Monthly Archives: March 2008

Freedom of expression and offence – religious or otherwise

In New Zealand we seem to have few overt problems with offence to religious sensitivities. There have been issues like the “Virgin in a condom” and the South Park Episode. Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church occasionally bursts into activity on issues like their demand that New Zealand be recognised as a Christian Nation. I can still remember the protests against screening of that classic film “The Life of Brian.” However, there have not been the big, and sometimes violent, demonstrations observed overseas (as for example around the Danish cartoons, or Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

New Zealand’s National Statement on Religious Diversity is non-dogmatic on the issues of freedom of expression and religious sensitivity. The relevant clauses are:

4. THE RIGHT OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. The right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media are vital for democracy but should be exercised with responsibility.


7. RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES. Debate and disagreement about religious beliefs will occur but must be exercised within the rule of law and without resort to violence.

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Dishonest debating

A small New Zealand Christian sect (“TSCF and a few churches” whatever that means) is attempting to organise a debate between a “top Christian Scholar” and a “first-class” New Zealand atheist (see Calling all atheists… we need a debate opponent). “An interesting debate” you might think. But that depends on the subjects debated, the audience and the motives behind it all.

The anonymous author of this post (“admin”) claims that the debate would be about science and reflect “Darwinist versus Christian” views. That’s the give away, isn’t it. The dishonest attempt to present evolutionary science as atheist. No doubt the audience will be Christians, members of “TSCF and a few churches.” The debate format creates a “them and us” situation and clearly conveys the message that evolutionary science (and probably science in general) is on the atheist side and opposed to Chrsitianity. And, of course, that is the message the organisers and “admin” wish to convey. In effect, they want to protect their “flock” from the truth.

And what is the truth they wish to avoid? Most Christians have no problem with science and evolutionary science. They can easily accommodate scientific knowledge with their religious beliefs. In fact, many US Christians are actively campaigning against creationist “intelligent design” and in support of evolutionary science and its teaching in science classes (see Religious opposition to “intelligent design”). This attitude is expressed by a Christian blogger in We Need a New Approach where he admits “intelligent design” has failed as a science and says: “Look, we gave the intelligent design thing a gentleman’s try, lets move on to something else.”

Debate with a Christian opponent

True, some Christians are still uncomfortable with aspects of evolutionary theory – particularly those with little or no knowledge of this science. In New Zealand approximately 40% of Christians prefer a creationist explanation (see New Zealand supports evolution). Clearly the real conflict over evolutionary science is within Christianity – that’s where the big divisions are. That’s where these debates should take place.

I say to the organisers of this New Zealand debate – why not be honest about it? Recognise the differences are within your own religion. Forget about atheists – organise a debate between Christians. They would have no problems finding Christians with expertise in science, and in evolutionary science, capable of providing a worthy debate opponent for their “top Christian scholar.”

Framing science

The tactic behind this particular debate is a specific example of “framing” – posing a question in a format similar to “When are you going to stop beating your wife.” Scientists are becoming more aware of this tactic as a result of the “intelligent design” and climate change controversies. For more about this issue for science have a look at (or listen to) the following sites:

Chris Mooney & Mathew Nisbet – Framing science podcast
Matthew C. Nisbet – Communicating about Science and Religion
Matthew C. Nisbet – Selling Science to the Public
Tom Flynn – The Science vs. Religion Warfare Thesis
The Scientist Delusion? Nature Column on AAAS Panel

Einstein’s “Cosmic Religion”

Did Einstein believe in God?

Certainly some theists support their own beliefs by claiming he did. However Einstein’s religious beliefs were certainly not conventional. His statements have been used by atheists and theists alike as support for their positions. We need to look more closely at Einstein’s writings to get a clearer idea of his beliefs.

Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology is probably the best easily available source on the subject. According to Jammer, although Einstein had a “deep religiosity” as a child “at the age of twelve, just when he should have been preparing for the bar mitzvah, the Jewish confirmation, he suddenly became completely irreligious.” A position from which he never changed throughout the rest of his life.

I wonder how we can describe a child under the age of 12 as having strong beliefs – age 12 is probably that time when people start to develop serious beliefs.

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Fine tuning argument

More and more I hear the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe being given as an argument to “prove” existence of a god. This goes along the lines that there are a number of critical physical constants underlying the nature of our universe. If either of these had even slightly different values our universe would be very different. Stars and galaxies would not form. Carbon would not be manufactured in the stars and hence life would not occur.

Proponents of this “proof” argue that the chance of our universe having physical constants with these values is impossibly small. Therefore there must have been a divine intelligence to ensure our universe has physical constants with the measured values.

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Facing up to child abuse

The repeal of Section 59 of New Zealand Crimes Act 1961 sparked a lot of debate here about the use of violence against children. I feel this discussion concentrated on parental rights and often ignored the results of parental violence on children. Sad, because child abuse is a problem in New Zealand.

Triple abuse

I think the victims of child abuse suffer three times over (if they survive the original abuse). Continue reading