Why We Should Debate Creationists

7 02 2014

There are some who believe that Bill Nye “the science guy” lost the debate with Ken Ham on the question of “is creation a viable model of origins?”

And there are many who assert that he should never have agreed to the debate at all. That even debating Ham was to elevate creationism to the level where it vies with evolution for status as a credible theory.

Ken Ham, left, and Bill Nye, debate science and creationism.I will remain agnostic (if you’ll excuse the pun) on the former count, but I will firmly disagree on the latter.

We should always debate those who promote unreason, and we should do so with great vigour and care. Of course, we need to pick our battles, or we’d be hammering away at all manner of fringe views. But we should particularly engage and debate those irrationalists who are most effective at spreading their views and undermining reason and science. This includes creationists like Ham.

This I believe is the case whether Nye “won” the debate or not.

If it is found that Nye has changed some minds, then it reinforces the power and efficacy of debate. If it is found that Nye “lost” the debate, it only underscores the need for us to get better at debating.

After all, if someone agrees to a debate where the standards of rational argumentation and evidence apply, then those of us who believe rational and scientific enquiry are the most reliable means to discovering facts have already won half the battle.

And if someone doesn’t agree to conform to the standards of rational argumentation and appeal to evidence, then we can more easily and clearly flag them as being the irrationalists they are, and call for them to be dismissed from the conversation.

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Christianity versus Homosexuality

28 09 2012

I’ve often wondered why there’s such an obsessive focus on – and moral revulsion towards – homosexuality in Christianity. And I think I may have discovered an answer in a book by famed anthropologist Edward Westermarck.

The thing is, many other cultures and religions – and many moral systems – don’t have the same negative attitude towards homosexuality as you find in Christianity. In many cultures throughout history, including many that were around when Christianity emerged, homosexuality was far from immoral.

In fact, it was often praised or elevated above heterosexual sex: Plato’s Symposium celebrates homosexual love as being transcendent to heterosexual love, for example.

It’s also, arguably, a pretty odd crime – mutual love between two people, and consensual physical acts that occur in private, none of which appears to harm or negatively impact others.

Now, certainly, sexual morality is a big deal for many religions, but many of the social and sexual taboos and strictures have relaxed over the years – such as divorce, sex before marriage, and acceptable clothing on Sundays. So why is it that homosexuality, and other assorted issues like gay marriage, are still such a hot button issue for many Christians?

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In Defence of Alain de Botton

18 03 2012

My oh my, atheists can be a sensitive bunch. The furore that has erupted over the opening lines of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, has put not a few noses out of joint amongst the more arm-waving ranks of non-believers. But many of them have just served to reinforce de Botton’s point, which starts like this:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

This line inspired some bile-laden posts from a cadre of vocal atheist bloggers, seemingly intent to denigrate de Botton rather than engage with his argument. PZ Myers retorted with a “fuck you very much”, Martin Wagner related de Botton to a Nazi accommodationist, JT Eberhard dismissed most of de Botton’s CNN article as “bullshit”. Others, like Dan Fincke, have made more of an effort to at least understand what de Botton is saying, before getting all defensive about their approach in the face of criticism from de Botton directed towards “fanatical atheists”.

It’s pathetic.

If the so-called ‘new atheists’ want to know why so many people are dismissing them as “fanatical,” one need only peruse these posts. They’re aggressive, mocking, self-righteous and many represent an almost wilful misinterpretation of de Botton in order to thump another table in the name of anti-religion, like that’s the only argument in town, and all others are beneath contempt.

They’re effectively saying to the world of thinkers on religion: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

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Religion Without God

31 01 2012

Seems everyone is talking about Alain de Botton’s new book. Good. It looks like a worthy tome. I’ve yet to read it (my PhD reading list puts leisure philosophy on the backburner for now), but I intend to soon.

The book, Religion for Atheists, argues that while the supernaturalist claims of religion are false, religion still offers many things that we discard only to our detriment. Happily, it’s a subject about which I have strong and sympathetic feelings. Sadly it’s also the topic of a book I was going to pen post-PhD, but he’s beaten me to it (and likely to have done a far superior job to me anyway).

But it seems not everyone has quite understood de Botton’s core point, as suggested by this quote lifted from the Guardian review by Terry Eagleton:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

What Eagleton has failed to understand is that de Botton is separating the functions of religion from their supernaturalist justifications. And it’s only the latter that he’s calling “bunkum”.

Should free speech and civil rights be justified according to some supernaturalist tradition that suggested they were imperatives thrust upon us by the Man in the Moon, de Botton would likely happily reject the justification, but argue on rational grounds that free speech and civil rights are well worth keeping – for the function they serve in social life. It’s their very “social uses” that makes them not “bunkum”.

This is the core twist of de Botton’s approach, and one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly. We absolutely must separate the function of institutions from their supposed justifications. We must then examine what justifications they might have rationally, and only keep them if they pass rational muster.

Religion’s truck has been to foist many beneficial practices on us, but to justify them with a false metaphysics, assuming it’s the metaphysics rather than the function that is important. Then they overextend and issue more edicts justified by the same bunkum metaphysics, except these ones are harmful to human wellbeing and society. But because religion’s justificatory system is resistant to scrutiny and self-correction (unlike reason and the scientific method, for example), they resist moves to correct their errors.

It’s no surprise, then, that atheists seek to tear down the supernaturalist edifice that causes these social ills. But the militant atheist also doesn’t discriminate between the function and the justification, and so seeks to eliminate the entire system – the good functions with the bad justifications.

Both are wrong.

It’s precisely the approach of de Botton that seeks to investigate those things that are genuinely beneficial to humans wellbeing and to society on rational grounds, and instantiate them, that is the right approach. And it turns out many (but not all) things created by religion can do just that. Why not learn from that in the pursuit of wellbeing and social harmony?

Eagleton fails to understand this argument, and that’s why his criticism is, sadly, little more than a straw man.

Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality

22 12 2011

Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.

The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.

First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.

Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.

But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.

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Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

19 04 2011

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.

Religion’s Odd Relationship with Atheism

26 03 2011

It almost beggars belief that many self-proclaimed so-called moral experts of the modern world – men and women of cloth, such as rabbi Adam Jacobs – exhibit such a shocking ignorance of modern ethical and evolutionary theory.

Jacobs penned a piece for the Huffington Post recently that could serve as a template for the gross misunderstanding of how atheism and morality are related. Quoth Jacobs:

The most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

Sigh. He might as well be saying “because there’s no edict from God over the rules of cricket, you can just give yourself a century and refuse to leave if you’re caught out.”

Just because it isn’t written in the bible, doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules to cricket (cricket nihilism). And it doesn’t mean you can play by whatever rules you choose (cricket egoism).

Once you’ve chosen to play, you’re obliged to play by the rules, or you face the consequences. You’re thrown out of the game or, if your transgression wasn’t so obscene, you’re politely censured and threatened that if you do it again, you’re no longer welcome on the pitch.

Morality is a game, not unlike cricket in this respect. The only thing is, playing the game is to everyone’s advantage; playing the game advances our interests, both biological (selfish gene theory) and psychological (preference utilitarianism).

And it’s a matter of empirical fact that virtually everyone already wants to play the game. In fact, the whole point that Dawkins was trying to make with the selfish gene theory is that playing nice is a form of self-interest, and evolution has already primed us to play nice.

The only subjective element is that we’re not bound – logically or by divine will – to play the game. We can rationally choose not to. But if we do, we suffer the consequences and are censured by all those who do play nice.

So it’s actually not in our long-term interests to do “whatever one’s heart desires at any moment” because in such a society, I wouldn’t get much of what I desire at all. Instead, it’s far more in my interests to play nice.

This has all been said before many, many times. It’s disappointing that pontificating individuals like rabbi Jacobs haven’t read or understood it. And it’s even more disappointing that they spread misinformation about atheism and secular morality.

And then he says stuff like this:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

In fact, he has it entirely backwards. He has his philosophy because of the evolved moral proclivities we’re already equipped with. Evolution and moral naturalism can explain everything, even why people might mistakenly believe in moral super- or non-naturalism.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with the details of how morality works, or arguing over the nuances of evolution or anti-realism. But I do mind people getting on their high horse and dismissing those poor deluded atheists based on uninformed and vacuous arguments.

Morality Without God

10 03 2011

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.

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On the Importance of Rational Wonder

8 03 2011

When you read about secularism and Humanism, you read a lot about reason, compassion, anti-dogma, tolerance, free thought and free speech – and lots of other wonderful things.

But one thing you don’t read much about is wonder itself.

All those specs are galaxies. Tell me that doesn't blow your mind.

I’ve said before that Humanism and secular morality still have a long way to go to challenge the established religious ideologies in the world. And one reason is they’re still couched largely in dry, rational language.

That’s understandable – not only is Humanism a movement that is founded on the principles of reason, but the early adopters are typically those who have embraced reason of their own accord and only then found their way to Humanism.

This means they’re not normal. Most folk live their lives, happily believing what they believe. Few people voluntarily shrug off the warm embrace of their cultural and ideological norms to follow the rocky path of reason to unknown lands. It can be a harrowing journey, and it can lead to not insubstantial angst.

Yet Humanism is couched in its own kind of revelationary language – that of reason. It appeals to the people who have already made the emotional leap to give sovereignty to reason. And it doesn’t appeal to those who find reason emotionally unappealing, who believe elevation is a religious experience. It’s not.

This is why I think wonder is central to any future secular morality, Humanism included.

Wonder is tool already employed by supernaturalist religions, but it doesn’t belong only to them. Anyone who has gazed into the night sky, peered through a microscope, lingered over a sunset or pondered the nature of DNA or prime numbers has experienced wonder. And it’s natural wonder. Rational wonder.

It’s this kind of wonder that inspires reverence towards the natural world, and that humbles us into seeing that we’re just a bit piece in this cosmic puzzle. It’s that kind of wonder that we can share with others and which brings us closer together. It’s that kind of wonder that can inspire an entirely naturalistic religious experience.

Wonder is also crucially important because it reminds us that we don’t have all the answers. Our best reckoning and scientific enquiry can’t tell us how the universe began, or what exactly life is, or why the universe is just the way it is, or why strawberries taste like strawberries. Yet, just because we don’t have the answers, doesn’t mean the answer must come down to some supernatural being.

Conversely, wonder also erodes our complacency in taking our existing knowledge for granted. Knowing that all elements on Earth heavier than carbon – including the iron in your blood – were formed in the cataclysmic death throes of a giant star doesn’t make that fact any less astounding. We should revel in this knowledge, share the wonder of this knowledge, not just chalk it up on the board and move on.

Humanism needs to be participatory, not just couched in words. It needs to be something people can experience, something they can do. And something they can share. A Humanist ritual could be as simple as going to the observatory. There is nothing a cathedral can offer in terms of wonder that an observatory can’t.

Let’s think beyond just reason, and beyond just our opposition to dogma and the supernatural. Let’s think about what we want to engender. And besides reason, we need wonder.

God is Dead. Now What?

1 02 2011

Atheism is a negative thesis: it only asserts that there is no God or gods. It doesn’t, however, put forward a positive thesis on how to live life. Yet the religion that atheism challenges does provide a positive thesis on how to live life (flawed though it might be in many cases).

Abandoning religion because of accepting an atheist argument often means divorcing oneself from the practice of religion, and that can have negative consequences, such as eroding community bonds, making us feel isolated, encouraging a turn towards empty hedonistic individualism and leaving a void in our lives.

As atheism is only a negative thesis, it cannot fill that void. The fact I’m an atheist does little to determine my positive beliefs about how to live a good life. We need a positive thesis on top of atheism – something that isn’t stressed by the ‘New Atheists’ or gets discussed much in atheist circles.

Even secular morality, while centrally important, is often couched in the language of dry reason and abstract philosophy. Humanism and other secular worldviews tend to be something you believe in rather than participate in.

In a column of mine that ABC Religion posted today, I argue that one possible way forward is to appropriate the tropes of religion to build a secular institution (or institutions) that gives a positive vision of how to live a good life and actually helps people to live that good life by participating in a secular culture. It’s religion sans God.

Already the comments are flowing – and, not unexpectedly, there’s criticism coming from both sides. I’m interested, though, to see whether this idea resonates with many people, particularly those who are quietly atheists yet are not quite ready to turn their back on their religion. I’ve already received a couple of messages from readers of the column that have expressed as much.

I’ve also set up a dedicated email address – secular dot morality at gmail dot com – if anyone wants to share their thoughts with me about secular religion. I’ve been talking to a few people locally about starting a small group to discuss secular religion and start practising what it preaches (if that’s the right term…). If you happen to be in Sydney, perhaps you can join in.


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