Category Archives: agnosticism

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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Is there room for religion in science?

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True highly recommends this video (see Dawkins on Al Jazeera). I watched it over lunch and can second his recommendation.

It’s an Al Jazeera talk back show – The Stream – where Richard Dawkins is interviewed and other people from around the world are linked in for comments and questions. The basic question was “Is there room for religion in science?”

I think Dawkin does an excellent job of calmly and sensibly answering the questions (so much for the “strident” myth). But I was also fascinated by the way the programme was integrated with  Twitter and Google+ to get real-time feedback from viewers. Those comments themselves are intriguing.

Quite a unique experience – and fascinating to see such a well done programme presented on an international news media channel. Dawkins really seems to be getting his message across internationally.

New Atheism’s most polarising figure? – YouTube.

Must admit I wondered if I had the colour balance wrong – or does Richard have a touch of sunburn?

Update: Richard has confirmed that it was a colour balance problem. He added: “They could presumably have fixed it “in post” but perhaps they rather enjoyed the association of red face with strident anger!”

Gnu bashing once again

The latest Gallup poll on American’s beliefs about creationism and evolution has predictably raised some comments among bloggers. As expected, there have not been any big changes – most still support either creationism (46%) or a god-guided form of evolution (32%). Although it is heartening that there is a long-term trend of increasing acceptance of normal evolutionary science (no god-guidance) – see below.

Among the commenting bloggers, one stands out – Robert Wright, writing for the Atlantic (see Creationists vs. Evolutionists). Because he is raising that old myth – Richard Dawkins is responsible for the strength of creationist belief in the US!! He even raise this old myth to a status of “theory”, but then retreats to a hypothesis.” Come on Robert – a bit more humility is in order – even hypothesis need some sort of supporting evidence, and the above graph is not providing any.

How the hell does he support the idea that “biologists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact” which has lead to the current situation. Where’s the sudden jump when Richard publishedThe God Delusion inb 2006 or PZ started blogging (2002).

Have a look a blog posts by Jerry Coyne (Robert Wright blames creationism on atheists) and PZ (My vast powers transcend space and time!) ridiculing this little “hypothesis of Wright’s. I will just take this issue a little further to cover a similar myth – that these horrible “new atheists” (gnus), and Richard Dawkins in particular, are responsible for the lack of support and respect for science in the US. I mentioned this myth in my review of Ecklund’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think  (see Are scientists hostile to religion?)

Ecklund had referred to statistics on public attitudes towards science to support her mythical thesis that prominent scientists were causing people to turn away from science because they criticised relgion! But again, the statistics just didn’t support her claim. The plot below shows there has been no effect of  “new atheists”  activity (starting in 2004/2006) on the attitude of the public toward scientists.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

In fact, the data shows that there had been a downturn in respect for religious professions after 2001. Was that due to the “new atheists?” Are PZ’s blog (2002) or Sam Harris’s first book (2004) responsible for the dip in 2002 – 2004?

Or is this just a sign that the public was turning away from religion because of its involvement in the New York terror attacks of 2001? Or maybe a comment made by many people may just be  relevant. We had just got fed up with the hypocritical morality (think of all the choir boys) and interference of religionists? Perhaps even reacting to the religious interference in the teaching of science – even the practice of science?

Oh well, you can make you own interpretation of the statistics to fit your own prejudices.

Robert Wright does raise an issue which corresponds to one blip in the first graph. He says:

” Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion. “

But perhaps ID is to blame?

Again, I say, Wright’s propensity for Dawkins’ bashing is confusing him. He can’t see the alternative explanations of that blip (if it is even real). What about the effect of propaganda by the intelligent design (ID) protagonists, who are very hostile to theistic evolution (usually mean god as the guider). You just have to watch bits of the videos of the ID  conference on theistic evolution held at Biola University in October 2010 (see Videos from an ID conference at Biola University,  Biola God and evolution conference now on YouTube and Seven videos from the Biola University conference on God and evolution).

They hate theistic evolution and really dug the knife into Francis Collins. They make it clear that they won’t tolerate any bit of this ideas that you can accept evolution and still believe in a god. They will just not compromise. (Although even then, dear old Casey Luskin manages to really transfer the blame to the gnus because he claims theistic evolution cannot stop the war of the gnus on god – he’s a funny guy.)

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Mixing values and Jesus in secular education

Daniel Dennett calls it the “last big fib.*” The claim that religion and human morality are intimately entwined – that you can’t be good without god. That does seem to be a widely held misconception, or should I say widely promoted.

The New Zealand educational curriculum provides for values education. And in public schools by law the education must be secular. But these  (the teaching of values and secular education) are threatened by the legal provision which allows religious (Christian) groups to come into public schools and provide religious instruction. The “trick” is that schools are legally “closed” during that time – and parents can “opt-out” their children (if they know what is going on).

I think that is bad enough but some groups, and schools, pull another trick. They tie in values and religion so that the intruding religious group provides the curriculum requirement for values education – or justifies their intrusion this way.

On the one hand children are taught a very biased form of values and in practice these groups are more interest in converts and talking about “Jesus” than they are in values). On the other, those children who are opted out miss even that form of values education.

Very unsatisfactory!

A newly formed New Zealand group, the Secular Education Network, is attempting to publicise and change this situation. If the issue interests you or you wish to participate in this work go and have a look at their website at http://reason.org.nz/.

Here’s an excellent, and short, video highlighting the problem in Auckland.

Religious recruiting in our schools.

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*Have a look at this excellent video of a recent discussion between Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins where Dennett uses this term:

Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett. Oxford, 9 May 2012

Is God incredible – or what?

Michael Wilson

You may have heard of Michael Wilson – he’s very active on Twitter. Well, turns out he is a photographer/videographer and has, in the past few days, launched a new film projectGod is Incredible – the Movie.”

He describes it this way:

I have been told that everyone needs to believe in something so I am heading out on a road trip. I will be test driving religions around my country of New Zealand (sometimes referred to as Godzone). I am planning to visit many groups who think theirs is the one true religion and everyone will get the chance to pitch their god or gods.

I will also be talking to experts in religion including professors who have had their lives threatened and even faced trial for heresy.

It is going to be a interesting ride and I’ll be taking you with me when I set up a an ask a atheist tent at the biggest Christian event in New Zealand or knock on the Door of Opus Dei. I’ll talk to the vicar who ran the billboard with the Virgin Mary with a pregnancy test & a picture of Jesus on the cross being “liked” on Judas’ Facebook page.

Add to this confirmed interviews with young earthers, ark fanciers, tongue speakers, spiritual healers and a mosque with jihadists on their wall of fame

The movie will hopefully culminate with interviews with New Zealand’s two most famous religious figures.

Point is, he needs finance for this project and is raising it through an appeal on Indiegogo (see God Is Incredible — Indiegogo). His target is $10,00 over the next few months. After a few days it has already reached over $3,000 so it looks like he has the support.

Donors are likely to get benefits above and beyond that ” warm glow of knowing you helped make this movie become a reality.” Like a free digital download of the movie or mention in the final credits. That persuaded me – I have made my small contribution.

The project does look interesting and I am sure many people would be interested in a movie providing an overview of religion in New Zealand.

Thanks to: @GodlessAtheist and

Reasonable truth?

The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason –  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach – “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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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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Reacting to a death with respect and hatred

I wasn’t going to write a eulogy to Christopher Hitchens, and I still won’t. After all there are some excellent eulogies on the internet by far better writers than me. But I am intrigued at the world-wide reaction to his death. So, in instead of a respectful eulogy here’s my thoughts on those reactions.

Hitchens’ death was expected. However, when it came I certainly experienced a shock. A strong feeling of disappointment and loss. And I think that must have been a common reaction judging from the widespread and immediate reactions on social networking sites.

There seem to be four common reactions to that sad news:

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Christmas gift ideas: Kids – it’s OK to be different!

Are you having problems of finding meaningful Christmas presents for family and friends?

Well books are ideal. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

The first few are ideal for children


Book Review: Why Don’t We Go to Church? by Gail Miller (Author), Rosalind Eagle (Author), Angela Seear (Illustrator).

Price: US$8.99; International US$10.99
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 51 pages
Publisher: Art Bookbindery; First edition (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0986587605
ISBN-13: 978-0986587603

Book website: Why Don’t We Go To Church?

Adults, even parents, are probably unaware of most of the issues children face in their day-to-day interactions with their social groups. Often school children confront moral issues, social pressures and hostility which they don’t discuss with their parents. Even those lucky children who have open, non-judgemental parents may not share their worries because of shame or perceived social disapproval.

I think this is common for children from families where parents are known for being “different.” Their political, religious or social views may not accord with those common in society and the kids can take some flack for that. In today’s pluralist society many children must have to face these sort of dilemmas because they interact with children who very likely have different religious or cultural backgrounds.

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Rational morality

Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.

In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:

  1. What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
  2. Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
  3. How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
  4. Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?

He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.

Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.

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