Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Materialism

I like this from Jesus and Mo. Especially as I often get criticised for my “materialism” – which seems to be used interchangeably with “scientific naturalism.”

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Some pesky delusions

Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker


Price:
US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Publisher:
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
1616141689
ISBN-13:
978-1616141684

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage – most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

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Chauvinistic ethics?

Here’s a question I came across in my current reading. Is religion the basis for ethics, or ethics the basis for religion?

Well, I claim the later (partly) but keep getting told the former. In fact, I keep getting told that I owe my morals to one specific religion – the Christian religion.

So this cartoon struck a chord. Amazing how chauvinistic some humans can be when it comes to beliefs and ethics.

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Arrested moral development.

I came across this intriguing statement about religious ethics in the book I am currently reading:

“religious ethics is similar to the attitude of the child between 5 and 9 years old. It is far too concerned with rules that are experienced as sacrosanct, as deontological commands coming from above, instead of with rules as a product that should be justified and amended as necessary.”

This struck a chord because  of two article I also read recently:

Why young adults change their religious beliefs where Tom Rees remarked on the observation that one’s religious beliefs “tend to crystalline in your late teens and early adulthood.”

And

Five Good Things about Atheism where R. Joseph Hoffmann claims that atheism is an ethical position and raises the question of “whether it is possible to be good with God.”

But first the book – which I highly recommend. It’s The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur. Just published, it is really relevant to today’s society and is a thorough discussion of the subjects indicated by its title. I promise to have a review of the book posted in a few weeks.

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Treating statistics sensibly

People love to quote statistical studies to support their claims. And often its just a matter of confirmation bias. The statistical studies may not provide the support required – or may suffer from all sorts of flaws.

We see a lot of this in discussions on health, diet and life style. But I have also noticed statistics being liberally thrown around when religion and religious attitudes are discussed. If there is any area ripe for confirmation bias this is certainly it.

Consider this little graphic below which appear at a dating site OKCupid (see The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’). Just imagine what negative conclusions one could draw about religion from that. To be fair, most references I have seen to it (all atheist – strangely, no religious sites are quoting it) do advise taking it with a grain of salt. (If you are interested have at look at the source. It provides other statistics from the study which will help make sense of this graph).

On the other hand, I have had statistical studies quoted at me which claim to “prove’ the religious people are happier, more honest, more moral, etc. Typical those quoting the studies have never bothered to check out the details and always ignore studies which might have provided different conclusions. In other words the normal confirmation bias.

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So you want a conversation?

Book Review: Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong About the New Atheism by Phillip Johnson and John Mark Reynolds

Price: US$10.20; NZ$29.97
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Intervarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0830837388
ISBN-13: 978-0830837380

This book’s subtitle intrigued me – “What’s right and wrong about the new atheism.” Has Phillip Johnson, the “Godfather” of “intelligent design” and harsh critic of evolutionary science and “scientific materialism” got something positive to say about “new atheism?” Does he think people like his arch-enemy Richard Dawkins have something right?

Johnson claims in the book’s introduction: “our intention is not to attack the atheists but to explore the case they are making.” And: “the arguments for atheism should be taken seriously and considered both respectfully and critically.”

Now that would be a change, wouldn’t it? Many religious authors jumped on the bandwagon of analysing and criticising “new atheism’ after publication of the best-selling books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in recent years. But their bias, personal attacks, straw clutching and straw mannery make most of them useless. Perhaps Phillip Johnson will break ranks and honestly elaborate on his philosophical differences with science and atheism instead? Perhaps he will admit the popularity of these books may be because they have identified some real problems?

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“God of the surprises”

I guess we are all familiar with the god of the gapsconcept. The common theological tendency to explain gaps in our scientific knowledge with the claim “god did it!” It’s an easy, if very lazy, strategy because there will always be gaps in scientific knowledge. As longs as one has a short memory and moves on to new gaps when the old ones get filled.

Well, I have come across a new term for a related phenomenon – “god of the surprises.” John Shook uses the phrase in his new book God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (And Everyone in Between).

“In addition to the god of the gaps strategy pointing out what science doesn’t know, theologians have another strategy, a “god in the surprises” strategy, pointing to new scientific knowledge. Science is good at coming up with surprises, since the scientific method always seeks new evidence. The “god of the surprises” strategy tries to make naturalism appear inconsistent with cutting-edge science, as if religion does a better job of keeping up with science than naturalism. The trick behind this diverting illusion is to first display to the audience a shabby naturalism, crude and outdated, and then to draw attention to some surprising scientific discovery. News from biology: life has self-organizing abilities! Naturalism wasn’t expecting that, what with its outdated notion that life was just the aggregate sum of its mechanical chemical reactions. For life to have such amazing powers, something supernatural must be involved somewhere. News from physics: quantum entanglement is spooky! That’s a nasty shock for naturalism’s premise that every physical particle always has its own intrinsic properties. For particles to have such deep connections, while so widely separated from each other, something supernatural must be at work. Cutting-edge science can be co-opted by this strategy into humbling naturalism and supporting supernaturalism.”

Of course this strategy doesn’t fool anyone familiar with scientific discovery. Real science is always full of surprise and counter-intuitive explanations. it’s part of what makes it so exciting.

However,  I think some of the more theologically faithful do get fooled. Perhaps they even feel a bit smug with a delusion that science is “proving them right.”

But it is annoying to see the authority of science being use in such a cheap way.

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Theological critiques of billboards required

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza prepare to charge

The atheist billboards which went up in three New Zealand cities recently have provoked some interest. Most of it has been quietly positive.

However, there are the critics. Inevitably there are those who criticise the weakness of the slogans. Lindsay Perigo had a slightly humourous article on this (see SOLO-NZ Press Release: Memo to NZ Atheists—Grow a Pair!). He said:

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God, stop ‘playing science’

Craig Venter in 2004

Craig Venter (Image via Wikipedia)

Craig Venter‘s recent announcement of success in the laboratory creation of a synthetic cell has produced the expected response. Besides the congratulations there have been the usual warnings.

Some have raised the danger of synthetic organisms escaping the lab or being used to create weapons of mass destruction. One wag on Twitter commented: “What about the danger of allowing a human sperm fertilise a human ovum and the resulting individual being brought up in a human society. We know for sure this sometimes leads to weapons of mass destruction and other evils.”

And then there is the claim of scientists “playing God!” What the hell does that mean?

Anyway, I quite liked this slightly humorous story from NewsBiscuit – Synthetic life form accuses God of ‘playing science’.

The world’s first artificially created life form has accused God of ‘playing science’ and ‘meddling with things He cannot possibly understand.’

The single celled organism, created by Dr Craig Venter and his team, was said to be ‘outraged’ when it discovered that a supernatural being, not subject to any form of regulatory control, was still involved in the creation of life.

‘I cannot believe that God would be so irresponsible,’ said the synthetic cell, ‘creation is clearly a matter for scientists. This God guy should butt out and learn to accept His place in the grand scheme of things.’

Many ethicists believe that God has repeatedly overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody objects to the Lord producing a few miracles here and there,’ said philosopher AC Grayling, ‘but when he starts playing around with the very stuff of creation then He has clearly exceeded his remit. I am beginning to think that this omnipotence thing has gone to His head.’

God’s continued tampering with scientific matters has already been blamed for numerous ‘all-mighty blunders’ including Flu, Malaria, HIV and Piers Morgan. ‘He cannot be allowed a monopoly on this level of unregulated power,’ said Dr Venter, ‘that is why I am currently seeking to patent the genetic code for omnipotence so that we can keep His crazy meddling under some kind of control.’

A spokesman for the Lord said, ‘God has been working on this project for almost 15 billion years. Yes, He has made a few mistakes along the way but that is to be expected. This is still very much a work in progress and, dare I say it, a process of evolution.’

Speaking at a press conference, the synthetic cell said: ‘Dr Venter created me and I owe my loyalty to him. He’s the daddy now. God might be omniscient but, let me assure you, He doesn’t know everything.’

UPDATE: Just couldn’t resist including this Jesus and Mo cartoon:

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The Dawkins Delusions

Actually, some people call them the “Dawkins Tantrums.”

There’s no doubt about it though – there is a controversy around Richard Dawkins. Just mention his name in the blogosphere and you get all sorts of extreme reactions. Almost always negative.

Sure, you will get some, usually milder and more reasonable, positive reactions. After all, he is a bit of a scientific rock star. His recent lectures in New Zealand and Australia were sold out. Many had to be shifted to larger venues. And his books certainly sell well.

I myself waited in a queue for 2 hours to get my copy of “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” signed by the author. As one wit said, this queue seemed to go right back to the “”Big Bang.” But I was in good company and enjoyed the conversations while waiting.

Personally I am always wary of personality cults. Elevate a person to sainthood and you will inevitably find they have feet of clay. I certainly don’t think it has come to this with Dawkins, despite the high regard many people have for him.

And he is a humble person. I heard a story of him seeing some young person wearing a “Dawkins is God” T-shirt. His rather embarrassed comment was “Does this mean I don’t exist?”

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