Monthly Archives: December 2007

Can religion answer the questions science can’t?

Over the Solstice/New Year holiday while blogging activity is low I am reposting some of my previous articles. Comments are still welcome.

In the religion/atheism debate Christians often assert that they accept a scientific view of the world and the scientific method but that science has limits. “There are questions which science cannot answer. For these questions we must turn to religion”. But should science accept limits imposed by religion? And are there really separate areas of knowledge requiring the different methods of science and religion?

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My own miracle?

Over the Solstice/New Year holiday, and while blogging activity is low, I am reposting some of my previous articles. Comments are still welcome.

Have you ever seen a miracle or had a supernatural experience? I have. But I don’t believe in miracles or the supernatural.

I defining difference between the religious and non-religious is their attitude to the supernatural. Most religious people accept supernatural ideas (gods and miracles for example) and are critical of atheists for not accepting these possibilities as realities. Often the criticism is derogatory (see Atheism scary in its sheer conceit). We are accused of not accepting the possibility of things we don’t understand and described as arrogant for this.

But, of course, atheists aren’t arrogant – they don’t reject things just because they don’t understand them. And there is a lot about ourselves, our consciousness, the world and the universe that we don’t understand. The important thing is that doesn’t make the unknown supernatural (or, in the end, unknowable).

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Religious attitudes to knowledge

Golden CompassI have been vaguely aware of a mild controversy around the newly-released film The Golden Compass but didn’t pay much attention until I heard an interview with with Philip Pullman, the author of the book the film is based on. He’s an interesting person. His beliefs are non-religious (he doesn’t like labels like “atheist” so I won’t use any) and humanist. As a writer of children’s fantasy novels he attempts to bring his philosophy into his stories which in some ways can be seen as a counter to The Chronicles of Narnia. by C. S. Lewis

Pullman’s comment on religious mythology was interesting. For example, he is critical of a common interpretation of the Genesis story. In particular, the concept that the “Fall” is attributed to Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of knowledge – implying than knowledge is a bad thing.

I know that different groups have different interpretations of these myths. However, there does seem to be a section of modern Christianity that is opposed to knowledge, or at least demands that theological dogma must come before empirical knowledge and modern scientific theories. This comes out most strongly when we discuss ideas relating to morality, humanity and origins of life and the universe.

While some Christians have campaigned against this film and Phillip Pullmans books (see for example Petition to Ban movie “The Golden Compass,” The Real Golden Compass and Toronto-area Catholic School Board Bans Pullman Fantasy Trilogy) others, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams actually give support, seeing Pullman’s message as an attack on dogmatism (see also the golden compass – to ban or not to ban).

I don’t know how good The Golden Compass is as a film. However, Phillip Pullmans fresh take on religious mythology is interesting. I am encouraged to take my grandchildren to see the film and read the books for myself.

See also:
Institute for Humanist Studies interview with Phillip Pullman
Freethought radio interview with Phillip Pullman

Holiday reading

Most New Zealanders celebrate Christmas and New Year with family events, holidays, relaxation and fun at the beach. For many of us it is a chance to catch up with our reading – I’m certainly looking forward to getting into a number of books I have recently purchased.

Many magazines publish lists of recommended books at this time of the year. It’s noticeable, however, that these lists usually contain few, or no, science books. The NZ listener was no exception (Best books cds & dvds of 2007) with only one science-based book included. The Publishe& Editor of Edge, John Brockman, comments on this (Third Culture Holiday Reading):

“Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the EconomistBooks of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker’s list of Books From Our Pages?”

He laments the way that “official culture” seems to ignore science, despite its critical importance:

“But science today is changing our understanding of our universe and species, and scientific literacy is indispensable to dealing with some of the world’s most pressing issues. Fortunately, we live in a time when third culture intellectuals-scientists, science journalists, and other science-minded writers-are among our best nonfiction writers, and their many engaging books have brought scientific insight to a wide audience.”

The Edge lists a number of science-related books published in 2007. I have read three of them and will be attempting to get a number of others.

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Christian problems with morality

Questions of morality and ethics figure highly in theist arguments against atheism. Questions like “Why are we moral?”, “Where does our morality come from?” and “How do we decide the correctness or otherwise of moral decisions?”

Theist answers to these question are usually along the line that their god created humanity as a moral species. We either know what is “right” and “wrong” or this is “revealed” to us, or our religious leaders, by our god. Of course, these arguments don’t convince non-theists. I suggest, however, they should not convince theists either, particularly modern Christians.

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Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

This Thursday is the eleventh anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. It is marked this year, as it was in 2006, by a world-wide Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. Last year this featured more than 250 posts in 11 languages. Sagan was a very public figure – more so than most scientists. This was because of the enormous amount of work he did to popularise science. Many remember him, and appreciated him, because of his work on video programmes like the Cosmos series. Although first broadcast in 1980 this 13 part series still presents an awe-inspiring history of scientific discovery in a popular format.

Sagan faced opposition and criticism from within the scientific community for this work. At the time many scientists did not recognise how important the popularisation of science was. In this sense Sagan was a trailblazer and has made it much easier for scientists today to do similar work. Scientists like Richard Dawkins, Robert Winston and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson discusses this in a recent Point Of Inquiry interview.

I really like Sagan’s comment about the scientific attitude:

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

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How to lower taxes

Purple Economy

We would all like to reduce the amount of tax we pay. So it’s no surprise that tax cuts are now often promised by political parties during election campaigns. Of course, the downside is that tax cuts could lead to cuts in public services like health care and education.

But I think there is a way of reducing taxation without influencing government services. I have just started reading the book The Purple Economy by Max Wallace which makes clear that in New Zealand part of our taxation is used to subsidise religious activity by providing tax exemption to religious organisations. Dr Wallace points out that “tax exemption for religious organisations is a subsidy from government which makes it effectively a tithe on the entire tax-paying population of New Zealand.”

This is an important human rights issue because we are all effectively financing supernatural organisations with which many of us disagree – and we have not been consulted about this! It is also important because the exemptions mean money is being diverted from more useful purposes which would benefit all New Zealanders.

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Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered, and the conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism. This final article deals with atheist attitudes towards values, morality and spirituality and argues that we all have common values which enable common action.

Values, morals, spirituality

Some theists claim their god, and their holy scriptures, as the source of all human values. This argument is often used to justify claiming New Zealand as a Christian country.[1] As a non-theist I find these claims insulting because they imply that personal values require a belief in a god; that atheists cannot be moral. Another common claim is that non-theists are somehow (unconsciously) adopting theist beliefs to produce their values. Christopher Hitchens points out that this attitude is an insult to humanity in his comment on the Old Testament Ten Commandments: “.. however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.[2]

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Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered. This article deals with the issue of conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism.

Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Some people claim science and religion deal with different spheres of knowledge; they each have their own role and therefore can coexist peacefully. And indeed they do, often within the same person. Many scientists have a personal religion and many (perhaps most) religious people accept scientific knowledge. Sometimes this is because the religious beliefs are no longer those old ones which conflicted with scientific knowledge. But many people are able to hold concurrent beliefs which are not consistent. The physicist Stephen Weinberg mentions meeting an oil man who believed in creation of the earth 6000 years ago. At the same time he held scientific beliefs about the far greater age of the earth which enabled him to explore for and discover oil![1] I think this is possible because of the emotional commitment that many people have to one or another belief, particularly a religious belief.

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Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective

In the first part of this series I described the current situation in New Zealand. In particularly how current attitudes towards religious diversity ignore the non-religious. The problems with this attitude are evident in the National Statement on Religious Diversity. This second part prevents a personal perspective on atheism and argues that there is no reason to consider atheists different to people with other beliefs when we consider human rights.

Aatheist beliefs personal perspective

The words atheism and theism are limited descriptions of beliefs as they only define one small aspect – non-belief or belief in a god. Personal beliefs are of course much more extensive than that – they include this but are not defined by it. So, we cannot characterise or understand the beliefs of all “atheists” by that word alone. I can only give my own perspective, although I believe that many non-theists hold similar beliefs.

My beliefs have a strong philosophical alignment with the scientific motivation and method. Emotionally and spiritually there is a powerful sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the natural world and our process of understanding it. This stretches from subatomic particles to the cosmos itself. They include an appreciation also of the beauty of humanity’s cultural and artistic achievements and a strong appreciation of personal and social values and morals. I discuss these further below.

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