Monday, 30 November 2009
The debate kicked off with Richard Harries taking to the podium. He defined the fundamentalism of ‘new atheism’ under four headings, but they essentially boiled down to two: first, new atheism is impervious to facts and second, it only picks on the weakest arguments of its opponents. After a good start, it all got rather embarrassing for Harries. His first argument, as one twitter user put it, was essentially this – ‘most artists in history were Christian, so there’. Atheists often forget, said Harries, that Eliot and Auden, two great poets, were both Christian. The obvious response being ‘so what?’. Not only is the observation irrelevant and simply a result of the historical domination of the Church, it is simply wrong. Atheists don’t ignore this (personally, my favourite poet is Eliot), it just doesn’t come up in arguments because it is a moot point – perhaps someone should have told Harries this.
Then came Anthony. Grayling has the soft-spoken, charming manner of an English country gentleman but he compliments this with fantastic observation and a great intellect. His speech, though eloquent, was unfortunately not dreadfully relevant to the motion. It was, however, a pleasure to hear such a mind talk about atheism, secularism and humanism.
Grayling later referred to Charles Moore’s speech as a series of ad hominem attacks on Richard Dawkins. This was perhaps slightly unfair, but Moore certainly focused on Dawkins’ work with a certain intensity. His main criticism was of what he described as a ‘WWII searchlight’ approach. Dawkins, he argued, glances briefly at Christianity, criticising it at a basic level, finding the weakest forms and interpretations and proceeding to massacre them. He said Dawkins was an accuser and maintained a pitiful almost ‘murderous’ attitude to others. ‘It was Rev. Green, in the nursery, with the Bible’ said Harries (Dawkins excellently pointing out that in the U.S version of Cluedo, Rev. Green is simply called Mr. Green, as it is inconceivable that a Reverend could do any wrong). The accusation even arose that Dawkins felt intelligent people were ‘better people’ for it, in reference to the questionnaire cited in The God Delusion (which he boldy held high and displayed to the audience at one point) showing that a higher proportion of MENSA members are atheists. By this moment the audience was getting restless and Moore was stretching the time limit. Determined to finish with a flourish by quoting Shakespeare, he pressed on. One amusing moment came when Moore reached a pause, and some audience members clapped impatient and wanting him to finish; he seemed to take it as encouragement. Readers of this blog may be interested in a comment made by Moore during the questioning; that atheism was simply a teenage phase. I encourage you in your writing to show him it is much more than simply a phase.
Dawkins strode to take his place with huge applause behind him. Even watching the live stream, you could sense that this was the moment people were looking forward to. Dawkins, amiably, stuck to the topic and didn’t disappoint. He defined fundamentalism as blind obedience to a holy book or catechism and argued an important feature that characterised it was extremism. Addressing these two points, Dawkins simply pointed out that ‘new atheism’ is not a belief system, only a belief in evidence and always willing to change its mind when new evidence comes to light. He described the excitement scientists feel about what they don’t know, and indeed, by acknowledging there is an awful lot still to learn, the charge of fundamentalism really disappears. Discussing extremism, he used an argument many of his readers will be familiar with. Stalin and Mao, though atheists, did not commit their crimes in the name of atheism. When a questioner raised this once more, Dawkins called it a‘monstrous’ suggestion. “Science flies you to the moon” he said “religion flies you into buildings”. Dawkins was really on top form. This was certainly one of his best performances.
However, the most revealing and certainly entertaining moment came during the questioning. When Harries asked Dawkins about a comment made in his speech (Dawkins said ‘When was the last time you ever heard these words from a pulpit - “On the balance of probabilities, you should do action x”’), claiming that Dawkins himself never made such statements about God and he would like him to point one out to him in his writing, Dawkins simply replied ‘Chapter 4 of my book. It’s called Why there is almost certainly no God’. I think after this moment, it really did become clear that Grayling and Dawks had won the day.
A vote taken before the debate revealed 333 were for the motion, 675 were against and 389 didn’t know with around 200 who didn’t vote. Afterwards this became 85 don’t knows’, 363 for the motion and 1070 against. The online poll was more revealing – 35 for and 877 against. Perhaps we atheists are more computer-savy? Whatever the reason, a good night for ‘new atheism’.
The link to the debate will be posted when it is uploaded. As an aside, the Hitchens/Fry Catholicism debate is now up unedited. Here is the link.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
“These new tools, provided by science and technology, are more than just tools – they’re instruments of social revolution, violent or peaceful. As the tools change, so too does the ability of society to organize itself.” - James Burke
I believe that Science is characterized primarily by three main aspects: its ability to empower us and give the gift of Life, its ability to destroy us on catastrophic levels never before matched in history and lastly, its ability to provide glimpses into deep and profound knowledge that can alter our views of ourselves and the world we live in.
If we trace our ancestry back far enough, we find that all of us ultimately descend from a small group of hunter-gatherers in the eastern part of Africa. We were plagued by diseases, preyed upon by predators, subjected to the whims of Nature. Surviving was a daily struggle. Yet in little less than a hundred thousand years – a mere bubble on the frothing river of evolution – we have grown to populate all the continents of the earth. We have effective cures for most diseases - what would be fatal a mere hundred years ago can be solved with a simple vaccination. Searching for food is as simple as a trip to the nearest supermarket – and no worries about becoming food ourselves as we do so. That we are able to propagate so successfully, that our daily lives are free from the primeval struggles of life and death is in no small part due to the benefits that Science provides. Indeed, most of us owe our very existence to advancement in Science: without technological advancement in agriculture, the Earth would have only been able to support paltry tens of thousands of humans. Given that there are now six billion of us, it would seem safe to venture that most of us would not be here today if not for Science.
But Science comes with a deadly caveat. For despite its ability to provide us with a bountiful supply of food, with great industrial plants, with high-seed transportation, Science carries with it the ability to destroy us all. And we are finding ever more efficient ways to destroy each other. Our biological weapons have evolved from the make-shift method of slinging diseased corpses over city walls to finely-honed, secretly-delivered laboratory germs able to cause mass pandemics. At a press of a button, the world’s leaders can destroy all life on the planet. From the cannons of Gettysburg to the nuclear bombs of the Cold War, the destructive abilities of our best weapons have grown over a billion times in a hundred years.
Our great industrial plants emit vast amounts of harmful gases daily, doing irreparable damage to our only home. Yet, we seem to lack the collective willpower to stop the slow rot. Is it only a matter of time before we are wiped out by our own achievements, going out either in the big bang of a nuclear holocaust or the small whimper of a slow global warming?
Will Science be our undoing, or will it be our liberator?
I believe that there are two possible paths humanity can take. We can continue to remain prisoners of our own inventions, or we do what we do best: we adapt and flourish.
The first path is a bleak one. On that path, a promising primate species rise on an insignificant planet in a solar system but eventually destroys itself. Such a possibility is not far fetched – throughout our brief history, we have shown tendency to think only of short term benefits. In modern times, we need to look no further than America’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol (without American support, its effectiveness is greatly reduced). Self-preservation is hardwired into our evolutionary instincts. We have to conquer our selfish desires for the benefit of the species. Male jumping spiders do it all the time when they sacrifice themselves as food for their female counterparts during mating. I do not believe that we cannot do the same.
If we are to take the path of survival, there has to be a shift of mindset, a social revolution of sorts. Somehow, we have to find the collective willpower to utilize Science for the greater good. If we manage to do so, it will be an unprecedented feat in our history – the entire human race working together for a single cause. Perhaps this sounds like imaginary fluff – the wishful thinking of a person living in a safe and prosperous country. As one China official put it, “You cannot talk to a person about saving the environment if he can’t even find food to put in his mouth.” Given more pressing issues around the globe, a coordinated attempt to turn Science into a tool for survival will not be an easy feat. But we have no choice: the rules of this planet are clear enough – we adapt or die. Rapid advancements in Science mean that now more than ever, our actions will have great ramifications for this planet. This has come to a point where we are at the crossroads of destiny, and what we do in the next few decades can affect the survival of our species.
I believe that the issue here is more than that of Science being a tool for survival or destruction. It would be myopic for this essay to focus solely on the physical benefits (or harms) of Science. This brings me to the third and last aspect of Science: its ability to alter our understanding of who we are.
There is a famous picture of Earth from space. Called Pale Blue Dot, it was captured by Voyager 1 from the edge of our solar system. In the centre of this picture is our home – a tiny blue speck 0.12 pixels across set against the vastness of space. From such a distance, it appears pathetically small, an indistinguishable mote of blue dust in the vast cosmic ocean highlighted by the falling of sunlight upon the lenses of Voyager 1. How many wars have been fought over a tiny fraction of this precious piece of real estate? It is the culmination of our cultures, our ideologies and religions, our joys and sorrows – it is the sum total of us. Pale Blue Dot challenges our perceptions of who we are. It puts to shame our tendency for anthropocentric notions. It tells us that however advanced our Science may be, we are only minor players on a small stage within the cosmic arena. And as astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Young Freethought or its editors.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
I’m sure I’m like many others when I say I have a good understanding of the basics of evolution. I’ve read The Selfish Gene and books like it. I get evolution. But I’ve never read On the Origin of Species. I’ve always planned to amend this and what better time than now. So today, I’m beginning perhaps the most important book ever written. I would encourage readers to do the same. What better time is there than this instant?
In other news, the site has been redesigned in order to try and make longer articles easier to read. Any comments, good or bad, send them in to email@example.com. Pieces in the pipeline include a thought-provoking account of our current global situation from one of our younger readers and a futuristic speech on nanotechnology – the next great event in human history. In the meantime, happy reading!
Friday, 20 November 2009
If there’s one thing I will remember 2009 for, it is the inspiring amount of energy which has been devoted to promoting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Stumbling across articles about both his life and work has been a relatively easy feat this year, with most pieces either going to great lengths to explain the actual mechanism of evolution, or just being content to praise the ingenuity of the much-loved naturalist and geologist. I was therefore struck by the following article’s report on the ‘sinister link’ which has been made between the now-famous theory and tragic school massacres (the article can be found here).
I tend to agree with the author’s point about the “unspoken agreement to accentuate the positive”: the majority of literature and media dedicated to ‘doing their bit’ for Darwin this year was characterised by a reverence for both man and theory, while the resulting minority preferred to concentrate on the standard ‘evolution vs. creationism vs. Intelligent Design’ debate. This rare article therefore opened my eyes to the darker side of the story, my initial reaction being one of horror at such an abuse of evolutionary theory. I am sure many others felt the same when reading it. Such feelings of shock, however, should be followed by a deeper examination of the issue of social Darwinism in order to prevent many from abandoning Darwinian theory on the basis that it promotes such massacres (be they in the playground or Nazi Germany). The “sinister link” implied in the report is misleading, and could result in another misconception surrounding the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The claim that the phenomenon of natural selection has been halted by man’s increasing control over his environment seems to be the ‘justification’ which is often quoted by these teenage murderers. The development of vaccinations and social security programmes in the western world, along with the results of humanitarian work, serves as the ‘evidence’ for their argument that man’s omnipotent hand has caused evolution to change gear: no longer is the unconscious force of Mother Nature allowed to weed out the weakest progeny, leaving the fittest survivors to establish themselves in our world, but the humane response of man to the plights of others has effectively halted such a process. Our emotions and values have encouraged us to come to the aid of others, such charity being one hallmark of a ‘civilised society’.
It is this precise evolution of our emotional responses which serves to undermine the cause of the teenage killers. The gradual development of the human lineage has not only resulted in the present-day physiological characteristics of man, but has also culminated, I believe, in an increased sense of humanity and emotional attachment to fellow beings. The evolution of compassion and respect constitutes a significant step in the development of our species, and it is this which has been ignored by the teenagers. Their non-conformism with the values of humanity which have evolved in us has therefore led to their being termed inhumane “homicidal maniacs”.
C. S. Lewis presents a related line of thought in his ‘The Abolition of Man’. He approaches the phenomenon of man’s increasing control over nature from a rather more spiritual point of view, claiming that the gradual explanation of everything in terms of natural and scientific processes will eventually lead to ‘the abolition of man’. If the human being in all its parts is reduced to a mere natural object itself, then the disappearance of humanity in the emotional and moral sense will surely follow. The ignorance of these teenagers has led them to forget that the real humane values prescribing respect and tolerance towards their fellow beings are products of natural selection themselves – an abandonment of such values, which has resulted in the killing of others, seems therefore to constitute an ‘insult’ to natural selection, whose cause they wanted to take up in the first place.
The murderous acts of these youths are also at odds with the true logical ‘spirit’ of natural selection. The process of evolution is characterised by the absence of an overriding force directing and controlling the destiny of the Earth’s organisms (hence the ongoing bone of contention between many theists and Darwinists). Natural selection occurs in the absence of any intelligent ‘mind’. The ‘survival of the fittest’ is therefore the result of an unconscious ‘sorting’ process whereby the outcome is determined by natural circumstances. The direct involvement of these teenagers represents a complete rupture with such a philosophy: their intentional weeding out of their ‘weaker’ classmates is completely opposed to the unconscious force of natural selection on the most basic level.
Furthermore, their fear that the action of natural selection was being halted and even reversed constitutes an equally implausible claim to make. If it be granted that our sophisticated emotional set-up is an actual product of evolution, then the apparent ‘reversal’ of natural selection, as a result of our humane action towards the preservation of the ‘less well-adapted’ societies, is a product of natural selection itself. An emotional and caring outlook on our part is beneficial to ‘the preservation of the species’. Man’s control over the ‘survival of the fittest’ is the result of the ‘survival of the fittest’.
Despite the fact that natural selection now appears to be being thwarted by man’s domination, the underlying process is still very much present, however. It is always unwise to underestimate the power of nature, and the increasing threat of natural disasters as a result of man-induced climate change could just be the proof that natural selection is an omnipresent and automatic state of affairs which is therefore impossible to keep at bay.
To conclude, the idea that Darwinian thought legitimately justifies such atrocious acts is implausible on both a logical and ‘common sense’ level. The ‘teenage nihilists’ who committed these massacres, as well as doing a disservice to their beloved Darwinian ideology, abandoned the evolved values of humanity and morality in the process. And yes, there may be those who advocate a totally liberal morality on account of the ‘illusory’ nature of such evolved values. Indeed, George Williams sums up the view that all apparent altruism has its origins in the overriding ‘selfish gene’ in the following quote (Cited in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel C. Dennett, Penguin Science, 1996 edition, p.251):
“As a general rule today a biologist seeing one animal doing something to benefit another assumes either that it is manipulated by the other individual or that it is being subtly selfish.”
But surely obedience and consideration of such altruistic and humane values (illusory or not) is a mark of our respect for natural selection’s work (illusionist or not)? I’m sure Darwin would agree.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Young Freethought or its editors.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Does being tolerant require you to accept all religious convictions?
Before answering this question, the meaning of the word ‘accept’ must be established. The answer to the question differs depending on the various definitions. ‘Accept’ could imply that you simply recognise that other religious convictions besides your own exist--in that you accept that there are a variety of points of view. It could also mean that you allow or permit all religious convictions and do not hinder or prevent them from being practiced and preached. ‘Accept’ could also mean that you regard the religious convictions as proper, suitable or normal. This definition could be extended to the extent of meaning that you actually agree with all religious convictions. Moreover, ‘being tolerant’ needs to be defined. ‘Being tolerant’ means that you object to a view or action, i.e. the objection component, and you have the power to do something about the disagreeable view or action, but make a conscious decision not to act on your opposition.
Normally when nations, for example, accept the terms of a treaty, they are agreeing to the conditions outlined in the document. In this way, to answer this question the word ‘accept’ is given to imply that you approve or agree to all religious convictions. This, to begin with, is impossible in itself. It is impossible to approve of or agree with all religious convictions simply because a huge number of beliefs contradict each other entirely: you can only approve or agree with one or the other, not both. For example, if you were a tolerant individual and were accepting of both Hinduism and Islam, you would be contradicting yourself on the fundamental grounds that Islam is monotheistic and Hinduism is polytheistic, a religious conviction that for both faiths is the focal point of all their other beliefs. The other difficulty is that, if you believed in Christianity, but you accepted, as in, you approved of Hinduism, you should be a Hindu, not a Christian: the reason you originally became a Christian was because you agreed with Christian beliefs and practices, not Hindu beliefs and practices, otherwise, you would be a Hindu. In this way, it is apparent that, given that you are a tolerant individual, it is illogical to accept all religious convictions, even though you may be tolerant, when the meaning of ‘accept’ is to consider something right or acceptable.
It is important to realise, however, that it does not make sense in this question for ‘accept’ to mean to agree to or with simply because the very word tolerance means, as established in the introduction, that you disapprove of the view and yet decide not to act on your disapproval. If you agreed with the view, there would be nothing to be tolerant of because there would be nothing that you had an objection to.
If ‘accept’ means allow or permit all religious convictions, the answer to the question again changes. This definition falls under the first of four conceptions of tolerance, namely the permission conception, whereby you allow the practice and preaching of all religious convictions. It would seem obvious that a tolerant person should be tolerant of everything, otherwise they could not be called a tolerant person. This harks back to the concept of the limit of tolerance and the problem that arises when a religious conviction is completely unacceptable, intolerant or intolerable: the paradox of whether the intolerant should be tolerated by a tolerant individual or society. It could be argued that to be intolerant of intolerant views is to deny that tolerance is valuable, which is ironic considering that the pretext of this intolerance is that the view you are being intolerant of is also denying that tolerance is valuable.
The argument against this is that if the reason for tolerance is to respect autonomy, then it is unreasonable to tolerate views that do not respect autonomy. The view does not display tolerance in that, if it were the culture of the majority, it would reject and prevent autonomy. It seems that we would increase autonomy by not tolerating this view because we are preventing it from becoming more widespread and influencing many and allowing the view to exert its convictions over everyone thereby smothering their autonomy in due course. An example could be that of Islamist extremists. Our society proclaims to abhor violence to women, homophobia, and any other variety of inequality, yet we tolerate those who advocate Sharia Law which is diametrically opposed to Western democracy and the implementation of such law would result in the total destruction of tolerance. In this case, for the sake of protecting long term tolerance, perhaps it would be wiser to confront intolerance with intolerance. Moreover, it appears that the threshold of our tolerance is the intolerance towards our tolerant culture. The answer to the question therefore, appears that in some circumstances it is misguided to accept all religious convictions.
Conversely, being able to join and be convinced by these so called intolerant convictions is surely an expression of ones autonomy: the fact that it was the individuals’ choice to follow their lead. By removing these views you are basically saying that the individual is only allowed to be autonomous in the culture you deem as suitable, i.e. one without intolerance. You are not valuing their autonomy because you would be denying them the freedom to choose for themselves, you are censoring the available choices to only those you condone. Moreover, you are being as intolerant as those whom you condemn as being intolerant. They are intolerant because their convictions would prevent any view other than their own from being expressed, which is exactly what you would be doing if you prevented their view from being expressed because it differed from your own view. In a way, this seems to imply that a tolerant individual must accept all religious convictions, although they may be totally despicable and vile, because if they do not, they are denying both the value of autonomy and tolerance.
The last interpretation of the question is that you ‘accept’, in that you recognise that there are other religious convictions besides your own. This meaning comes under third and possibly fourth conception of tolerance which is the respect conception, summed up in Voltaire’s famous quote ‘I disagree with every word that he says, but defend to the death his right to say it’, and the esteem conception where you still value certain aspects of their convictions and even admire them for defending their convictions, though personally, you disagree. The first question that must be addressed with this in mind is that, by agreeing to accept all religious convictions on the grounds of your being a tolerant individual because you respect their opinions and you may even admire them, can you still criticise them, although you accept them? Tolerance does not prohibit criticism because without criticism our government would have no checks and balances; ideas could not be improved and modified; and we would be relinquishing our freedoms like those of freedom of speech, expression and thought. In this way, we are obviously allowed to criticise opposing religious convictions although we do nevertheless accept them, or in other words, acknowledge them. A point to note in relation to the original question is that if we did not tolerate all religious convictions there would be nothing to criticise and further, nothing to tolerate because nothing unacceptable would allowed to be expressed openly. If to 'accept', you simply have to recognise other religious convictions but are still allowed to criticise them and yet be a tolerant individual, then it is reasonable to accept all religious convictions because if you can argue and persuade, there is no reason why you should not accept all religious convictions: if you disagree, you could voice your disapproval and defeat the opposition though debate. For example, Hitchens and D'Souza incessantly argue on the subject of religion. Hitchens loathes religion but his revolt is intellectual, not physical. This suggests that if you are tolerant, you must accept all religious views because you still reserve the right to free speech as do your opposition and both of you have the equal ability to defeat the other through debate.
Depending on the definition of the word ‘accept’, the requirement to accept all religious convictions changes. It seems that there are limits to what extent do we ‘accept’ all religious convictions. If the religious convictions preach fiercely against everything our society stands for, then perhaps they should not be tolerated because as Benjamin Franklin said, ‘they who would give up an essential liberty and security (in a democracy), deserve neither liberty nor security’. At the same time, in not accepting these opposing religious convictions, we are essentially contradicting ourselves and everything our society stands for. There is no one formula for what to do in every circumstance, and no one stance for a tolerant person to take regardless of the individual situation. Each position must be judged wisely for, in some cases, tolerance and acceptance of all religious convictions is often used as either a disguise for cowardice to avoid disputes and controversies or to avoid having to think and actually come to a conclusion for each separate belief: it is easier to have a rule that is always followed. Tolerance and acceptance should not be exploited in this way and used make ones cowardice or idleness sound intelligent and thoughtful. The most reasonable conclusion, in my view, is to examine independently each religious conviction and to then make a discriminating and educated judgement for each on whether to accept it or counter it, rather than creating sweeping procedures that a tolerant person should obey for all religious convictions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Young Freethought or its editors.
Monday, 16 November 2009
The original existence of a minimum age was a manifestation of one dreadful fallacy, first brought to my attention in Richard Dawkins’ heroic epic of evolutionary biology – The Ancestor's Tale. The fallacy in question is ‘Essentialism’. In the sense used here, it essentially (ha!) means placing objects, people and pretty much anything really, into nice little categories for our own convenience. For instance, one species does not instantaneously give birth to another. No Homo heidelbergensis suddenly gave birth to a Homo sapiens; the change was gradual, with each individual capable of breeding with the generation preceding and succeeding it. To use a modern example, the legal driving age here in the UK is 17. It would be nonsense to assert that a 16 year and 364 day old person would be any less capable of driving than someone who is exactly 17 years old. In the same way, a 15 or even 14 year old might well be capable of writing an article worthy of publication. In the driving example, such categories are needed for legal reasons, but on this site, no such barriers are necessary.
In other news, some of you may have noticed that our domain has changed. You can still find us at the blogspot address, but the snazzy new address is youngfreethought.com. The twitter site has been running well, thanks to tweets from The Freethinker, New Humanist, Richard Dawkins.net and the Out Campaign. If you use twitter and would like to follow us, the address is @yfthought. Don’t forget the facebook page either; it has a handy discussion section.
I hope that the young freethinkers whose work has been published have gained something from it, as well as other young, and older, people who read, or are yet to read, it. Let's keep this up!
P.S: It appears that the last essay, submitted by Alex Charlton, had the option to comment disabled. This was not intentional and is now fixed. Please read the article and feel free to comment.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
If you follow this blog, chances are you also follow sites such as pharyngula, or richarddawkins.net, rationally speaking, or why evolution is true, and if not then you should. They are all maintained by top scientists defending atheism and reason, along with evolution in particular but also science in general. I say that you should follow at least some of them because these bastions of rationality are not just popular but accessible and informative, giving an insight into the difficulties between science and religion. But why are they so popular?
It’s indisputable that a larger proportion of working scientists are atheists compared to the general population¹. Historically, many eminent scientists have been theists and Christians, but until recently atheism was socially unacceptable, with non-Christians facing persecution and discrimination, so this isn’t surprising. There are also some eminent scientists today who are Christians, such as Francis Collins, but they are in a minority.
There are two potential explanations as to why this is: it could be that science education causes people to lose their faith, or that atheists are more likely to pursue a career in the sciences. Neither explanation bodes well for theists. If the former, this has important implications for education. Recently, the UK government agreed to put evolution on the primary school curriculum. If science dispels religion, then perhaps a proper science education is all that is needed to bring religious belief down to levels found in regions like Scandinavia or countries such as Japan². However, I don’t find this outcome very plausible, simply because a number of factors, other than education, negatively affect the religiosity of a country; factors like societal health.
If the latter, then this raises the question of why atheists are more concerned with science than theists? One answer is that many theists are apt to reject the findings of science when they appear to conflict with their religious beliefs. Of course, theists often contend that these conflicts can be reconciled, but I would argue that there is a deeper conflict between science and religion, of which these factual disputes are symptomatic.
Religion and science aren’t incompatible in the sense that science refutes religion, but I believe that science and religion have conflicting approaches to knowledge. On the one hand, science is a method by which hypotheses and explanations of the world are tested and retested against empirical observation and other scientific theories. Since most theories turn out to be wrong, science must be open to refutation and scepticism, so that incorrect views can be weeded out. By this slow and uncertain process of inquiry and refinement, science inches ever closer to knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, uses the methods of revelation and tenacity to come to knowledge. The founders of a religion claim to have special knowledge imparted to them by supernatural beings, which is then codified into dogma, and reinforced over generations.
Whilst the methods of science have led to amazing technological advances and a deeper understanding of the world we live in, religion has led to a great amount of confusion, especially since the dogmas of the different religions contradict one another. This shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that revelation and tradition are unreliable guides to truth. It also explains why religions have such a bad track record with making testable empirical claims; why, for example, the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his belief that the Earth orbited the Sun. But if we can't rely on religion to get that right, why should we base ethical and political systems on it? Whilst few religious beliefs can be scientifically disproven, to hold them is nonetheless unscientific, since no religion would stand up to the scrutiny that is applied to even the most widely accepted scientific theories. Put simply, using the methods of science on the claims of religion would be like using a machete to spread butter.
PZ Myers puts this point well in his blog post, “What should a scientist think about religion?”
What should a scientist expect from an idea? That it be a reasonable advance in knowledge; that it be built on a foundation of evidence; that it be testable; that it should lead to new and useful questions and ideas. If we look at religion from that perspective, it doesn't help. At best, the hypothesis of the supernatural and/or a supreme being is vague, unfounded, and inapplicable in any practical fashion—deistic views, for instance, are so abstract and so carefully divorced from risk of challenge that they represent an empty hypothesis, and the most flattering thing you can say about them is that they're harmless. At worst, religion is confused, internally contradictory, and in conflict with evidence from the physical (and near as we can tell, only) world.Most theists care whether or not religion can be reconciled with science, though most scientists don’t care if science can’t be reconciled with religion. Why? Because science doesn’t need to draw confirmation from religion, it can stand on its own merits. Just imagine a world without science, compared to a world without religion.
¹ See Michael Martin, "The Cambridge Companion to Atheism", Cambridge University Press (2008), p 307-313
² Ibid., p 56
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Young Freethought or its editors.
Friday, 13 November 2009
Religious individuals often claim that, without religion, a significant amount of morality is lost within culture, when in fact, if one were to follow the Bible’s morality to the letter, we’d have stoned kids, stoned gays, and stoned adulterers. Today, when someone reads the Bible, they apply their own morality, the morality of the modern day to the ‘Word of God’. It’s a concept known as ‘cherry picking’, or simply taking the good and leaving the bad. Either God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, his word in biblical form is unquestionable and we follow its every word and stone gays, or there are holes and incongruities in the Holy Book and its law should not be followed. It’s just false to assert that Jesus established a new covenant and that the law of the Old Testament was no longer needed – Matthew 5:17-19.
I realize there are many moderate Christians who selectively chose what they do believe and what they don’t believe about the contents of the Bible. Most Christians, who believe the Bible is the 'Word of God', do not believe that their Jewish friend or Muslim friend will go to Hell because they lead a good life and are, overall, a good person. However, the ‘Word of God’ begs to differ – John 15:4-6. Yes, ok, so the word of the Christian saviour condemns a host of good people solely because they don’t abide in Jesus, but the moderate Christians chose not to believe this because their God is a benevolent God and would never do such a thing. They have committed a grievous error. They have applied their own standards of morality and reason to God’s. If you are able to read the ‘Word of God’ and decide for yourself what is right or wrong, then you do not need a book of divine origins to define your morals, you simply need more books with more situations from which you can figure out your own beliefs. You have, in effect, nullified the need for a supernatural decree of any kind, seeing as how you had no problem believing against the teachings of ‘your’ saviour in the first place.
And if this or that portion of the 'Word of God' is invalid, why is any authority lent to any portion of the Bible? The golden rule is good not because it is of Godly descent, but because it is an exceptional way for any man or woman to lead their life. In the same way, stoning rebellious children for disobeying their parents is not a good rule, not because it too is of Godly descent, but because it is a deplorable way for any man or woman to lead their life.
To state that religion is necessary or even relevant to someone leading a good life isn't an accurate statement. Plenty of atheists have good moral codes, just as many believers have bad ones. People often cite governments without religion such as those of Stalin and Hitler to show what can go wrong if religion is essentially removed from government. But one has to ask the question, "Was it their atheism that moved them to slaughter the innocent?" The obvious answer is no. No one that I'm aware of has committed atrocities in the name of atheism. Think of all the bad in world that has been done in the name of God or Allah before asserting anything about religion being necessary for morality.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Young Freethought or its editors.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Today is an exciting day - this post contains our first submission! The author is Emily Speed. Emily is an 18 year old atheist from Pensacola, FL. She ironically stopped believing in religion during a freshman religion class at Catholic High School. She'll eventually be a neuroscientist looking into the question of consciousness. So without further ado, here it is -
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of space. “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
In light of the fact that space is vastly big, I find Christianity to be a remarkably arrogant religion. I mean, the Universe is a remarkably big place and getting bigger all the time. So why, pray tell, would anyone think that the Universe was specifically made to have them in it? That sounds like a lot of hubris to me. Granted, the fact that human beings are not the most important things in the entire world (or indeed Universe) is a pretty big thing to wrap your mind around. It takes a huge chunk out of your ego, for sure. Taking deities out of the equation requires the clarity of mind to think “Hey. I’m just one person, a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. There’s no way that whatever set the Universe into motion actually cares if I envy my neighbour’s SUV or if I steal a candy bar from the store.” You have to be able to wrap your head around the fact that you are not important to the cosmos. You could be the President of the Whole World, but Alpha Centauri still doesn’t know who you are. The whole idea is extremely humbling.
The Friendly Atheist blog said:
“The more we understand the universe, the more we realize just how small a part of it we are. Creation myths in various cultures portray a god or gods creating the Earth specially and giving humans a special place in it. But we have since discovered that our species is simply one of many in the tree of life, the Earth isn’t even the centre of our solar system let alone the universe.”
Just because we don’t matter a bit cosmically doesn’t mean that we aren’t important though. We’re just important on a smaller scale. We can be important to the people around us, to the people we love, to the homeless person we give our leftovers too on Friday after lunch. We can be important to the pet fish that relies on our remembering to feed it, or to the child whose scraped knee we clean up.
Greta Christina’s Blog has this to say about a sense of importance outside of religion:
“Being an atheist doesn’t mean that life isn’t important. It means that we get to create our own sense of importance. The human scale is where we live. It’s what we have. And if we decide that that’s the most important scale for us, there’s nobody out there to tell us otherwise.”
When I started “coming out” as an atheist to the religion teachers and priests at Catholic High School, they made me go to Reconciliation (or Confession, for those not indoctrinated). The Father there asked me quite a few questions. Keep in mind that this was 4 years ago, so my memory of the conversation isn’t perfect. I’m probably putting words in my mouth, but this was the gist of it –
“Do you think good or evil exists?”
“No. There are always two sides to the story if someone is ‘evil’”
“Do you believe in morality?”
“If there’s no God, where does your morality come from then?”
“The law. If I did things that were, in the eyes of the law, immoral, I would be sent to jail and I certainly don’t want that to happen. But-”
“Are you moral only because you don’t want to go to jail?”
“No. Doing things that are ‘immoral’ usually deprives other people of the right to be happy and to live as long as they can. Even though I don’t believe that people have souls, it’s still wrong to kill, because that deprives them of those rights. I don’t think people need to be constantly trying to please God in order to be good. Keeping in mind that other people have the right to be happy can keep people ‘moral’ too.”
From Greta Christina’s Meme of the Day:
Atheists have morality, as much as religious believers. We just don’t think our moral compass is planted in us by God or supernatural forces, and we don’t think fear of God’s punishment is necessary to be a good person. We base our morality in this life: our empathy with others, and our observations about what causes suffering and happiness.
Religion is not required to be moral, healthy, or happy. This is true even in relation to entire nations. For instance, non-religious societies are actually, according to Common Sense Atheism, among the most “well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies in the entire world”.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
A short, but mostly hopeful post for today. A recent article in the Augusta Chronicle (link here) provides encouraging news. The number of people describing themselves has having no religious affiliation rose from 8.2% in 1990, to 15% in 2008 according to The American Religious Institution Survey. The number of atheists and agnostics remained fairly stable, perhaps because, in American society, making the final transition, as it were, to atheism, is still not quite socially acceptable. The best news, however, is that the article cited, is written by, and refers to, the voice of young atheists and freethinkers. As a group of people, we are most certainly out there and not alone. It's very pleasing to see such a voice in mainstream media.
Alex Shaw, a senior at Augusta Prep School writes this of his experience of the Church he grew up in for 16 years -
"It was fine, we always had an awesome youth program. I liked church as a community I just never believed in what the community was based on."
This appears to me to be a sorry state of affairs; atheists and freethinkers, searching for a sense of community, can find no other place except religious institutions. Individual religious groups certainly do provide a strong sense of community for their members, but I see no reason why a Humanist, or philosophical, or scientific, or freethinking, or even atheistic society cannot fulfil this same human need.
In more local matters, this blog reached 1000 hits today, and I've been astounded and grateful for the reaction it's been getting. Of course, at the moment, it is myself and my colleagues doing all the posting, but we really don't want this to be the case! So get your articles in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be sure to read them. We want to hear from you!
Monday, 9 November 2009
150 years have passed since The Origin Of Species was published and it's been 84 years since the Scopes Trial. The issue of Evolution (or ‘evil-ution’ as it’s referred to in the play by the character Matthew Harrison Brady, a fictitious William Jennings Bryan – three time presidential candidate and lawyer for the prosecution) in American schools is still contentious. Speaking from my own experience, the amount of knowledge of Evolution people gain from their education is scandalous. The smallest, most unimaginably barren and simple conception of Evolution is all that must be taught to students at schools in the U.K. The wonder of science and the 'grandeur' that Darwin spoke of will never be appreciated until this changes. So, if you know a thing or two about Evolution, and the subject is raised in conversation with a friend, I urge you to make sure they understand the theory - and that it really is marvellous.
Catholics beware! Hitchens & Fry are on YouTube and they’re not pulling any punches. Here is the first part of the Intelligence Squared debate (don't let John Onaiyekan's lack of argument put you off; the debate really kicks off when Hitch gets going) -
I've had one query about citations for articles, or the lack of them. However, this is not an academic blog, and should not be taken as such. All that is required is submissions be reasonable, not make indefensible claims and, if asked, produce a defensible case for opinions and statements not supported in the article. The last point is not essential and well-written rational pieces, without citations, will always be welcome.
Last of all, I'm very pleased to announce Young Freethought has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll in our sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.
Friday, 6 November 2009
Thus, I too once cast my delusion beyond the human, like all believers in a world behind. Beyond the human in truth? Ah, brothers, this God that I created was humans’- work and – madness, just like all Gods! Human he was, and just a meagre piece of human and ‘I’. From my own ashes and blaze it came to me, this spectre, and verily! It did not come from beyond!
In 'The Backworldsmen' Nietzsche suggest that if God existed, his own suffering would be so great, he would be compelled to create the world just so he could look somewhere other than himself - a tormented world for a tormented God. But Zarathustra, as the Übermensch, strikes the truth; that it is he who created this ‘phantom’ and through this forceful realisation, ‘the phantom withdrew’.
Nietzsche’s basic idea, that it was not God who created man but vice-versa, is not new. Nonetheless, it is difficult for the non-theist to understand or appreciate. The overwhelming conceit of religion is summarized no better than by religious belief itself. Gen 1:27 ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’. If you believe this, you have license to do almost whatever you want. But really, all this can be put down to a simple failure of the imagination. ‘We make things that could not otherwise come about’, a theist might say, ‘but who made us?’ and the answer given is ‘it must be something like us’. This kind of arrogance might have been excusable at one point in history - but no longer.
The history of the west tells the story of the slow and inevitable humbling of religion. If the Catholic Church had its way, I don’t think it unreasonable to say we would still believe, not just that the Sun rotates around the Earth, but that the Earth itself is the centre of Universe. Ponder that thought for a moment – Earth as the centre of the Universe. In conversation with Elizabeth Anscombe, Ludwig Wittgenstein asked “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the Sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth turned on its axis?” Anscombe replied “I suppose, because it looked as if the Sun went round the Earth.” “Well” said Wittgenstein “what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?”
Scientific discovery can be viewed as one batch of humble pie after another. First we were the central, stationary planet, then we were just another planet orbiting a star, then there were many stars like ours, then many galaxies like ours and now we are beginning to find solar systems with planets like our own, perhaps capable of supporting life (Gliese 581c is a well known example). Perhaps one day, if some of the more extravagant physical theories are true, we will find Universes like our own.
But even if religion can just about stomach the idea that God could have made us in an obscure and unimportant part of the vast cosmos, imagine if one particularly ‘dangerous’ idea were found to be quite probable – the idea that God didn’t even make us at all. This is just the idea Darwin advanced. The distasteful ad hominem sketches and caricatures of the man himself made at the time show the ridicule and sheer incredulity his idea met. ‘Descended from apes!’ they cried (which is of course a crucial yet common misunderstanding of the theory). It was usually greeted with one of two reactions – flat refusal to accept it or vilification. In 1859, Darwin’s theory did not have strong evidential support and a respectable case could have been made against the theory, but the point is that the common response was not one of a rational or scientific criticism, but an emotional criticism – and at the root of these attacks was the idea that God made humans above all else. This is the real ‘dangerous’ idea. Evolution is still repugnant to so many, that we are lamentably, in the 21st century, having to convince people of its plain and simple truth.
It takes a brave intellectual leap for some, to come to apprehend we simply aren’t as important as we like to think we are. Brave because many find it a frightening step to embrace a godless, ultimately meaningless Universe. But is it really as frightening as many would have you believe?
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.
Thursday, 5 November 2009
The LHC, which goes online later this month after a year’s delay, will, it is hoped, reveal the elusive Higgs boson and help resolve some deep mysteries about the Universe. Polkinghorne’s article is really a poor philosophical argument, likely presented to appease readers of The Times. What follows is a criticism of the standpoint he advocates.
He begins by stating the Universe 'is certainly not full of ideas stamped "Made by God", for the Creator is more subtle than that'. Presumably, Polkinghorne would not be making the same assertion if we did find compelling evidence for God's existence in the Universe. Thus begins his support of the 'science tells you how, religion tells you why' so called 'argument'.
After some explanation of the Physics, Polkinghorne plainly defines his position - 'To believe in a Creator is not to answer the question of who lit the initial touch paper, but to address the much deeper question of why there is something rather than nothing'. This statement makes a fatal assumption; it presumes that value statements regarding the universe are valid questions. They may be grammatically sound, but do they really mean anything beyond their own mere existence? Why are trees vengeful? Why do chairs smell of purple? Why does Bigfoot eat humility? These questions are pure nonsense. They mean nothing and to attempt to find an affirmative answer to them is futile.
Polkinghorne asks that we should 'look to see if there might be signs of a divine Mind behind the order of the Universe'. He poses the question 'why is science possible at all?' and why can we humans understand the universe in the first place? The latter question is perhaps unqualified at this time. Currently, we know embarrassingly little about the Universe. Dark matter and energy, which makes up well over 90% of all the 'stuff' there is, has remained elusive. That does not rule out the possibility that we will someday understand the Universe, and Polkinghorne is right to ask this kind of question.
But does the fact that we can, or will at some point, understand the Universe, mean that God is behind it? It most certainly does not, even though Polkinghorne somehow thinks it does; he asks 'Is it all just our luck, or is it a sign that a divine Mind does indeed lie behind cosmic order?' Polkinghorne is simply advocating the god of the gaps. Incredibly, he asserts that all our current physical theories - M-Theory, Multi-verses, the Big Crunch, - are just the same as 'luck'. It is a shame that such a highly qualified physicist holds this view. We are so ignorant, despite our best efforts, about just how it all got here, that we have to honestly and openly suspend judgement and work hard on the problem; not wildly assert that the god ‘I’ happen to believe in did it. It begs the question 'who did god then?' and makes wild leaps of faith regarding 'his' nature.
At best, Polkinghorne's argument might suggest an incredibly intelligent (but not omniscient) force of some very strange kind is behind the universe, but this is just as, or much less likely than any current theory around. But as for a prayer-answering, omnibenevolent and human-like god (the Protestant God in Polkinghorne's case), he is way off the mark.
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Now, a few notices about upcoming events. For those of you who were unfortunate enough to be unable to attend the debate between Hitchens & Fry (sounds like a 70's cop duo don't you think?) vs. Anne Widdecombe & Archbishop John Onaiyekan, you certainly missed a flurry of Catholic-bashing (The New Humanist article on the debate can be found here). Don’t fret! The debate will be broadcast by BBC World News on 7th and 8th of November (times can be found here).
If you have a taste for the mind-boggling and incomprehensible, there is a mathematics lecture by Professor Ian Stewart at the Royal Society tomorrow (5th November) entitled Mathematical curiosities and treasures. Stewart is a recipient of the Royal Society’s Faraday Medal (Richard Dawkins is amongst the previous recipients) and is currently at the University of Warwick. There is a live webcast of the lecture available here.
Finally, I'd also like to ask if any young readers will be attending the Richard Dawkins talk on his new book The Evidence For Evolution: The Greatest Show On Earth in London on 24th November. If your aged 16-21, we'd love to receive piece about the talk.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
This first post might also be a good place to outline just what it is we stand for. We are, above all, unashamedly atheistic. It doesn't matter what 'brand' of atheism you prescribe too; all are welcome here. If you are religious, don't feel like you can't submit articles, but preaching and various assorted 'woo' won't impress. The reason for our atheism? Science. We believe there is a logical and inevitable path from sincere scientific thought to atheism (to clarify, using Richard Dawkins’ 7 Point Scale, scientific rationalism demands we place ourselves as a 6.9 - strictly an agnostic, de facto atheist). Purely factual articles on the latest scientific research are welcome here. Lastly, this is a materialist blog. Not the kind of materialism that espouses buying nice things of course, but scientific materialism. Philosophical articles relating to the scientific method and materialism or 'physicalism' are also welcome and encouraged. There is a large ethical dimension we wish to explore too and we hope to receive many pieces on morality.
Currently, we are not even a mote of cosmic dust in the sunbeam that is the blogosphere. Hopefully this will all change very soon. We ask other likeminded bloggers to support us in this early stage.