Monthly Archives: November 2007

Does science involve faith?

Paul Davies recently attracted some attention with his New York Times article Taking Science on Faith.” In this he made the claim “that science has its own faith-based belief system.” He went further to state “both religion and science are founded on faith – namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.”Religious apologists love such situations – someone of standing in science putting religion on the same level as science and asserting that science, just like religion, is, in the end, dependent on faith.

Inevitably this article will be wheeled out to support religion and this has already happened on a few blogs (eg. DavidUsher, conservative colloquium and Creedal Christian) However, I am interested to see there has been a much bigger reaction from pro-science writers who feel Davis is misrepresenting science (See for example The Edge Reality Club discussion).

I agree the article does misrepresent science and is confused. At the same time, however, it does conclude that “physical laws” are part of the universe and not imposed from outside as religious believers assume. He also suggests the origins of these laws can be revealed by research – which surely removes any justification for claiming science to be “faith-based.”

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Losing faith, gaining humility

When a religious believer “loses their faith” is it really a loss? Or do they gain something in return?

I recently heard an interesting discussion of this on a radio podcast. A former Christian minister of religion who had become an atheist was being interviewed. The interviewer was sympathetic. He himself had been a Christian minister and undergone the same change in belief.

The interview interested me – not just because they talked about loss of strong religious beliefs. But also because it can demonstrate the intellectual and emotional reactions of an individual to giving up strongly held ideological commitments of any sort – political and philosophical, as well as religious.

In this interview both people agreed the “loss of faith” was positive. Rather than feeling a loss, they felt they had gained something – humility. Their former religious commitments provided security. Their beliefs provided answers for any question they encountered – from the origin of the universe to moral instruction for teenagers. After “losing their faith” they were able to answer these questions more honestly. When necessary they were even able to say “I don’t know.”

I can appreciate this. Strong commitment to an ideology produces an obligation to provide answers, and those answers are always available. They come from a dogma. After discarding this commitment one can use evidence and reason to search for answers. There is no longer an obligation to reject evidence because it conflicts with dogma. And there is no longer an obligation to provide an “answer.” One then has the strength and humility to say “I don’t know.”

Related Articles:
Faith – against all evidence
A value in religious mysticism
Why do we believe?
Most ideas in science are wrong!
Limits of science, limits of religion
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Questions science cannot answer?

Giving thanks

I have written before about the hypocrisy and rudeness of religious ceremonies of thanks (see “Let us pray . . . “ and Thank God or Thank Goodness?). Hypocrisy because these ceremonies and prayers are often imposed on people who don’t share their belief in a god. Rudeness because they usually ignore the real people who should be thanked. I am gratified to see that several bloggers are raising the same points to mark the American Thanksgiving holiday.

Curmudgeonly Reflections in Thankfulness of an Atheist rejects the argument that “atheists have nothing to be thankful for because there is no one to be thankful to. ” Simple response – Hogwash. Atheist Ethicist deals with similar arguments in Giving thanks where thanks are due. has several articles on this theme : Can Atheists Really “Give Thanks”? and Do Atheists Have Anyone to Thank?

The Digital Cuttlefish has a beautiful poem, An Atheist Gives Thanks, showing how we can replace hypocritical thanks to God with genuine and specific thanks those individuals and groups of people really responsible for things that please us and enhance our lives. Intelligent Dissent provides a simple statement Thanksgiving with the same purpose.

Marilyn La Court in her An Atheist Says Thanks expresses sincere thanks to members of her family for the way they contribute to her life.

Lets hope these demonstrations of a genuine way to give thanks have an effect. Perhaps we can look forward to a future where even religious believers will join with us to give thanks where it is really due.

Related Articles:
Thank God or Thank Goodness?
“Let us pray . . . “
Christian prayer problems
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Religious Diversity Statement

For the glory of God

Many of the critics of the “New Atheist” books claim they attack a “straw-man” religion – that they describe an extremist, minor religious faction and then use this to characterise and attack all religion.

Bishop Randerson in New Zealand, for example, said that the beliefs criticised by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are not his (Randerson’s). Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says: “Whenever believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’.” Many Christian spokesperson reject fundamentalist beliefs and biblical literalism and claim it is unfair to criticise religion for these beliefs.

A fair comment. But the problem I have with these sort of rebuttals is that actions and word often differ. Bishop Randerson may claim he believes in a god as the “God of love” rather than the biblical god. However, he then spoils it all by officiating at Christian ceremonies which do imply belief in a biblical god and goes so far as to hold conversations (prayer) with this god.

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Faith – against all evidence

Theologists perform all sorts of mental gymnastics (their favourite pastime) to justify faith. They will even claim their faith is based on evidence and reason. This begs the question: “If you have evidence and reason why would you need faith?”

When it comes down to it, faith is what you use when you don’t have evidence – when you have a strong desire to believe something without any supporting evidence, or even in the face of all evidence. This is common not only to religious believers but also to other believers in the “supernatural” or “paranormal.”

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Intelligent design – a war on science

Intelligent design (ID) and its defeat in the 2005 Dover trial, in Pennsylvania USA, are old news. It’s sad that we in New Zealand had to wait until Sunday evening to see the BBC documentary “A War on Science” which covered the Dover trial and its background. If you missed the programme it is available online. Meanwhile a new film , Judgment Day, a reconstruction of the Dover trial, screened in the US last week. It is now also available online.

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Dawkins responds to his critics

Chidlren labels googleIn his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below) Richard Dawkins illustrated his comments on the injustice of labeling children with the religion of their parents using data from google searches. I have replicated similar searches here. Dawkins point is that it is inhumane to label children with a religion (e.g., Christian child, Muslim child, etc.) because they are not in a position to really consider what the beliefs are. We can easily see this if we label children as non-religious (e.g., atheist child, agnostic child, etc.) or politically (liberal child, conservative child, Marxist child, etc.).

The google search results, however, suggest that whereas political and non-religious people recognise the inhumanity of labeling their children in this manner, religions seem to have no qualms.

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Moons of Saturn

CassiniAlbert Einstein expressed his awe for the beauty of reality and humanity’s exploration of it in this manner:

“If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it”

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

Many other scientists profess a similar passion. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins are well known for their enthusiastic popularisation of science – for bringing the awe and understanding to the general public. Carolyn Porco is also a great populariser of science.

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Now I’m to blame for Stalin!

The Stalin terror was an argument used against communism or socialism but now it’s atheists who are getting the blame. To an extent this is a reaction by some Christians to the recognised role of religion in modern terrorism (especially Maoafter the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA). Maybe its also a Christian reaction to recent atheist writings on this. I can’t help thinking, though, that the motivation behind this blame is the old religious argument that one cannot be moral without religion and a new attempt to demonise atheists.

Some of the atheist writing on the role of religion in terrorism need criticism (see my post Sources of evil?). However, I want to deal with arguments about Stalin and Mao Zedong here because, though inappropriate, these arguments are getting some traction.

In a sense, the crimes of Stalin, Mao and the Christian Inquisition are problems for all of us.

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Human rights for the non-religious

Matt Cherry, at the Institute for Humanist studies, has been commenting on the 2007 annual report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. For the first time this report includes a section devoted to the situation of atheists and other non-theists. Many of the concerns found by the report’s writer (Asma Jahangir who was placed under house arrest by the government of Pakistan earlier this week) are relevant to the non-religious in New Zealand.

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