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Competition winner!

Thanks for all the entries to the "Atheism is a faith position too" competition. I have thought long and hard, and come up with the following decision. The winner is: Austin Cline , for this example from Rowan Williams and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor: Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development. However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position. This is from the foreword of a report called "Doing God" available here . I went to the original source to check and I could not find a single argument in the entire document to support the contention that "public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position." As part of a public joint statement by the heads of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the UK, offered without any justification whatsoever, it scores very highly for being irritating, and gains some extra points for being slightly sinister!

God and the testimony of the senses

There are various ways to respond to the argument set out in my previous blog, some of which have already been mentioned. I suspect the most obvious objection (already touched on) is this. If we take (ii) there is a (good) God to provide grounds for (i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality, what our senses then strongly confirm is that (ii) is false (the problem of evil). Therefore, it is far more reasonable to start with (i) than (ii). You might still call (i) a faith position, but it does not involve nearly as much faith as (ii). In addition, as has also been mentioned, it is controversial whether (i) must be accepted on "faith". Arguably, there are good grounds for accepting it over, say, the evil demon hypothesis. For example, we might suggest this: that it is a real world we experience rather than an illusion provides the best explanation of what we experience; therefore it is more likely to be true. The two hypotheses (a real world vs. a demon-conjured illu

"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?

Let’s look at the second of the two arguments I sketched out for science (and any atheism dependent on it) being a “faith position” too. It went like this: The sceptic about the external world shows that our belief that our senses are a reliable guide to reality cannot be justified. But then, as science and indeed all our beliefs about the external world are based on the assumption that our senses are a reliable guide to reality, they too are rooted in "faith". So belief in God is no more a "faith position" than is empirical science. One response would be to say that while: (i) our senses are a reliable guide to reality and (ii) there is a God are both equally unjustifiable, and so, if you like, “faith positions”, the fact is we all assume (i). By contrast, (ii) is an additional assumption we don’t need to make. So the principle of economy says that if we can get away with assuming just (i), we should do so. Adding (ii) as a second assumption requires conside

"atheism is a faith position" - another example

Here's a classic example of the "they are both equally faith positions" view, taken from a review on amazon.co.uk of the book God: The Failed Hypothesis . For my treatment of this sort of move see here , where we get the same old mantra from Alister McGrath and others. Anyway, here we go... After considering this book for a time I realise that this has nothing new to add to a debate which is greatly misunderstood. To use an example: To say that "the Galaxy Andromeda has life in it" would be an incorrect statement - to say "the Galaxy Andromeda has no life in it" would also be incorrect. The statement "the Galaxy Andromeda DEFINITELY MAYBE has life in it" - is the way to express the situation. This logic is the way answer the question "is there an all-powerful, all-knowing and in all-places controlling influence or entity?" - DEFINITELY MAYBE is the only logical answer. One can have 'faith' that there - is - or - is n

"Atheism a faith position too" - best shot?

While we run the "atheism is a faith position too" competition, perhaps we should also, to be fair, try and see what the strongest argument for this claim might be. We looked at some really terrible ones back here ( The Dawkin's Delusion 's author Alister McGrath 's version is pretty awful [well, it's an assertion, not an argument], despite his Oxford don credentials). But perhaps the theists can do better. Here's an opening suggestion or two from me. (1) Science is dependent on inductive reasoning. It is based on the assumption that what has happened up till now provides us with a good, if not a fool-proof, indication of what will happen in the future. Unfortunately, as Hume points out, this assumption cannot be justified. But then inductive reasoning cannot be justified. In which case science cannot be justified. It too ultimately rests on "faith" - faith in that background assumption. And if atheism is based on science, then it too rests on

The "atheism is a faith position too" competition

Yes, it's the old mantra, "atheism is a faith position too". In “On a Mission”, Education Guardian , Tues May 8th, Joanna Moorhead quotes head teacher Terry Boatwright (head of a religious school) as saying "Even people who don't believe in God have a faith - they have faith that God doesn't exist. People say: How dare you push your faith at young people? But a head who doesn't believe is still a head with faith." So that's why it's ok for Boatwright to "push" his faith at kids. Jeez, "atheism is a faith position too" has really entered the zeitgeist. It seems to crop up almost weekly in the press now. Where's it coming from? See here , here and here for earlier discussion. The idea that science is also based on "faith" seems to be behind a lot of it (Juliana recently suggested this, I note). I think we should discuss that shortly... Who can find the most irritating, sinister or downright funny use of

Can children think philosophically?

Juliana suggests children won't be able to think critically about morality, religion or other "Big Questions" until post age 11. Well, let's have them doing it then, at least. But actually, there's growing evidence that it's beneficial before then. There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. The results are impressive. One notable example is the Buranda State School, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane, which in 1997 introduced into all its classes a philosophy program. Children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with, following a Philosophy in Schools programme using materials developed by the philosopher Philip Cam and others. The effects were dramatic. The school showed marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report on the success of the program says, [f]or the last four years, students at Bura

Religous schools and brainwashing (II)

Thanks for the insightful comments on my previous post. I guess the first thing I should say (as I do in The War For Children's Minds ) is that of course various purely causal mechanisms are inevitably going to be applied to shape belief in and out of the classroom, and yes this is, to some extent, a good thing. Giving a kid a sweetie or a hug when they do well can be a form of “emotional manipulation” but is certainly not brainwashing. Getting kids to repeat stuff and learn by rote is obviously not brainwashing either. I also doubt whether a very precise algorithm-like definition of brainwashing can be given – certainly not in terms of “ necessary and sufficient conditions ”. Brainwashing is, I suspect, what Wittgenstein calls a “ family resemblance concept ”. There is a range of indicators for brainwashing, and the more are satisfied (and the more strongly they are satisfied) in a given system, the more like brainwashing it is. There is, if you like, a sliding scale from educa

religious schools and brainwashing

In the last couple of posts I've been exploring two ways in which we might explain, or try to shape, someone's beliefs - by giving reasons, or by applying purely causal mechanisms. One of the most obvious ways of engaging in purely causal manipulation of what people believe is, of course, brainwashing . What is brainwashing, exactly? Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in physiology at the University of Oxford who has published a study of brainwashing, writes that five core techniques consistently show up: One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation. The isolation may involve physical isolation or separation. Control covers restricting the information and range of views people have access to, and includes censorship. Cults tend endlessly to repeat their belief

Why reason isn't just another form of thought-control

In the last post I made a well-known philosophical distinction - between trying to influence people's beliefs by means of rational persuasion and reason, and trying to shape their beliefs by means of purely causal mechanisms (which range from brainwashing and hypnotism to peer pressure - I'll give more examples in a later post). Some post-modern and other thinkers will insist, of course, that this distinction is a bogus one . According to them, "reason” is a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms (for of course there is really no truth for it to be sensitive to). Reason is, in reality, just another form of power – of thought control. It is essentially as coercive and/or manipulative as any other mechanism. But this is to overlook the fact that while a rational argument can, in a sense, “force

Optimistic about reason and progress?

Here's something I did for latest issue of The Philosopher's Magazine . I've tweaked it a bit... I used to be more of an Enlightenment optimist than I am now. I used to think that clear, cogent argument has immense power to make people more sensitive to the truth. Now I’m not quite so sure. People’s beliefs are shaped in two very different ways – as illustrated by the two very different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?” First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe the Republicans will lose the next election? Because she has seen the opinion polls and knows that the causes of the current Republican slump – such as Iraq – are unlikely to disappear in the near future. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the Republicans will probably lose. But that’s not the only way in which we might explain a belief. Suppose Bert believes he is a teapot. Why? Because Bert at