up that bus he has another moral authority to double-check with.

Bloody hell, would this be his Priest, his Imam, his national or racial leader? Or would it be another of his gods (because this impartial compassionate person sounds pretty omniscient and impotent to me – after all he is a back-up to check Matt’s god). And come on, Matt, surely the philosopher in you must see that you have set an infinite regress trap for yourself – who is going to be the back-up for your “impartial, compassionate person?” And so on.

Or would Matt’s back-up be his own conscience? Is he going to double-check these “divine commands,” whether they come via voices in his head or the declarations of his religious authorities, by contemplating how he actually feels about them? Even applying a bit of philosophical logic to the situation and coming to a reasoned conclusion?

After all, that’s what the rest of us do. Rely on our intuitions and the feelings they generate about ethical situations. And also complementing our emotional reactions by reasoned discussion and deliberation with our mates and the rest of society.

Hasn’t the world learned from experience what “just following orders” results in?

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Going beyond the evidence

My theistically-inclined mate, Dale, has a a provocative little post on his blog fruitful faith. Well, provocative to me anyway, as we have often debated these sorts of issues related to how science is done – and how it is described.  It’s titled methodological indifference, critiques “methodological materialism,” and draws some conclusions with which I must disagree.

Here’s the guts of his argument:

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature). But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements. The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

The irrelevancy of natural/supernatural labels

Well, people who call themselves naturalists may believe science supports their world outlook. And theists or non-naturalists, may also think science supports their opposing world outlook. But most scientists (whatever their religious beliefs) just don’t give a stuff. They get on with investigating and attempting to understand reality.

And I don’t think terms like naturalism and supernaturalism are useful anyway. In fact dictionaries usually define them circularly – naturalism rejects the idea of supernatural things in the world while supernaturalism claims their is more than natural things in the world! Hardly helpful. No wonder scientists don’t start of their investigations by asking “Now, is this natural or supernatural?” That would be a complete waste of time. Again, most scientist wish that dogmatic ideologues, “naturalists” and “supernaturalists” alike, would just get out of the way and let them work.

Selective “name-tags”

Dale is quite correct – when we investigate reality we don’t find “name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.” But really, perhaps there are more important name-tags we don’t find also. Like “conforms to Newtonian mechanics,” “Einsteinian relativity required here,” “best considered from a quantum mechanical viewpoint,” or “hint – consider astronomical events and their likely effects on species extinction.”

Of course “One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.” To develop any explanatory theory for our observations. That’s what science is about.

Now, Dale is presenting a very black and white picture of our investigators. They are either “theists” who “knows she is doing this (going beyond the evidence), though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so, or “naturalist[s], [who] seem to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

Why the hell didn’t he just differentiate between theists and non-theists? Why throw in this meaningless term “naturalist” which seems to be used in a pejorative sense like the use of “communist” in red-smearing?

And surely his “naturalists,” who don’t ‘go beyond the evidence’ (or don’t admit to doing so), are very funny people for scientists. What’s the point of collecting the evidence if we don’t go beyond it? Try to fit that evidence into an explanatory hypothesis? That’s what scientists do, surely. And they do it whatever their religious beliefs, theist and non-theist alike.

A close and continuing relationship with reality

But here’s the thing Dale missed. Scientists don’t just “go beyond the evidence” and stop their work when they have developed an explanatory hypothesis. Their work continues – they must test their hypotheses by comparing predictions with reality. And very often they well find their hypotheses to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This testing enables them to improve their hypothesis – or even ditch it and set to work developing a better explanation.

This close and continuing relationship with reality, with the evidence, is key to the modern scientific method. Now contrast that with a common theist approach which may use evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Once the “my god did it” explanation is produced the evidence (or reality) has done its job. The desired conclusion has been “confirmed.”. There is no need or desire for testing or validating the conclusion.

An opportunist use of “evidence”

This opportunist use of evidence encourages cherry-picking (using only supporting evidence and ignoring the rest) or even falsification of evidence. Just look at how the so-called “fine-tuning” argument is used. The “fine-tuning” of physical constants is exaggerated or misinterpreted to justify the desired, and predetermined, conclusion – “their god did it” (see, for example, my posts Fine-tuning fallacies, Fiddling with “fine-tuning” and When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation).

I referred at the start to the confusing use of terms like supernatural and natural because of the circularity of their definition. And I mentioned that “naturalist” and “naturalism” are general used pejoratively. But I am forced to somehow interpret these terms when they are used by people like Dale.

Perhaps it is the the attitude to evidence, rather than vaguely defined “nature” and “supernature,” which differentiates the “naturalist” from the “non-naturalist” or theist? Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. And the “non-naturalist” has the opportunist relationship to reality – using evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support rather than illumination.

I think that’s how I will interpret these terms in the future. Makes everything so much clearer.

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Pulling the wool over the eyes of the faithful

Occasionally I watch videos, or listen to podcasts, distributed by the Intelligent design crowd at the Discovery Institute. So, I wasted a few minutes on this video below where one of their tame scientists, Ann Gauger, spoke “authoritatively” on population genetics and why this proved Darwin wrong!

It’s a load of old rubbish, aimed at convincing the gullible with sciency sounding words, but causing giggles from real biologists. However, I was interested in the background chosen for the interview. Could this be a lab in the much vaunted ID Biologic Institute? The one set up by the Discovery Institute to do “real” research. The lab where no journalist or non-ID scientist has been allowed access.

Well, it turns out that the background is false. It’s a green screen, using a stock photo (see The Disco ‘Tute’s fake laboratory).

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Stock photo used for background in video

Why go to such trouble?

Well, I guess the simple answer is they don’t have a lab, or access to a lab, they can use as an impressive background – so they fudged it. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

The whole purpose of forming the Biologic Institute was to impress. I mean, to impress their convinced adherents (because no-one in the scientific world is impressed by such a façade). It’s the “silo effect” such ideological communities go in for. They can maintain beliefs because they have their own tame experts and members of the community usually self-censor. The faithful can go along with the pretence their beliefs are supported by scientific evidence and avoid having to deal with real science and scientists.

The ID community provides the amenities require for such a blinkered outlook. They even have their own list of “scientists” rejecting Darwinism. The faithful can thus repeat the lie evolutionary science is on its last legs. That high ranking scientists have proven it wrong.

The Discovery Institute and the Biologic Institute also provide another element of the façade – peer reviewed publications supporting ID. To this end they have established their own “scientific journal” – BIO-Complexity. This presents a veneer of a peer-reviewed journal – but look at it. A small handful of papers, all by the same people listed under the “staff” of the Biologic Institute.

Again, this fools no credible scientist but it can be used to fool the faithful.

But what a a situation – having to lie to your own supporters.

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Science – the greatest story ever told

Book Review: A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity by Phil Torres

Price:
Kindle Edition$5.99
Paperback: $19.95
File Size: 498 KB
Print Length: 174 pages
Publisher: Dangerous Little Books (July 18, 2012)
ASIN: B008N06VRK

The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.

As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.”  As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”

So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.

From evangelical to atheist

Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:

“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”

In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.

All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.

Singles – a new genre?

One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format.  I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.

I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.

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A disciplined discussion

I have commented several times that the debate format is very unsatisfactory and have favoured a discussion format for public discussion. Richard Dawkins has tried out a number of such discussion formats, I think successfully.

But I think this one is actually quite ambitious – four personalities in discussion, on stage, in front of an audience of 4000. It actually comes out very well. With no chairperson or moderator, everyone seems to get a fair go. No one dominates. And the discussion is fascinating. I would love to have been there.

It’s the panel discussion between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali which occurred at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention
held in Melbourne last April.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris & Ayaan Hirsi Ali – YouTube.

It’s an hour-long – but very interesting.

Do atheists need religion?

I was in no hurry to read this book - Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It got such bad reviews. And I really wasn’t impressed by Alain de Botton’s contribution to public debate – on TV and in the media. However, an atheist friend recommended the book and, although I don’t think she had finished reading it, she was impressed with the book’s arguments. Or at least the problems the author identified for atheists living in a secular society.

So, out of a sense of responsibility I purchased and read it.

My conclusion – a waste of money and time!

I don’t intend this to be a review of the book. For that I recommend reading Martin S Pribble’s thoughtful review (Religion For Atheists). As an aside, I followed Martin’s reading of this book via his Twitter comments. First time I have come across a Twitter book review! I think it sort of works – at least when the reader gets emotional about what he or she is reading.

Sufficient to say that de Botton sets up straw men – an idealised, perfect religion (mostly Christianity) and a deficient, sterile, secular society. His only objection to religion appears to be their supernatural stories. So his answer to the worlds’ problems is to ditch supernaturalism but adopt the remaining institutions, buildings, funding structures, social relationships, moral messages, music and art of religion (particularly Christianity). As is! Artificially.

My atheist friend often comments on the need in our secular society to develop institutions which provide for the social needs of people. Their desire for community and charity. So I can see why she was, at least initially, attracted to this book. It’s just that I can’t see how de Botton’s utopia (religion with all its trappings except its gods) provides this, or is even possible.

Personally I agree that modern society needs to provide more in the way of institutions, ceremony and even buildings which appeal to our desire for community and significance. But that is not unique to modern society – it has always been the case – especially as the old institutions often did not fulfil these promises, or were even quite evil.

The point is that the most appropriate ceremonies, institutions and culture for these purposes are the ones that are built by the existing society, not artificially transplanted into it. And we are building such institutions, ceremonies, etc., in our modern, pluralist, secular society.

Religion needs secularism – and can learn from it

Why should we artificially transplant something from a religion (after removing its supernatural content) when we can do better? Consider modern ceremonies like weddings and funerals in this country. They have become a lot more secular – even where they are performed in a Church. We seem to have welcomed with open arms the secular concept of remembering and celebrating the life of a deceased person in our funerals. Friends and family give their stories and feelings. New Zealand funerals today are far more satisfying than those in the old days which simply had the religious purpose of sending the person of into the “afterlife.”

The church has noticed and adopted many of the features of secular funerals and other ceremonies. Incorporated them into their own ceremonies.

There are many other examples. The point is that – yes, we do need more and better institutions and ceremonies which contribute to our human need for community and friendship. We do need more buildings, art and ethical commentary appealing to those needs. It’s a matter of more of what we are doing well, not artificially transplanting from old and moribund institutions and ideologies. And its a matter of creating these new institutions and culture in a way that is inclusive – not the exclusiveness “them vs us” of the religious approaches.

So, my recommendation is that you should give this book a miss, unless you feel a responsibility to read it like I did. At least I will now be able to discuss the book and my reactions intelligently when I next see my atheist friend.

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“Lose” your faith, gain your life?

Richard Dawkins and Michael Aus discuss The Clergy Project.

I look up to people who change their beliefs when the evidence warrants it. It’s just so easy to invent arguments protecting unwarranted belief. So I have a soft spot for honest sceptics and contrarians.

Even more so I admire people who change a (previously held) ideological outlook in the face of evidence. Particularly if this results in a drop of income, loss of a profession, destruction of friendships and loss of emotional security.

Just imagine devoting one’s life to a political cause, even being employed as a political party activist, because of a strong and genuine belief in one’s youth. Then later in life deciding you had been wrong. Do you stick with it – become cynical, continue to perform your expected role. Or do you front up, admit your changes in belief, look for a new job, ride out the hostility of your former ideological friends, etc.

I think this dilemma must be common with religious ministers, priests, Imams, and so on. If only because there are far more of those around than there are paid political party activists. Surely a significant proportion of these people must “lose” their faith. What should they do?

The above interview is of one such minister. Reverend Michael Aus came out as a non-believer on US national television on March 25th 2012. He was helped in his brave decision by the Clergy Project. This project was initiated by Daniel Dennett‘s research into the phenomena of atheist ministers of religion. It provides moral support and practical help and advice to people like Michael Aus.

I know of a few priests and ministers in New Zealand who have “lost” their faith, fronted up and so lost their job. These cases illustrate to me what a huge emotional and moral leap is involved. Quite apart from all the practical issues some of these people, Catholic priests in particular, have been thoroughly institutionalised by their Church. Their decision involves more than a change of job and friends.

I wonder if there is scope for a “Clergy project” in New Zealand.

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Jesus heals – but not cancer!

It’s really tough if you or a loved one has cancer – apparently even Jesus can’t heal you.

Glyn Carpenter poses in front of the offending billboard

Well that’s according to a survey of New Zealand “Christian leaders” by Glyn Carpenter, Director of the New Zealand Christian Network. He did this quick poll after widespread public condemnation of a sign posted by Equippers Church in Napier, “Jesus heals cancer.” There’s no indication of how many leaders were polled or what their religious affiliations were (I think Glyn Carpenter and the NZ Christian Network are “evangelical” – whatever that means).

Perhaps the bias of the pollster is shown by his declaration on the report of the poll results – “The message “Jesus Heals Cancer” is clearly true at face value!” It’s also interesting  that he has managed to see the problem of the offensive sign as an issue of freedom – for Christians to offend others (he describes his poll as a Freedom of speech survey.

So taking Glyn’s data at face value – apparently most (67%) of these Christian leaders were not happy about the offensive sign. And while 58% of them thought a billboard message “Jesus Heals Cancer” to be poor or impermissible, 91% thought so for the message “Jesus Heals All Cancer.”

I thought this was hopeful – but they went and ruined it by supporting the message “Jesus Heals” – 91% thought it OK or good!

Now where are all those theologians claiming there is no conflict between science and religion? Or that they operate in different spheres? What is their response to such a survey result?

Catholic popes victims of sexual abuse!

The Vatican’s janitor, Giuseppe "Beppe" Falduto, is accused of making popes watch him masturbate.

Love this Onion news article: Trusted Sistine Chapel Janitor Convicted Of Sexually Abusing Last 4 Popes. Like a lot of Onion articles it’s not only funny but also makes an ironic point.

I almost feel some sympathy for those poor, abused, popes. Apparently “Beppe” “over a period of six decades frequently exploited his position to compel Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI to engage in unwanted sexual activity.”

Further:

“Richard Blevins, a psychologist and consultant to the International Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the decades-long cycle of sexual abuse likely would have continued if no one had reported the misconduct, because in most pope abuse cases it is often difficult for the Vicar of Christ and Successor to St. Peter to speak up about what has happened to him at the hands of a trusted adult.

“Many popes feel deeply ashamed and are afraid that if they try to talk about the abuse, no one will believe them,” Blevins said. “It’s important to keep an eye out for the common signs of papal molestation, such as the Holy Father avoiding direct eye contact while saying mass or becoming shy and withdrawn during an audience with foreign dignitaries.”

Added Blevins, “I’ve talked to cardinals who say that in hindsight, there did always seem to be something wrong with each of the last four Popes whenever the janitor was mopping up nearby.””

Who would have thought it – sexual abuse going on in the very heart of the church – the one place you expect moral behaviour!

Co-opting “Truth”

Local blogger Glenn Peoples can be relied on to illustrate the necessity of things he claims unnecessary (see Reason Rally 2012).

This time he is ripping in to The Reason Rally planned for Washington DC on March 24. This rally is aimed at combating “negative stereotypes about non-religious Americans.”

Now, many New Zealanders may not understand why such a rally is important. But have a look at this short video. The bigotry* expressed at the beginning is actually quite widespread in the US. Such ideas need to be countered by education – and this rally is obviously one step in the consciousness-raising process. Hopefully it will show that the people demonised by such bigots are actually normal, healthy, interesting people – which a recent American Religious Identification Survey found to be roughly 16% of the US population.

And as if to underline the necessity of this Rally one of Glenn’s commenters  continued the demonisation with his/her suggestion that well-known scientist Richard “Dawkins  should be considered as a comedian”

What Do You Think About Atheists? – YouTube.

Oh, and the book  A Better Life looks interesting too.

Co-opting words

Glenn does have a point about how ideologically driven people tend to co-opt words for their “side.” “Reason” could be such a word as in fact humans are not reasoning creatures – our reasoning is very much linked to emotion. But, I really can’t see what is so wrong with using the word “reason” here as it is used to contrast with “faith.” Religious people are fond of using faith to justify political attitudes and policies – why can’t the non-religious contrast themselves with that?

I would be more concerned with the loose way words like “secularism” and “secular” are used in advertising for the rally. A current obsession of mine – having just been telling  the recent “Interfaith Forum” that secularism is inclusive. It refers to social arrangement, not an ideology. That religious as well as non-religious can, and do, support secularism.

But surely Glenn’s counter to the Reason Rally, a little group calling itself “True Reason,” is blatantly cynical. What is it with these theological types – they think they can declare their beliefs and ideas true – just by declaring it so. And capitalising “Truth.”


*Atheists are “evil,” “wicked,” “immoral,” “stupid and should be killed” and “can’t be trusted.”

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