Category Archives: agnosticism

2018 Global Atheist Convention

Looks like we are going to have another regional global atheist convention.Such

Such conventions were held in Melbourne in 20110 and 2012 and were very successful. However, a lot has happened between prominent atheists since then. People have fallen out and personal campaigns have been promoted for and against personalities. I hope these conflicts do not jeopardise this planned convention.

I guess it will depend on the invited speakers. Salman Rushdie and Ayann Hirsi Ali will be interesting and attract lots of people. I look forward to announcements of other speakers in the planned line up.

So, I have my questions at the moment – but will certainly consider attending if the other speakers are as interesting.

Must renew my passport.

Meanwhile – if you are interested here is the message from the organisers:


The Atheist Foundation of Australia is pleased to announce the third Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in February 2018.

Bringing together like-minded thinkers, and those who want to challenge their current thinking, the three-day exhilarating event will feature world-renowned speakers and entertainers.

Sign up today for speaker and ticketing announcements.

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Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.

sagan

The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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What makes something right or wrong?

Here is another of the  4 animated videos produced by the British Humanist Association. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry.

This one deals with aspects of morality – an important subject where the voice of non-theists is often ignored.

“What makes something right or wrong?” Narrated by Stephen Fry 

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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Census 2013 – religious diversity

Statistics New Zealand has released preliminary figures for religious affiliation from the 2013 census.

The raw figures show for the major affiliations (Christian and No religion) the following:

Religious affiliation Number
No religion 1,635,348
Christian 1,879,671
Total Responses  4,343,781
Total People  4,242,048
Double Dipping?*  101,733

It is interesting to compare the last census figures with those for the previous four.

census-2013-1

As we can see, the godless trend has continued unabated.

One thing for sure – Christians can no longer claim to make up the majority of the country’s population.


*Double Dipping arises from people putting down more than one answer to the question. Eg – “Born again” and “Assembly of God.” It most probably occurs for the Christian, rather than No religious group. If this is the case we should adjust the Christian total to 1,879,671 –  101,733 = 1,777,938.

This would cut Christians as a proportion of the total population to 41.9%.

The No religion is accordingly 37.7%.

The other major religions have Hindu – 2.1%, Buddhist – 1.4% and Islam – 1.1%.

For more detail see 2013 Census where  tables of data can be downloaded.

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Christianity has hijacked human values

A short answer to a question often asked of atheists and other non-believers. Professor Jim Al Khalili points out that those people asking the question have got it the wrong way around

 ‘Christian values have hijacked human values’ – Professor Jim Al Khalili

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Source of moral authority has shifted

A recent poll in the UK confirms a trend I have noticed elsewhere – the movement of younger people away from organised religion, and to a slightly lesser extent, from religious beliefs. But also to a decline in respect for religion and its leaders.

The YouGov poll for the Sun  shows a decisive turn against religion among 18 – 24 year olds. And a very low belief in a god (see Poll: Young people turn decisively against religion).

Fifty six% of people in this age group say they have no religion while 38% don’t believe in a god.

Religion-2

In common with other polls there is still substantial support for not believing in a god but believing in “some sort of spiritual greater power” – the halfway house.

religion-4

Only 12% said religious leaders have any influence on them – lower than for politicians, who scored 38%, brands, which scored 32% or celebrities, who scored 21%. Eighty two% declared religious leaders have no influence.

religion-what

Finally, a high 41% told pollsters ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ while only 14% said it was a cause for good.

religion-3

I think we might find the same attitudes in this country.

But it does raise some important questions about the public perception of the role of religion in today’s society. It’s commonly described as a source of good. But Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association and first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, won’t have it. In a commenting article, Religion is in decline – so why are people so well behaved?, he says:

 

“One of the most mystifying aspects of recent governments’ emphasis on religion as a source of individual and social values has been its total mismatch with reality. Survey after survey has shown the population as a whole, and young people in particular, increasingly turning away from religious beliefs and influences entirely – and yet there has been no detrimental effect on the wellbeing of the nation.”

He concludes “there has been a change in recognised moral authority away from religion and towards secular influences.” And asks “when a government is going to realise this change and accept the implications for public policy.”

With polling like this it is about time that we all recognised that religion is not the source of our morality and public utterances claiming it is should stop.

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Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand

Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally,  Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.

Du Fresne wrote:

“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”

A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?

So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted.  He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference.  Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.

1996 2001 2006
Total People 3,618,303 3,737,277 4,027,947
No Religion 867,264 1,028,049 1,297,104
Anglican 631,764 584,793 554,925
Catholic 473,112 485,637 508,437
Presbyterian 470,442 431,139 400,839
Methodist 121,650 120,546 121,806
Pentecostal 69,333 67,182 79,155
Hindu 25,551 39,798 64,392
Baptist 53,613 51,423 56,913
Buddhist 28,131 41,634 52,362
Ratana 36,450 48,975 50,565
Latter-day Saints 41,166 39,915 43,539
Islam/Muslim 13,545 23,631 36,072
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 1,584 11,016 13,836
Orthodox 6,933 9,576 13,194
Salvation Army 14,625 12,618 11,493
Sikh 2,817 5,199 9,507
Judaism/Jewish 4,809 6,636 6,858
Baha’i 3,111 2,988 2,772

Catholic-1Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers  while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.

Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.

numbers 2006

%age increase 2001-2006
Sikh 9507 82.9
Hindu 64392 61.8
New Age 669 59.3
Islam/Muslim 36072 52.6
Orthodox 13194 37.8
Spiritualist 7743 32.2
Satanism 1167 30.5
No Religion 1297104 26.2
Buddhist 52362 25.8
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 13836 25.6
Pentecostal 79155 17.8
Baptist 56913 10.7
Catholic 508437 4.7
Methodist 121806 1.0
Jehovah’s Witness 17910 0.5
Anglican 554925 -5.1
Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed 400839 -7.0
Baha’i 2772 -7.2

Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.

% in 2006 Change from 2001
Sikh 0.2 0.1
Hindu 1.6 0.5
New Age 0.0 0.0
Islam/Muslim 0.9 0.3
Orthodox 0.3 0.1
Spiritualist 0.2 0.0
Satanism 0.0 0.0
No Religion 32.2 4.7
Buddhist 1.3 0.2
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 0.3 0.0
Pentecostal 2.0 0.2
Baptist 1.4 0.0
Catholic 12.6 -0.4
Methodist 3.0 -0.2
Jehovah’s Witness 0.4 0.0
Anglican 13.8 -1.9
Presbyterian 10.0 -1.6
Baha’i 0.1 0.0

Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:

“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”

Conclusions

  • Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from  13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
  • Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
  • Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
  • The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].

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Moving into the mainstream – on the coat tails of the “New Atheists”

The so-called “new atheists” (or Gnus) – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, etc., generally get a very bad press from the religiously inclined. Even some atheists (usually of the “I’m an atheist, but . . “ persuasion) chip in. A common complaint is their “stridency,” even “militancy.” They are told to wind back the tone of their critique of religion, to recognise the positive side of relgion or just to STFU.

But here’s an interesting thing. Recent waves of criticism of these gnus are actually, seemingly without the awareness of the critics, an acknowledgement of their very success.

For example, this Spectator article currently much touted by religious apologists  – Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists. It’s opening paragraph sums up its “take home” message:

“The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.”

But, as evidence, the article mentions the new “New Atheists.” The authors of books which belong to the new popular genre in literature – the atheist book.

Strange – before the gnus like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett appeared almost a decade ago the genre hardly existed. Publishers thought such books just would not sell. That the bookshops and readers would not accept them – would probably be offended by them.

But all that seems to have changed. These book are not only acceptable, they are popular. They sell well. Something changed in the 2000’s. Those nasty gnus may not have created that change but their books certainly revealed it. Their publication, popularity and huge sales made this new popular genre possible. Atheist writers authoring today’s popular books are, in effect, riding on the coat tails of the original gnus. (So, of course, are many of the religious apologists who have published their own books in response – or even run Church and Bible Classes to give the “Truth” about these horrible gnus).

The spectator article was of course blinkered. It only considered new “New Atheists” who expressed hostility towards, or disagreed with, the original gnus.

“Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. . . . . This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’.”

The Publishers’ Weekly also mention these critics among the new authors in its article Atheists, the Next Generation: Unbelief Moves Further into the Mainstream. It adds How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau and Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious by Chris Stedman. But, more honestly, it mentions a number of other authors who are not described as critics of the original gnus. Who in fact are, in some ways, repeating and developing their original messages.

Mentioned in the article are books like:

Publishers’ Weekly draws a very different conclusion to the Spectator and other naysayers who like to see the proliferation in the genre as somehow a rejection of atheism.

Still, nonbelief, however it is defined, is moving into the mainstream. There is at least one nonbelieving member of Congress (Kyrsten Sinema, D- Ariz.); the Secular Coalition for America has a full-time Washington lobbyist; and there are atheist characters on network television (Big Bang Theory, Malibu Country). And in January, Prometheus Press, a stalwart of the category based in Amherst, N.Y., announced it had reached a groundbreaking distribution deal with Random House. On announcing the deal, Prometheus V-P of Marketing Jill Maxick told The Buffalo News, “The fact they sought us out is an endorsement for what we have to offer the reading marketplace.”

So those horrible gnus did, in fact, start something. Atheism is now moving into the mainstream. People now see normal people who are atheist, like the guys in Big Bang Theory,  in their popular TV programmes. Of course this means there are critics, as well as supporters, of the original gnus – that’s perfectly normal and as it should be. The very diversity of views these new “New Atheists” represent is a sign of the fact that atheism is now an accepted part of society. It has matured as a popular and legitimate social attitude.

So these religious apologists who are gloating at articles like that in the Spectator are being rather childish. They see them as support for their own ideology – that’s why they are busy cherry picking and hot linking them. But in fact movement of atheism into the social mainstream only supports religion in the way that a rope supports a hanging man.

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Naturalism and science are incompatible

Well, that’s what the Christian apologist philosopher Alvin Plantinga claims. And he has written a book to “prove” it – Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Apparently its required reading for students of theology and the philosophy of religion. Probably because he declares there is a “deep concord between science and theistic belief,  . . . .  and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” The book concludes with:

“there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies”

Personally, I think Plantinga uses motivated reasoning, logical possibilities, cherry-picked “science” (he quotes Michael Behe for example) and a naive understanding of adaptive selection to come to his conclusions. On top of that he usually acknowledges that each step is only logically “possible” – he preserves deniability all the way through. But nevertheless comes to firm conclusions! This must be very satisfying for him and some of his mates but I don’t think many scientists have even noticed his book.

I certainly haven’t noticed a sudden change in the way we do science, or the scientific theories we formulate.

I won’t review or comment further on his book here (although I have sort of promised to discuss one or two of Plantinga’s arguments in future articles). I recommend that anyone interested should read Maarten Boudry’s excellent review –Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?  (I commented briefly on this in The paradoxes of theological gullibility). And I certainly don’t support Plantinga’s conclusions.

But I do agree with the statement that “Naturalism and science are incompatible.”

Before you go and quote me out of context I also agree with statements like “Theism and science are incompatible,” “atheism and science are incompatible,” “Marxism-Leninism and science are incompatible,” “Maoism and science are incompatible,” etc. You get the picture. I am saying that all philosophies or ideologies are incompatible with science in the sense that science does not, and should not, a priori, include any of these ideological/philosophical presumptions.

The conflict is not just between science and religion, but between science and all ideologies.

What about “methodological naturalism?”

OK, some people may now be revising their knee jerk reaction that the long-expected senility had finally struck. But what about “methodological naturalism” some would say – isn’t that a normal part of the scientific process. In fact, in a recent discussion a student assured me that “methodological naturalism” . .  is an assumption of science!”

Bloody hell, is this a new part of science training? I was never told during my university years that I should make such assumptions in my research. And I never went into any of my research projects with that or any other similar “assumption.” No colleagues mentioned such assumptions to me either. That claim may be coming from theology and philosophy of religion professors, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be coming from working scientists.

In fact, I have always been told, and always accepted, that we should make as few assumptions as possible in research. OK, perhaps reality exists, and perhaps we can assume that it is possible to investigate and understand at least part of that reality. But that is all. (Well, perhaps there was a strong preference for accepting the laws of thermodynamics – but even then there was a realisation that a Nobel Prize awaited anyone who disproved them.) But, on the whole, an open mind is essential for creative research.

Who is promoting this story?

So what’s all this palava about “naturalism” – and especially this “methodological naturalism” we are all supposed to assume? While such terms are not bandied about by scientists day-to-day they are used by a few philosophers and politicians. In fact this student could well have been mislead by a body no less august than the US National Academy of Sciences. In their booklet “Teaching about evolution and the nature of science” they say:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.”

This view was endorsed by philosopher of religion John Haught (“By its very nature, science is obliged to leave out any appeal to the supernatural, and so its explanations will always sound naturalistic and purely physicalist”) and  Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, who is also an atheist (“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.”).

There are no shortage of atheist philosophers of science like Michael Ruse and Barbara Forrest who also provide quotes for the enthusiastic Christian apologist to cherry pick and throw at me when I discuss the subject with them. Of course these same apologists ignore philosophers and scientists, like Victor Stenger, who reject this characterisation of how we do science.

Accommodation in science

There are scientists and philosophers who argue the characterisation presented by the US National Academy of Sciences is just political opportunism. That the Academy is trying to placate religious critics by retaining a place for religion. By declaring that science had not found their god because of its own (science’s) limitations. Science is not capable of finding gods or other “supernatural” things – “Your god is safe from us.” A similar motivation is behind  similar comments from scientists and philosophers. Effectively that approach is a tactic which tries to neutralise attacks on science, and particularly evolutionary science, by ring-fencing certain issues. Making them out-of-bounds for science.

Some scientists describe the approach as “accommodation” and firmly criticise it. They see this political tactic as placing the defence of evolutionary science above science itself. The independence of science, the true lack of ideological assumptions within science, and the scientific ethos of searching for truth, are sacrificed just to get those troublesome theists off the backs of evolutionary scientists. And the political tactic fails because it allows theists to place, or attempt to place, arbitrary limitations on science, agrees to the ring-fencing of aspects of reality to exclude science, etc., just to appease the enemies of science.

This tactic also hands juicy quotes to religious apologists who cherry pick them to tell scientists how they should really do research. They can also use these quotes as an excuse for the continued lack of credible evidence for their preferred stories about life and the universe. Even, as Plantinga attempts, to try to discredit science and or leading scientists.

The philosopher Maarten Boudry has an interesting paper explaining the problems with the accomodationist approach of the US Academy of Science – How not to attack intelligent design creationism : philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. I guess as a philosopher he must use the terms used by those he critiques. But he explains the problems and inadequacies of terms like “methodological naturalism,” and attempts to introduce amendments to make them more realistic.

Personally, as a scientist and not a philosopher, I feel we should just declare these terms irrelevant. They don’t describe how we do research and do encourage misunderstanding by non-scientists.

What the hell is “supernatural”?

People use this word a lot but no-one bothers with a tight definition – perhaps because that is not really possible. My dictionary describes the adjective as attributing a phenomenon or event to “some force beyond scientific understanding, or the laws of nature.” So, was lightning and thunder “supernatural” several centuries ago but not now? Is some phenomena we have recorded and do not understand “supernatural” now – even though it may become “natural” tomorrow when we do understand it? If this really means forever beyond potential understanding – how could we possibly know? Isn’t this whole thing circular? Theologians tend to define “natural” as “relating to earthly human or physical nature as distinct from the spiritual or supernatural realm.”

Surely it’s just simpler to say “I don’t know”  when we come across something we do not understand, that seems to conflict with the current state of knowledge (which the “laws of nature” represent). If we must give it a name call it something like “dark matter” or “dark energy” – place-holders acknowledging we are trumped for the moment but not preventing us from investigating the phenomenon. To call it “supernatural” has unfortunate consequences – it is usually interpreted to mean beyond scientific understanding. Such labels are of no help because they are science stoppers, preventing the progress of understanding.

I have discussed “natural” and “supernatural” before in Science and the “supernatural”, Can the “supernatural” be of any use?, The “supernatural” and dogmatism in science, Scientific method and the “supernatural”, Defining natural and supernatural and elsewhere.

And I should also make the usual qualifier here. I am by no means claiming that everything is understandable by the human mind, or even that we can detect everything. Nor am I suggesting that our mental and technological abilities are potentially unlimited. We may just not be able to ever investigate some things or understand them when we do. That doesn’t stop us from being a very curious species which will continue to investigate things far into the future.

We shouldn’t be setting “limits” to science or ring-fencing parts of reality to place them out-of-bounds for science – just to satisfy adherents of ancient mythical beliefs.

Scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive

And that’s a strong reason to expel any idea that scientists should make assumptions before the undertake research. For example, exclusion of ideas considered “supernatural” would have prevented progress in our understanding of gravity (action at a distance was considered as introducing an occult force in Newton’s time), relativity (how counter-intuitive is that?), quantum mechanics (“spooky action at a distance), and field theories of matter. Excluding the “supernatural” when it is used to mean something we don’t understand or don’t think possible) would just prevent scientific progress. And we don’t.

Of course, those who advocate most strongly for inclusion of the supernatural in science don’t really mean that. They mean the automatic inclusion of their god into scientific theories, as an explanation of observed facts, without any evidence. When these people criticise “naturalism” they are really criticising the requirements for evidence, testing and validation in science. But remove those and we no longer have science.

The god hypothesis

However, on the question of gods and similar beings – science does not exclude these, providing the requirements of evidence and testing are fulfilled. In fact scientists, whatever their personal beliefs, should not exclude such beings. After all there could well be a god, or gods. We might well find evidence for that. A god hypothesis may well survive testing and be incorporated into our scientific theories. That may sound mad to some – but personally I think a few hundred years ago gravitational forces, relativity and time dilation, quantum indeterminacy entanglement would have been considered a lot weirder than a god hypothesis

Personally I don’t believe there are gods, but as one grows older one gets used to having to adjust beliefs as we learn more about reality. One thing I am pretty sure of though – if a god or gods do exist they won’t be anything like the gods humanity has invented over the years.

A last point on god hypotheses. As science has progressed we have found less and less room for gods. Scientific theories these days don’t include gods. Not through any presumptions by science or biases in scientists beliefs but because we just don’t have any supporting evidence. Another problem is that there is no agreed, clear, structured god hypothesis that can be tested. In fact, as our knowledge has progressed and the lack of evidence has become obvious theologians and philosophers of religion have progressively redefined their gods to be less and less testable. I think they have effectively redefined their gods out of existence. Or maybe in the process of making their god undetectable they have also made it impossible for her to interact with reality. Impossible to have an influence. Which is basically the same as non-existent.

Being open-minded

I said before than an open mind is essential for creative scientific research. Some critics assert science is not open-minded because it doesn’t automatically include their (the critics) gods in scientific theories. That concept of an open mind means inclusion of any old idea, without evidence and validation, and no matter how vague. That is not science – it’s silliness.

The explanatory power of science comes from its interaction with reality. Creative research must be open to new ideas and speculations but they don’t throw away evidence and validation against reality. They are not so open-minded that their brains fall out.

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Secularism – its internal problems

Book Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by James Berlinerblau

Price: US$15.29
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547473346
ISBN-13: 978-0547473345

Secularism makes the headlines these days – if only because of attacks on it by militant religionists. So I welcome media articles and books which help counter this misrepresentation. It’s necessary to encourage the proper understanding of what exactly secularism is and why “far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor”.

Berlinerblau describes secularism as “a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways.” Especially by today’s “Christian ‘outrage machine.'”

So it’s worth quoting in a little detail Berlinerblau’s own definitions of secularism:

“Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order. . . it may create or actualize certain dispositions and world-views in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria.

And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.”

But, my feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand Berlinerblau does clarify the meaning of secularism and criticises those who use the word too loosely. He also delves into the history of secularism in the USA and proposes his own advice on the future strategy and tactics required by the US secularist “movement.” On the other hand I have doubts about the historical accuracy of some of his claims. And while there may be value in some of his suggested tactics, I think the advice sufferers from his own ideological biases and his idealisation of the concept of a secular “movement.”

Atheists need to pay attention

While Berlinerblau criticises the extreme distortion of secularism by strident Christians and other religionists he also takes a well-deserved biff at those atheists who often uses secular as another adjective for atheist. Sure, I can understand the need, particularity in the USA, to make use of words other than “atheist”, given its demonisation. But it does no good to co-opt “secular” – especially as this plays right into the hands of the religious militants and the “Christian ‘outrage machine'” who want to equate “secular” with “atheist.” It’s bad enough when those people play the old “bait and switch” trick. When they take text using the inclusive meaning of secular (neutral about religious belief) and dishonestly argue assuming it means atheist. But atheists who use “secular” as meaning “atheist” or non-religious” only fuel militant religious arguments against secularism.

So we should criticise anyone who uses the term “secular” in such a misleading way – especially in the names of organisation or benign references to people, organisation or media. On the other hand, the English language is full of confusing words and people should always take context into account. No amount of action from “language Nazis” can really influence common usage. Nor will our arguments instil sudden honesty into those religious militants and leaders intent on maintaining their privilege. Perhaps we just have to carefully make out context clear when we use these words.

History of secularism

I won’t comment on how accurate the author’s presentation of the history of secularism in the US is. Its outside my areas of expertise. I do think he makes interesting comments relevant to the tactics of people today wishing to prevent undemocratic encroachment of religion into government and state issues. But my concern is that Berlinerblau’s presentation of the history of secularism in the USSR and of the current attitudes of the so-called “New Atheist” is just not objective.

Quoting Stalin on “reactionary clergy” when he says “Anti-religious propaganda is the means that ought to bring to a head the liquidation of the reactionary clergy.”  Berlinerblau adds “Liquidating clergy? Needless to say, this is not a legitimate aspiration of secularism.” No, but he should recognise that “liquidation” of hostile, even armed, reactionary elements – in terms of removal from power and influence – is the “legitimate (even if undemocratic) requirement” for a regime that wishes to stay in power after a bloody civil war. And yes, sometimes that liquidation became physical as well as political.

Berlinerblau’s error in equating political and military actions during an extreme period of social upheaval with “legitimate aspiration of secularism” make me a bit suspicious of all the history he presents.

Personally I think the experience of religious groups after the 1917 revolution up to the present is a rich area which could teach us a lot. It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.

After the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war all political organisations, except the Communist Party were made illegal. The outstanding exception was the Orthodox Church – a little surprising as it had lined up against the revolution and had previously supported Tsarism. The new regime obviously accommodated the church, seminaries operated during much of the time and priests were even members of the Supreme Soviet. Clearly, as the only legal political organisation, the Communist Party would have included members of all sorts of ideology and religious belief – it was the only way to take part generally in society. I think that, and the integration of the Communist Party into state and commercial structures helped decide the relatively peaceful transition to the post-communist society. It probably also influenced the nature of post-communist institutions and power.

In particular – I think there is a fascinating story behind the current Russian power structures with strong influence from a nationalistic Orthodox Church and the security forces on the one hand, and the roles and situations of these organisations before 1990 on the other.

Still, Berlinerblau history of secularism in the USSR has some value and his comments on secularism without democracy are worth consideration for the lessons they provide. They seem especially relevant to the current struggles in the Middle East where undemocratic secular regimes are being swept aside by the very religious forces they were meant to control. They were not able to solve the problems presented by militant religions and surely do not represent the future we wish to see for secularism in the West.

Then again the political situations and maturity of the various political and religious forces are very different. As are the societies themselves. So the history of secularism in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes maybe interesting but is of little relevance to our political situations. Despite the attempts of the local religious extremists to paint today’s democratic secularism in the colours of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (let’s not mention Hitler).

Those nasty “New Atheists”

This is a major obstacle for me. If an author presents an obviously distorted, and motivated, description of current phenomena we are familiar with, what trust can you place on their presentation of, and interpretation of, past histories? And what value can you see in the strategy and tactics they advocate for supporters of secularism today? Very relevant because the book is a “Call to Arms.”

Berlinerblau declares he desires that “secularists and atheists can pursue their legitimate and worthy agendas and work together when their interests overlap (which is often).” However, he belongs to the groups of non-believers who think that vocal atheists should STFU. Which makes me think his valid request for atheists not to equate “secularism” with” atheism” sometimes transforms into a wish for atheists not to be too public about their presence in any secularist movement, or in their demand for secularist policies. I wonder if that is what really motivates his desire to “disarticulate secularism from atheism.”

This agenda also prevents him from understanding lessons drawn by others. He ridicules the point made by Richard Dawkins and others that even “mild and moderate religion . . helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” I think it’s a valid point but Berlinerblau’s agenda-driven misunderstanding raises questions in my mind about his objectivity and ability to understand issues he deals with. How does he possible get to this?:

“Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.”

This distortion reveals his wish to exclude vocal atheists from his secular “movement” – purely because they are vocal (he describes it as  “sound and fury”). As does his assertion:

“It is very clear that extreme atheists would rather that the church not exist, and this makes their inclusion in the secular camp problematic. New Atheists tend to make grand rhetorical gestures toward that goal, though little indicates they seriously plan on bringing their ideas to fruition. We now turn to some extreme atheists who did precisely that.”

This is followed by his chapter “How not to be secular” where he considers the experience of the USSR! Isn’t that “gleefully tarring” today’s vocal atheists with the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot” myth? (I am borrowing a term he used in the book against these vocal atheists).

I think this emotive reaction to vocal atheism displays a political naivety that undermines his “call to arms”. How can we build an inclusive secular movement by excluding important sections  – just because these people are vocal about their beliefs and understandings? After all, it is the nature of beliefs that people keep them despite uniting in the common actions. Unity of action does not mean denial of freedom of belief or removal of political rights and freedom of expression.

Do we need “manifestos” or honest appraisal of political realities?

I disagree with Berlinerblau’s apparent assumption that we need a “Secular Movement” – for which his book is a “Call to arms.” Politics is rarely that simple – especially when unity of action  from diverse groups around abstract aims is involved. Personally I see that issues will be dealt with and resolved on an ad hoc basis. People will unite and act on specific demands, often local and not national issues. Even where they are motivated by grander concepts such as freedom of (and from) religion, equal rights and opposition to discrimination.

Also participants in a (lower case) secular “movement” bring their own understandings, ideas and skill to that movement. We are not rank and file soldiers unquestioningly following a “Call to arms.” Some people are activists, others are armchair supporters. Some people will follow a lead, others will lead. Some people are preoccupied with today’s struggles, others have longer term vision and aims.

That is why I think Berlinerblau and others who rant against today’s vocal atheists make a big mistake. They try to fit everyone into their own concept of what an atheist should be without recognising the reality faced by today’s atheists. There are a multitude of requirements. Unified political action for secularist aims isn’t the only game in town. Another important one is education – consciousness raising. How can atheists take part in a political movement if they don’t even recognise that they are atheists, are afraid to acknowledge that fact or inhibited in their political actions by their social surroundings.

In his rather biased criticism of the “New Atheism” Berlinerblau loses sight of fact that the practical role of Richard Dawkins and some others is consciousness rising for atheism – not coalition building for secularism. Concentration on consciousness raising does not mean opposition to coalition building by any means – as a simple reading of pronouncements by these people will make clear.

Frankly, I see consciousness raising as an important factor in any secularist movement. Denial or exclusion of that function, as Berlinerblau appears to want, actually weakens the movement.

And that is my main objection to this book.

Some readers will no doubt find value in the book’s description of the history of secularism in the US and the mistakes it may have made. The history of secularism and religion in the USSR and post communist Russia needs further analysis. (A general criticism of today’s historians as the ideological “perspective of the victor’ makes objectivity difficult). And the history and problems of secularism in authoritarian Middle East state needs further analysis. it’s a topical issue.

The book is of value for those reasons but I don’t think it should be taken as a “Call to arms.”

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