Category Archives: atheism

Why don’t feminists fight for Muslim women?

I will probably get some negative feedback for posting this video (as I did with Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy). But Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes some important points worth a proper discussion.

I think she is too simplistic about some things. Such as attributing modern values to our Judeo-Christian heritage – if that was the over-riding factor our values system would be far more backwards.

But often groups fighting for improvements in the values systems of our society can be hypocritical in their attitudes towards the problems in other societies. This appears to be the case with at least some feminist groups – but is also true of some other groups which consider themselves “progressive.”

Silence

Thanks to Why Evolution is True: Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the failure of feminists to fight for Muslim women.

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Permission to have that conversation

In May, Maajid Nawaz presented this important talk at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum. It’s important because he attacks the concept that religion, and especially Islam, should be protected from criticism. And especially he attacks the concept that we should not talk about the problem of Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism. We should not avoid calling a spade a spade.

Maajid says the West, and particularly the USA, has it all wrong. The policies of intervention, imposing “democracy” and the killing of terrorist leaders and civilians via bombing and drones, will never solve the basic problem – that extremist jihadism appeals to many Muslims, even western born Muslims.

He is advancing the need to counter jihadist ideologies with alternative moderate policies – but points out this is hardly happening. And how can it happen if people are too “politically correct” to discuss and condemn actions like the stoning of women, female genital mutilation, imposed marriages, etc.

Maajid has the right credentials to back up his message. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and used to advocate jihadism.  He was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 and 2006. His experience led him to change his thinking and he left Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounced his Islamist past and called for a “Secular Islam“.

Now he is a co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.

Maajid wrote about his experiences and changes of thinking in his book Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism.


More recently he discussed these problems with the atheist Sam Harris. Their discussion is published in the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

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Richard Dawkins – speech to Reason Rally, 2016

This was Richard Dawkins’ speech to the 20116 Reason Rally in Washington DC last week.

Richard suffered a mild stroke earlier this year and this video shows he is still not fully well. Anyway, too unwell to travel so he presented the speech as a video.

There is nothing new here – he has made all these points before. But these points are well worth repeating, and he makes them so well.

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The “interfaith” trap – particularly for atheists

The video above shows some of the hassling of Maryam Namazie by members of the Goldsmiths Islamic Society when she gave a talk to the London’s Goldsmiths College on the topic “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of ISIS.” The talk was sponsored by the Goldsmiths Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society but was opposed by the Goldsmiths Islamic Society and the Goldsmiths Feminist Society who attempted to get her invitation withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin had also originally withdrawn invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims.

The video is long and the sound quality is not good. However I persisted and found interesting the fact that female Muslims in the audience were not able to ask their questions until  near the end – after the male disruptors had left!

Now University of Sheffield

The other day I saw a similar example of this attempted censorship at the University of Sheffield. But this time, the Sheffield Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (SASH) itself was the censor – they “turned down a suggestion by a student to invite Maryam Namazie to speak at the university. The reason? Her ‘hard anti-Islamist approach’ is not ‘conducive’ to the direction that the society wishes to go in” (see Atheist students are losing their faith in free speech).

So this is yet another example of the way group thinking and irrational arguments are being used to prevent open discussion of important issues like human and women’s right? (I discussed this in my articles Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy and Misrepresentation, misogyny and misandry – these should concern sceptics). But it is also an example of how “interfaith” activity, and indeed finding common cause with groups holding different beliefs, can result in the suppression of such vital discussion.

The author of the article is Hallam Roffey who is a writer and a student at the University of Sheffield. He writes:

“This isn’t a wind-up. Not only is the suggestion that you can be ‘too hard’ on Islamism baffling, but the fact that this statement came from an atheist, secularist and humanist society is almost beyond parody. To clarify, this is a society which aims to defend human rights and promote secularism declining to invite a renowned and influential ex-Muslim, secularist and human-rights campaigner. (Namazie has done extensive work supporting refugees, and has tackled both religious fundamentalism and far-right bigotry.)

“In its response to the inquiring student, SASH said that it would like to concentrate on ‘interfaith’ activities instead, stating that ‘interfaith between faith societies is vital’. Apparently, inviting Namazie, which may not be welcomed by some members of Sheffield’s Islamic Society (ISoc), would be antithetical to their objectives.”

So, in effect, this student society has thrown away some of its basic aims simply to further its “interfaith” activities.

freedom-of-speech-demo-AP-640x480

Photo credit: AP/Valentina Petrova

I find that incredible. While I accept that cooperation between groups of different beliefs is important and laudable what is this worth if it involves giving up such important principles. Would the Christian societies at Sheffield give up their bible studies and prayer meetings in order to further “interfaith ” cooperation with the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society? Would the Islamic Society give up their involvement in Ramadan activities for such vague “interfaith” reasons?

I think not.

I think that this example shows how the involvement of atheists and humanists or “interfaith” organisational activities can be a trap. After all, many of these sorts of activities already assume ideas and customs which exclude atheists (eg religious observations and collective ‘interfaith” prayers). Atheists should limit cooperation to issues where there is common ground – and they should not limit their own activity on issues like human rights because one or other of the theist groups do not support them.

Or is this just   a fashionable “political correctness?”

Mind you, I wonder if this “interfaith” issue is just a handy excuse for those who rejected the request that Maryam speak. I wonder if the bogeys of “anti-feminism” and Islamophobia” are not the real reasons, at least for some, in the way these arguments have been used in attempts to suppress the voices of others – like Richard Dawkins.

Hallam Roffey says:

“SASH was particularly concerned that there would be a repeat of ‘what happened at Goldsmiths’, when Islamist students disrupted a talk being given by Namazie. But this only projects a pretty dim view of Sheffield ISoc. As a Sheffield student myself, I’d like to think that ISoc members would be up for the debate, and would not act at all like those thugs at Goldsmiths. Not all Muslims resent apostates.

“What’s more, the subtext here is that Namazie was in some way to blame for the Goldsmiths incident. Though SASH insists it does not condone Goldsmiths ISoc’s actions, it is nevertheless siding with Islamists at Namazie’s expense. This is cowardly and pathetic.”

I agree – this sort of suppression of discussion on topic human rights issues is cowardly and pathetic.

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Misrepresentation, misogyny and misandry – these should concern sceptics

Steven-Novella

Steve Novella – prominent member of the Skeptics Gude to the Universe and NECSS

I apologize to those sensitive souls whose toes I am treading on – but I must return to the debate sparked off by the invitation/disinvitation/reinvitation fiasco involving Richard Dawkins and the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) (see Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy).

I must comment on the way this issue was discussed in the last episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU).  Listen to the section Free Speech vs Social Justice – A discussion with Julia Galef about the recent controversies in the skeptical movement for the full discussion. In my view, this discussion was misleading because it started with a red herring (“free speech vs social justice”) and only got to the real meat of the issue (irrationality in the “skeptic movement”) at the end of the discussion. And even then that important issue was not handled objectively.

This specific discussion was important because:

1: Steven Novella is prominent in both the SGU and the executive committee of NECSS. In fact, he made a statement as a member of the executive committee of NECSS attempting to explain their decision (at that stage before the reinvitation was issued). This was widely criticised – but, to be fair, it suffered from the bureaucratic restrictions of executive membership.  I had hoped he could speak more freely about the problems of that organisation in an open discussion.

2: Steven expressed deep concern at the way these ideologically-driven debates are destroying the “skeptical movement.” In particular, he passed on the fact that several high-profile scientists with public influence had told him they no longer wished to be associated with the “movement” because of the irrationality of the debate.

The problem is Steven’s concerns about the ideological nature of these debates and the destructive role they are playing for sceptics organisations only came up at the end of the discussion. They should have been confronted at the beginning. That is why I call the long time discussing social justice vs freedom of expression a red herring. That discussion was never specific and it is misleading to think it was relevant to the specific issue of the NECSS/Dawkins invitation fiasco. Concentration on this misrepresented the real issue and misrepresented Richard Dawkin’s position.

Misrepresentation

ME_197_Misinformation

Misrepresentation of Richard Dawkins and his statements is, of course, nothing new. After all, he is an evolutionary biologist and we all know how much evolutionary science is misrepresented by its opponents – and even the ordinary person in the street. On top of that, he is an outspoken, and largely uncompromising, atheist. Then his literary skills, and his publishers, add another layer where a catchy book title or public statement gets easily misinterpreted.

In an old blog post, Putting Dawkins in his place, I relate how back in the 1970s I fell into the trap of misinterpreting the title of Richard’s first book – The Selfish Gene. I said then:

” I had never read it, of course, but there were all those magazine articles using the book to justify selfishness in people and to provide an ethical basis for a selfish society, for capitalism. These ideas, to me, were reactionary, anti-human. My mind was made up. Despite my interest in science, I was not going to waste time reading a “reactionary” book which I knew I wouldn’t agree with.”

It wasn’t until I read The God Delusion in 1976 that I realised my mistake:

 “Mind you, because of my anti-Dawkins prejudice I almost didn’t, thinking it would be a waste of time. I am grateful I made the effort because I then found out my prejudice was baseless. The Selfish Gene was about genes, not about individual humans, other animals or society. Writers and others had taken the title of the book to justify their own political and economic agendas!”

As Dawkins has said – he could have titled the book The Cooperative Gene without changing a word of the text.

If the current fashion of de-platforming academic speakers was in fashion during the 1970s I wonder if there would have been moves to disinvite Dawkins from speaking at conferences? I wonder if I, in my ignorance, would have supported such moves?

In Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy, I explained how Richard’s critics were misrepresenting his position. He was not opposing social justice regarding feminism or Islamism – simply noting the destructive role of a small minority of extreme radical feminists and Islamists. He was, in fact, advocating for social justice. The social media attacks on Dawkins over this issue were misleading and the uncritical acceptance of these misleading attacks by some “sceptics” just illustrates that simple use of a name like “sceptic” is no guarantee of a sceptical or critical approach.

Perhaps sceptics should aspire to be more sceptical, critical and thoughtful in assessing claims. And I mean all claims. I have met sceptics who are justifiably proud of their sceptical approach to religion or alternative health – but who are very unsceptical and uncritical (maybe I should say biassed) about prevailing political claims. I hope this is not due to the hubris of thinking their sceptical approach in one area justifies their bias in another.

On the other hand, perhaps we should recognise that sceptics are just as human as the rest of us – just as prone to group thinking and being mislead. OK, this recognises that use of the name “sceptic” does not confer any magical properties – but it still does not remove the responsibility of at least making an effort.

Misogyny and misandry of sceptics

Some specifics were discussed towards the end of the SGU discussion – not related to Dawkins or his statements, but to the old elevatorgate “chat up” story, Rebecca Watson who “broke” that story and the harsh reaction she got in the “atheist/sceptical movement.” Participants lamented what they saw as misogyny among people who were meant to be rational, and underlined that the misogynistic attacks on Rebecca were more extreme and widespread than many people realised. Finally, there was recognition that some feminists in the “movement” were “going too far” and responding with attacks and charges which were just as extreme. Perhaps, without actually using the word, they were acknowledging that the “movement” had a problem with misandry (the hatred of men) as well as misogyny (the hatred of women).

This acknowledgement, and concern, should have been dealt with – upfront – at the beginning of the discussion instead of burying it at the end. And I don’t buy the concern being expressed over such irrational attitudes simmering away in a movement that is meant to be rational. As I keep saying, the mere use of names like “sceptic,” “atheist” or “rationalist” does not magically confer these properties on a person or movement. They do not somehow make a person or movement immune to all the attitudes, biases and instincts common in a community.

“The battle of the sexes” seems inherent in human societies – and there are probably good reasons for this. Usually, differences are handled in a friendly enough way but this battle can sometimes become extreme in sections of the community – fuelled by social inequalities and violations of human rights (often real but sometimes imaginary). Our life experiences also leave us with personal issues which can fuel resentments and irrational attitudes towards others – on both sides of the “sexual divide.” Nor are such attitudes and resentments restricted to gender issues – let’s not forget ethnic, social and economic differences.

Sceptics should take responsibility

“Sceptics” are part of the community and are not immune to all those irrational attitudes, group thinking and resentments that flourish in the community. They shouldn’t be surprised to discover people in their “movement” might actually give vent to their feelings on these issues. However, those “sceptics” who consider themselves leaders, and the organisations representing sceptics’ should, at least, make the effort to resist the group thinking involved.

That is where I disagree with Steven Novella and the executive of the NECSS. Steven in his statement expressed the:

“wish Dawkins would recognize (perhaps he does) his special place within our community and the power that position holds. When he retweets a link to a video, even with a caveat, that has a tremendous impact. It lends legitimacy to the video and the ideas expressed in it.”

Perhaps Steven should reflect on how this concept of responsibility may relate to his own actions. He and the NECSS should have resisted the misinformation and group thinking that prevented them from carefully reading Richard’s tweets – or even consulting with Richard before withdrawing their invitation (an action they now recognise as “unprofessional” but some might call just plain rude). And as leaders of the “sceptic movement,” they should have the responsibility to avoid succumbing to the irrationalities promoted in social media on the issue. To recognise and avoid the misandry driving these – as well as the misogyny.

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Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy.

Richard-Dawkins-slider-10-700x335

I had been meaning to comment on the controversy surrounding the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) – followed by his disinvitation. But events have moved on – he has now been reinvited but has had a mild stroke so there is no longer any possibility of speaking engagements for a few months.

Many people are concerned about Richard’s health – the news seemed good but you can get a better idea from his own description of the problem in an audio message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words.

He sounds pretty frail to me – and the fact he was hospitalised for 4 days suggest it was more serious than I originally understood. Hopefully, though, he will recover well and be back to his usual speaking programme. That’s of some interest to us in New Zealand as a planned appearance at the Wellington Art’s Festival next month has been postponed. Hopefully, his plan to make an appearance here a few months later will go ahead.

Interestingly, Richard’s doctors advised him to avoid controversy because of blood pressure problems! And he acknowledges that recent controversies may not have help his blood pressure.

The current controversy

It seems this problems stems from Richard’s use of Twitter. Which seems pretty petty because Twitter is hardly a format for reasoned discussion with it’s 140 character limits – and the usually abusive and stupid responses.

A comment I saw said Richard on social media “comes across as petty, insulting and yes, sexist.” Well, I think almost anyone debating on twitter comes across this way. I think he is rather naive to use twitter as much as he does (he refers to twitter in his most recent book – Brief Candle in the Dark – and admits to being in two minds about it). While he appears to make an effort to qualify comments and present logical arguments in his tweets that does not stop people from misinterpreting him (innocently or intentionally) – and misrepresenting him in later articles and debates.

Mind you, basing even a blog article, let alone an op-ed or similar media article, on tweets seems rather desperate of people.

The controversy appears to boil down to reaction to this tweet:

DawkinsTweet

Despite the qualification critics have used the tweet to claim he is misogynist and attributes stupid behaviour to all feminists! It contained a link to a polemically crude video drawing parallels between the arguments of extreme feminists and extreme Islamists – so Richard has also copped the Islamophobia charge too. (As well as a new one on me claiming he is saying that extreme feminists behave the same – rather than drawing parallels).

Faulty generalisation

This interpretation is so mistaken I think only people who are already hostile or desperately searching for something to confirm their anti-Dawkins or anti-male bias would actually fall for it – or promote it. But that is the sort of thing we get on social media – especially Twitter.

Drivers

This is the fallacy of faulty generalisation – or more precisely, faulty induction. Very often resorted to by people with a large axe to grind.

Rebecca Watson is one of Richards most vocal critics. She is very hostile towards the regard that many sceptics and atheists have for Dawkins, recently writing in her article Center for Inquiry Merges with Richard Dawkins & His Twitter Account:

“In conclusion, the skeptic/atheist sphere is an embarrassing shitshow and the organizations will continue polishing Richard Dawkins’ knob until he dies, at which point he will be sainted and his image will be put on candles and prayed to in times when logic is needed.”

(People who find fault with Richard’s tweets should really apply their critical and analytical skills to that sort of anti-sceptic, anti-atheist, vitriol.)

In her article commenting on the NECSS disinvitation, NECSS Dumps Richard Dawkins Over Hate Tweet, she wrote:

“Let’s hope that Center for Inquiry and other organizations take similar steps to distance themselves from Dawkins’ hateful rhetoric.”

So, she has added “hate speech” (or “hate rhetoric”) to her list of Richards failings.

(I must be careful here as some people argue that the terms “hate tweet” and “hate rhetoric” are not the same as “hate speech” – rationalisation by mental gymnastics in my opinion.)

I can’t help feeling there is a lot of bruised ego involved there – but lets stick with her logical fallacy. I have criticised her in the past for committing the fallacy of faulty generalisation. In that case her use of valid cases where studies in evolution psychology amounted to very poor science and bias confirmation (pop-psychology) to attribute that problem to the whole field of evolutionary psychology. See Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychologySceptical humility and peer review in science and Sense on evolutionary psychology  for the details.

I was critical because she, and some of here allies, were demonising a whole scientific field because of the obvious faults of just a part of it.

Professional jealousy

Professionals, like any other human, often suffer from jealousy of other professionals. And this is particularly true in attitudes towards scientific popularisers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan, and many others. Hell, I have seen it many times in my own scientific community when a colleague gets media coverage.

Massimo Pigliucci has for a long time exhibited this sort of professional jealousy, often being unable to hold himself back when even a distant opportunity arises to have a biff at Richard. He has a Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction to the word “Dawkins.” So, not surprisingly, he has commented on this recent fiasco in a very long blog article – Richard Dawkins.

Massimo in this article describes his relationship with Dawkins as “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” – but he is being disingenuous. Colleagues “who disagree on a number of issues” (and shouldn’t we all be described this way) do not build campaigns on that disagreement. Perhaps we should look to Dawkins as an example of how reasonable “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” should treat that disagreement in public – with personal respect. I have yet to see any personal invective for Massimo from Richard.

In summary, Massimo argues that Dawkins has no original work in his field (except “memes” – which to Richard was simply a passing speculation), is “utterly” ignorant about important biological concepts and has a “hopelessly limited” view of biology.  Massimo  criticises the gene-centric view of Richards first book The Selfish Gene and finds The God Delusion “simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.”

Most of all, Massimo bridles at the occasional media portrayal of Richard as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” Perhaps Dawkins also bridles at that description as it is rather meaningless – there is a media tendency to label any scientist they cover as a “leading” or “top” scientist (and that often causes jealousy among colleagues).

My point is that Massimo comments seem motivated by professional jealousy, rather than any real concern about the sceptic/atheist “movement.” He is being unprofessional to carry out a personal public campaign in this way. And he ends up looking foolish for that and his identification with the NECSS blunder (I have not seem any comment from Massimo on the later reinvitation which attempted to correct that blunder.)

A critical minority?

I don’t want to give the impression that all the reaction to Richards tweets has been negative – far from it. Here is a long blog article from Michael Nuget, chairperson of Atheist Ireland. – NECSS should reconsider Dawkins decision, made in haste without full information It’s worth reading and probably gives a more representative assessment of the issue but, for reasons of space, I won’t comment on it here except to quote this significant passage:

“This is the fourth recent controversy involving activists having speaking invitations withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin both withdrew invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims. And Saint Dominic’s College in Dublin withdrew an invitation to me, citing fears that my talk would undermine its Catholic ethos.

After being asked to reconsider, each of these three institutions reinstated the invitations, with Warwick Students Union publicly apologising to Maryam. All three talks have since gone ahead successfully. I hope this article will help to persuade NECSS to follow the example of these other bodies, and revisit their decision based on the skepticism that they promote.”

Well, I guess  we now have 5 recent examples of disinvitations under pressure from biased pressure groups, followed by organisations coming to their sense and reinstating the invitations.

See alsoSam Harris’s audio comment on the fiasco.

What about responses from Richard Dawkins

I think Dawkins handled this issue very well – even wishing the organisers a successful conference after their disinvitation (made rudely by public statement, not personally to Richard):

“I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and scepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

In his later oral message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words – Richard revealed his invitation had been reinstated and politely expressed his thanks and gratitude, even though his health now prevents him taking up the invitation (or reinvitation).

Here are the full texts  of the NECSS formal reinvitation and Richards response:

From the NECSS executive committee, February 14, 2016:

We wish to apologize to Professor Dawkins for our handling of his disinvitation to NECSS 2016. Our actions were not professional, and we should have contacted him directly to express our concerns before acting unilaterally. We have sent Professor Dawkins a private communication expressing this as well. This apology also extends to all NECSS speakers, our attendees, and to the broader skeptical movement.

We wish to use this incident as an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion of the deeper issues implicated here, which are causing conflict both within the skeptical community and within society as a whole. NECSS 2016 will therefore feature a panel discussion addressing these topics. There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity. We have asked Professor Dawkins to participate in this discussion at NECSS 2016 in addition to his prior scheduled talk, and we hope he will accept our invitation.

This statement and our discussions with Professor Dawkins were initiated prior to learning of his recent illness. All of NECSS wishes Professor Dawkins a speedy and full recovery.

The NECSS Executive Committee

Richard’s Response:

Dear Jamy,

Please convey my thanks to the entire Executive Committee for their gracious apology and for reinviting me to the NECSS conference. I am sensitive to what a difficult thing it must have been to rescind an earlier, publicised decision. I am truly grateful. Politicians are regularly criticised for changing their minds, but sceptics, rationalists and scientists know that there are occasions when the ability to change ones mind is a virtue. Sympathy for the victim of a medical emergency is not one of those occasions, and I therefore note with especial admiration that the Executive Committee’s courageous and principled change of mind predated my stroke.

That stroke, however, does make it impossible for me to accept the invitation, much as I would like to do so. I shall especially miss the pleasure of an on stage conversation with you. I hope another opportunity for that conversation will arise. I wish the conference well. May it be a great success. You certainly have managed to put together a starry list of speakers.

With my best wishes to you and the whole Executive Committee

Richard

Richard’s refusal to be pulled into a silly tit-for-tat online – with all the usual charges against the other side – reinforces my favourable opinion of him. He is not prone to extremist positions or personal infighting. I suggest that he comes out of the little tiff well – even if he did make some mistakes on his twitter account (and who doesn’t). In contrast, his critics have exposed their unreasonable and extremist attitudes and NECSS has ended up with egg on its face – unable to resist bullying from these extremists. Let’s hope similar organisations do not get caught in the same trap.

Finally, I welcome the NECAA organisers decision to include a panel discussion on these issues in its conference. As they say – “There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity.”

Let’s hope that they do not abandon this plan just because Richard is unable to take part. The issues of cyber-bullying and use of labels like “sexist,” “misogynist” and “islamophobic” to shut down important discussion should be dealt with. These issues – the ability to discuss topical problems and those problems themselves – are too important to ignore. Hopefully, organisers will find a person (perhaps Michael Nugent?) who is brave enough to stand up and speak openly and honestly about them.

As Richard would have done.

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Facts, beliefs and delusions

beliefs

Here are some memes I have come across lately.

It’s amazing how people will fight to protect dearly held beliefs against obvious evidence.

perception

And it is amazing how strong beliefs can actually influence what we see – or what we think we see.

know I am right

I guess we all suffer from delusions from time to time. Confirmation bias comes easily to humans.

But we shouldn’t make a habit of it!

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Science – a method of investigation, not a belief system

clees

Love this tweet from John Cleese.

There is the obvious point about “belief.” Many people seem to think the scientific knowledge is a matter of belief and, in their eyes, something that can be subjectively chosen. That is ridiculous.

But also the wise stress on science as a method of investigation and not just a body of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always imperfect and is dynamic changing with new data – but not in  an arbitrary or chaotic way.

However imperfect our current knowledge the scientific method holds out possibilities for its improvement. And however may “mistakes” the cynic can find in our scientific knowledge they are always unable to suggest a way of correcting these mistakes except more science.

Science as a method of investigation remains by far the best way we have of understanding objective reality.

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European and Māori major non-believers in NZ

This was a bit of a surprise to me.

The 2013 census data show that a similar proportion of the European and Māori ethnic groups declared themselves as having no religion in the 2013 census – 46.9 percent of European and 46.3 percent of Māori (see 2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity).

The graph below illustrates the proportion of non-religious for the different NZ ethnic groups differentiated in the census.

2013-census-1

Recent sociological research does show differences between European and Māori economic values and beliefs and I thought this might be reflected in different religious affiliations.

But apparently not.

I wonder if these non-religious Māori feel as offended as I do when a Christian prayer, disguised as a karakia, is imposed on them? I feel this is dishonest and takes advantage of the unwillingness of New Zealanders to complain as the complaint could be interpreted as racist. But it must also offend non-Christian Māori for their culture to be hijacked like this.

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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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