Friday, November 30, 2007

Creationism - how to respond?

If you have ever had a conversation with a creationist of the "young earth" variety (who believe the entire universe is less than 10K years old, with all species created by God as described in Genesis), you'll know it is a frustrating experience.

Point to the fossil record, say, or light from distant stars, or carbon dating, or tectonic plate movement, etc. as evidence of a much older universe, and you will find they have prepared answers, supplied, for example, by the multi-million dollar funded Institute for Creation Research.

There are also innumerable creationist resources on the web, such as at

I'd like to discuss how best to respond to young earth creationists when you come across them (I've come across quite a few in British Schools, recently - including one teaching science in a leading public school).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is Religion Dangerous?

I was at a conference yesterday with theologian Professor Keith Ward. He gave a talk based on his book Is Religion Dangerous? and then he and I had a debate. Here's one of the points I made.

Keith (whom I like v. much, by the way) takes the view that religion is not to blame for much (indeed, in the book he even says that it is not a cause of evil, and that it is not intolerant [the intolerant merely use it] - however, his actual view is bit more nuanced than that).

Many, including Keith, recommend religion for social engineering purposes. They claim that (i) it helps build a sense of community, (ii) it makes people happier and healthier, and (iii) it makes them better behaved.

Suppose it does. Even if it were useful in these ways, it seems to me there are nevertheless special dangers attaching to the use of religion as a tool.

Religion is immensely powerful and can behave in unpredictable ways. Take the young earth creationists back in the 60's. A tiny band of crackpots. Who would have predicted that this weird little belief system would, within the space of a half century or so, infect the minds of 100 million Americans, including smart, college educated people?

We have here an illustration of the gobsmacking power of religion to get even very smart people to believe palpably stupid things. We also have an illustration of its unpredictability.

Religion, it seems to me, is a bit like nuclear power. Immensely powerful and (arguably) useful. And, perhaps most of the time, it runs quite happily, doing not much harm.

But unless it is extremely carefully controlled and monitored, it can very quickly run out of control. Indeed, just as with nuclear power, you can predict the unpredicted. Somewhere along the line, something probably will go wrong, and when it does, you have a toxic situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl.

Is nuclear power safe, or dangerous? Perhaps it can be used safely, but that's not to deny that it is potentially hugely dangerous. The same, I'd suggest, is true of religion.

Keith Ward agreed with me, by the way.

Let's also not forget that only five of my lifetimes ago the Catholic Church was still garroting Europeans who failed to believe what the Pope told them. Yes, I know your local vicar seems like a nice chap, but we'd be wise to remember that our freedom from religious oppression and violence is a very recent development.

Currently, the UK Government is fostering, and in many cases, sponsoring a great many little religious nuclear power stations up and down the country. What has now become apparent to me is how little monitoring there is of what goes on in them. Basically, in the independent sector, they're self-monitored.

When I spoke about the potential dangers of faith schools on Radio 4's Today programme, a member of one of the Standing Advisory Comms. on Religious Education contacted me to say, "Thank goodness you're bringing this up." He regularly goes into schools and is horrified by what he sees. And he's a Christian.

If you're not worried about what's going on in some religious schools, you should be. Here's a brief excerpt from a Radio 4 interview with Ibrahim Lawson, head of an Islamic school:

IL: [t]he essential purpose of the Islamia school as with all Islamic schools is to inculcate profound religious belief in the children.
ER: You use the word "inculcate": dies that mean you are in the business of indoctrination?
IL: I would say so, yes; I mean we are quite unashamed about that really…
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…

One of the key safeguards religious schools need to have in place is a critical culture. My own view is schools like Ibrahim Lawson's should no longer be tolerated, let alone be state funded.

Seems to me the UK Government is currently promoting the building of religious nuclear power stations up and down the country - many of them dodgy.

I'd be particularly interested to hear from teachers and others working in this field who have knowledge of the current system - perhaps they can reassure me? Or confirm my suspicions? Remember, I'm not saying all faith schools are dodgy.

For more of my views on faith schools, see my The War For Children's Minds.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Jesus' sacrifice (II)

I am very pleased we are getting some Christians responding to these posts. I’d very much welcome more – not much point engaging only with the converted. Remember, I am not belittling Jesus' supposed sacrifice - just refusing to allow it to be inflated.

Let me deal with some of your comments.

Garyvdh makes two interesting points:

(i) according to some, Jesus did not die for everyone, just the chosen ones. (I hope these people will avoid promoting their religion by saying to all and sundry, “Jesus died for your sins!”, then, for, according to them, he didn’t.)

(ii) atheists cannot do what Jesus/God did.

These points are both true (and I was, in fact aware of them). But they are irrelevant, aren’t they?

My point is, atheist have willingly made at least as admirable sacrifices (if not an identical sacrifice). And many would be willing to make such a sacrifice if they could. That they cannot do precisely what Jesus did is irrelevant, surely.

Anonymous says:

"Perhaps a better analogy would be this: Would your hypothetical atheist be prepared to die an excruciating and humiliating death at the hands of his enemies, in order to save the very people who were killing him? Who are the most offensive people imaginable? Would you die to save them, regardless of whether you believed in a resurrection or not?"

Well, Garyvdh has just provided me with a response to this point: Jesus did NOT die for everyone, so he may well not have died for those who killed him!

But (putting that Calvinist stuff to one side), actually, an atheist might allow himself to be killed by his own morally depraved family, if, he loved them deeply, and if he was convinced that, by doing so, he could save them (both their lives and their moral characters).

Actually, I suspect I’d do this for my family (er, not that they're morally depraved - but if they were...). And I’d do it knowing I wouldn’t be resurrected. See? – that’s a more admirable sacrifice than Jesus’.

I nearly included Sam’s “Jesus didn’t fully know what was going on” response in my original post. Actually, Jesus clearly knows his death is not the end of him. He is explicit that he’s going to the Kingdom of God, will sit with God, etc., see e.g. Mark 14.25.

But in any case, even if he didn’t know his death would not be the end of him, Jesus’ ignorance of the fact that his death would not be final only then brings his sacrifice up on a level with sacrifices made by atheists (in terms of admirableness). His sacrifice still isn’t more admirable than theirs.

[P.S. Incidentally, bear in mind I am focussing on what is the most admirable sacrifice, not which is the “greater”, as on some conceptions of “greater”, Jesus’ sacrifice can’t help but be the greatest as he sacrifices God (i.e. himself).]

[P.P.S. Further point to anonymous - in any case your analogy isn't right as of course Jesus died to save all of us (or at least Garyvdh's "chosen ones"), not just the handful of individuals who killed him. Yes, I might allow myself to be killed by nasty evil Bert, if, by so doing, I can save the life of not just Bert, but a million others.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Jesus' sacrifice

We are regularly told that Jesus made the noblest of all sacrifices – to be cruelly flogged, beaten and die horribly on the cross so that we might be saved.

That is certainly a great and noble sacrifice. But it occurred to me recently that nobler and even more admirable sacrifices have probably been made.

By atheists.

Consider these two individuals:

1. Bert is convinced he can save all mankind from eternal damnation if he is prepared to die horribly after which he will then be resurrected. He makes the sacrifice.
2. Tim is convinced he can save the lives of several individuals (perhaps his own family) if he is prepared to die rather horribly, period. Tim being an atheist, supposes death is final. He makes the sacrifice.

Both acts are noble. But surely the second is rather more admirable. A far greater sacrifice (horrible and final death, rather than horrible, but merely temporary, death) is willingly made in order to save far fewer individuals (a handful of individuals rather than all of humanity).

Jesus’ sacrifice, assuming he knew what he was doing, is on par with 1. I am willing to bet that several atheists have made sacrifices on par with 2. If so, their sacrifice is more admirable than that made by Jesus.

Can we now identify some actual cases like 2?

[P.S. That some atheists have made sacrifices more admirable than Jesus' is the sort of suggestion that even non-religious minds tend unconsciously to skirt around. It's just too shockingly heretical even for them. Yet, now we've dragged the thought into the light of day, it does, indeed, seem pretty obvious, doesn't it?

In fact, if I knew that I could save all humanity by suffering a horrible, but only temporary, death, perhaps even a corrupt old sinner like me would make the sacrifice. I suspect most of us would, in fact.

That's kind of an uplifting thought, isn't it? Most of us would do what Jesus did.].

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sleight-of-hand with “faith”

[warning - this is long: over 4k words]


Theists – particularly Christians – often appeal to “faith”. Here are three fairly typical examples:

• Theists regularly say “But belief in the existence of God is ultimately a matter of faith, not reason”, when confronted by someone demanding to know whether they can muster a cogent argument in support or defence of their belief.
• Theists sometimes also insist that theism and atheism are both “faith positions”, and so equally rational/irrational.
• And theists are fond of suggesting that, just as it’s a positive thing to place your faith in those around you (otherwise life would be impossible), so it must also be positive to place your faith in God.

In this paper, I question whether these appeals to faith are as legitimate as they might first appear.

Reasonable belief

Let’s begin by looking at reasonable belief. Often, when you believe something with reason, you possess good grounds for supposing your belief is true.

Take, for example, my belief that there is a tree outside my office. I can’t now see the tree, but I am certainly justified in supposing it’s there. I saw it only a minute ago. It’s always been there whenever I have entered my office. And there’s no reason at all to suppose that someone has somehow managed silently to remove it while I have been sitting here. So I’m justified in believing the tree is still there.

Surely, I’m also justified in believing that Japan exists, despite the fact that I have never been there myself. I have seen innumerable TV programs about Japan, I have met people who claim to be from Japan and who all speak with that characteristic accent. And I have seen countless maps on which Japan clearly appears. Some of my relatives even claim to have been there. So, again, I have excellent reason to suppose Japan exists.

I’m also justified in believing that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066. I have read about the battle in a number of books written by reputable authors, so I have pretty good reason to suppose it’s true. Maybe this belief of mine isn’t quite as well confirmed as my belief that Japan exists. After all, historians can and do make big mistakes. But it is, nevertheless, a pretty reasonable thing for me to believe.

Of course, while I’m justified in holding these beliefs – while I have good reason to hold them – it’s possible I’m mistaken. Most if not all our beliefs about the world are open to at least some doubt. Even my belief that Japan exists. It’s just possible that there has been some huge and elaborate conspiracy to dupe me into thinking Japan exists when in fact it doesn’t. Perhaps my whole life has been controlled by forces intent on deceiving me about what’s really going on, as in the film The Truman Show (in which Truman, the character played by Jim Carey, discovers that his entire life has been contrived as part of a TV soap opera). The point is that, though it could turn out to be true that Japan doesn’t exist, it’s very unlikely that it doesn’t exist. The reasonable thing for me to believe is that it does. For I have powerful evidence that it does, and hardly any evidence to suggest that it doesn’t.

Reasonableness comes in degrees

Note that reasonableness comes in degrees. Beliefs can be more, or less, reasonable. My belief that Japan exists is very reasonable indeed. So too are my beliefs that the Earth revolves around the sun, that Elvis Presley is dead, and that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. Other beliefs lie in the middle range: there is some reason to suppose they are true, but perhaps not enough to warrant belief. For example, there is some reason to believe that there is life on other planets: we know there are millions of other solar systems many of which would be capable of producing and sustaining life. It’s not wholly unreasonable to suppose that life has evolved elsewhere. But perhaps there isn’t sufficient evidence to justify belief in extra-terrestrial life.

Towards the bottom of the scale there lie beliefs for which there is very little supporting evidence and indeed considerable evidence against. The beliefs the Elvis is alive and well, that fairies exist, and that the world is run by a secret cabal of Martian imposters all fall into this category (despite what you might read on some internet sites). So there is a scale of reasonableness: beliefs can be more or less reasonable, given the evidence. To qualify as a reasonable belief, a belief must at least fall within the top half of the scale.

Now where on this scale does belief in God lie, do you suppose? Does it feature down at the “Fairies exist” end of the spectrum? Does it lie somewhere in the middle, along with belief in extra-terrestrials? Or is towards the top of the scale, perhaps as high as my belief that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, or even as high as my belief that Japan exists? Take a moment to think about it: where would you place belief in God?

My guess is that most people who believe in God consider their belief to be pretty reasonable, that’s to say, at least as reasonable as belief in extra-terrestrial life, and perhaps even as reasonable as my belief that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Certainly, that’s what most of the Christians that I have asked have said. Not one has ever suggested that belief in God is no more reasonable than is, say, belief in fairies. They’re always confident that belief in God is fairly high up there on the scale of reasonableness.

Arguments for the existence of God

But are they right? Is belief in God reasonable?

There are all sorts of reasons why you might suppose it is. Here are a few:

• Millions of people believe in God. They can’t all be wrong, can they?
• Many claim to have experienced God directly, though a revelatory experience. Surely at least some of these experiences must be reliable?
• There are many religious miracles, miracles that could not have happened if God did not exist.
• Jesus tells us that God exists, and we know Jesus to be a reliable source of information. Therefore it’s likely that God exists.
• The universe shows signs of having been designed. So God must exist as its designer.
• Where did the universe come from? Why did the Big Bang occur? Things don’t just happen, do they? There’s always a cause, an explanation. But then the Big Bang must have a cause and explanation. And by far the best explanation is that the universe was created by God.

These are some of the most popular arguments for God’s existence. Of course, the majority Christians are happy to accept that these arguments don’t conclusively prove that God exists. There is, they will admit, room for doubt about whether there’s a God. Nevertheless, you might think that these arguments provide us with pretty good grounds for believing in God, grounds sufficient to make belief in God reasonable.

But do they? Personally, I don’t think they do. Any good introduction to the philosophy of religion will explain why most if not all of these arguments are, at least as they stand, fatally flawed. By saying that the arguments are fatally flawed, I mean not that, while the arguments do provide good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of being conclusive. Rather, I mean that these arguments actually provide us with very little, if any, reason to suppose that God exists.

The problem of evil

That there’s little reason to suppose God exists is bad enough. But the situation for theism is, rationally speaking, actually far worse then that. There is also a powerful argument against the existence of God, the argument raised by the problem of evil. It runs as follows.

God, according to Christians, Jews and Muslims, is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. These are defining attributes of God. If God exists, He must possess all three. A being with only two would not qualify as “God”, as Christians, Jews and Muslims understand the term.

Now, there is a great deal of pain and suffering in the world, much of it natural in origin. Yes, God, if He exists, made “all things bright and beautiful”. But let’s not forget that He also made cancer, earthquakes, famine, the Black Death and haemorrhoids. By such means God inflicts great pain and misery on His children. And not just on we humans. Anyone who has watched a few of David Attenborough's TV programmes about natural history will no that, for very many of the sentient creatures with which we share this planet, life is horrifically - indeed, almost unimaginably - cruel. And this sort of extreme cruelty has been unleashed on a daily basis over many hundreds of millions of years - long before we humans made our recent appearance on the planet.

It seems that, if the universe does have a creator (and let’s just suppose, for the sake of argument, that it does – though even this is highly doubtful) then either He doesn’t know about this appalling suffering, in which case he’s not all-knowing, or He is unable to prevent it, in which case He’s not all-powerful, or else He doesn’t much care about the agony he inflicts on sentient beings, in which case He is not supremely benevolent. Either way, the creator is not the Christian/Jewish/Muslim God, who, by definition, has all three attributes.

Direct religious experience of God

Some theists maintain, perhaps correctly, that a belief can be reasonable even if not supported by argument or evidence.

Take my belief that there’s an orange on the table in front of me. I don’t infer that there orange is there on the basis of evidence. I can just directly see it there. That makes my belief reasonable, despite the fact that it is not supported by argument or evidence.

Might I not, in the same way, have direct experience of God? If I am lucky enough to have such an experience, might it not then similarly be reasonable for me to believe, despite the fact that I cannot muster a cogent argument or evidence in support of my belief?

This sort of move faces on obvious objection, however. We know that many people have such apparently revelatory religious experiences. However, these experiences differ dramatically in terms of what they seem to reveal - indeed, they contradict each other.

Thus many of these experiences must be at least partly deceptive. We also have powerful evidence – in the form of the problem of evil – that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God.

How, then, can it be reasonable for someone in possession of both (i) this information about the unreliability of such experiences and (ii) powerful evidence (provided by the problem of evil) that what they seem to experience doesn't actually exist, to suppose that their own experience is reliable guide to reality?

Attempts to solve the problem of evil

Those who believe in God have tried to deal with the problem of evil in various ways. Some suggest that our suffering is caused partly or wholly by our own free actions. Some argue it is fair and just punishment for our own wrong-doing. Some suppose the suffering and hardship we endure have a purpose – to make us better people. Without suffering, we cannot become the virtuous people God wants us to be.

You might wonder why God didn’t just make us virtuous to begin with. But in any case, if suffering is the unavoidable price we must pay for virtue, it is hard to explain why God dishes out suffering in the way He does. Why do mass-murdering dictators live out their lives in luxury? Why do sweet and lovely people have horrendous diseases inflicted upon them? It is, to say the least, difficult to understand how the seemingly random distribution of suffering in the world could really turn out to be “all for the best”.

Some try to defend the suggestion that the suffering is for our own good by insisting that “God works in mysterious ways”. In some not-fully-understood-by-us way, God’s giving babies cancer really does make the world a better place.

But this is really just to concede defeat. It’s to point out that, despite the fact that the distribution of suffering certainly doesn’t seem to make any sense, nevertheless it may ultimately make sense. Well, yes, it may ultimately make sense (and there maybe fairies at the bottom of the garden). But that’s not to deny that the evidence really does, on the face of it, point very firmly towards there being no God. (For more on the problem of evil, see "The God of Eth".)

Where the onus lies

Of course, I might be wrong about all this. Perhaps you disagree with me. Maybe you think the problem of evil can be dealt. Perhaps you think that there are good arguments for the existence of God after all.

What I want to stress here is that if, at the beginning of this paper, you placed belief in God pretty high on the scale of reasonableness, then the onus is now on you both to provide some decent arguments in support of this claim to reasonableness, and to explain how the problem of evil can be dealt with. Otherwise, I think you should admit that you made a mistake: belief in God does not lie as high on the scale of reasonableness as you thought. Belief in God is actually pretty low on the scale. It’s down there near belief in fairies.

An extreme form of “faith”

Now many believers would say, at this point, that I am focusing far too much on reason. “It really doesn’t matter that I can’t provide good reasons for believing in God,” they say. “Nor does it matter that you can provide me with seemingly powerful evidence that there is no God. Belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason. One must just believe. ”

This sort of appeal to faith might seem to offer the theist some respite from the rational probing of an atheist like myself. They can just turn their back on the evidence and the arguments and say, “Well, I believe anyway, despite the evidence. I have faith.”

But notice that, in order to offer any genuine respite, the faith they appeal to at this point has got to be of a very extreme sort: they must believe, while at the same time acknowledging that they have no more reason to believe than they have to believe that, say, Elvis lives or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Now that is a very difficult thing to do. Could you do it? Could you really make yourself believe something, while also accepting that you had no more reason to believe it than you have to believe in, say, fairies?

Frankly, I doubt you could. I couldn’t. Certainly, this sort of extreme faith is very difficult if not impossible for anyone to sustain by a sheer act of will.

A more common sort of “faith”

In fact, while those who believe in God talk of having “faith”, they rarely mean the extreme sort discussed above. As I pointed out right at the beginning of this paper, most theists think their belief in God is pretty reasonable.

So what, then, do they mean when they say that belief in the existence of God is a matter of “faith”?

Usually, it turns out they mean only that, while there may be pretty good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of constituting proof. God’s existence is “not proved”. What does the theist mean by “not proved”? They mean that the evidence of God’s existence isn’t irrefutable. They could be wrong. It’s possible that God doesn’t exist (just as it’s possible that the battle of Hastings wasn’t in 1066).

This way of using the term “faith” is obviously to be contrasted with the extreme form of “faith” discussed a moment ago. That sort of “faith” is the faith that is downright unreasonable – as unreasonable as, say, belief in fairies. This sort of “faith”, on the other hand, requires only that the belief not be proved. And of course, a belief may be very reasonable indeed without being proved. In fact, on this way of using the term “faith”, all our scientific theories come out as “faith” positions. Even the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun!

Sliding between these two senses of “faith”

Theists often slide between these two senses of “faith” without realizing they have done so.

For example, when given a hard time by an atheist about the reasonableness of their belief, theists often retreat to “faith” in order to defend themselves. “Belief in God” they will say, “is a matter of faith, not reason”. They hope that will make the atheist shut up and go away.

But we have seen that, here, only the extreme sort of faith will do. If an atheist appears to have shown that belief in God is downright unreasonable, it won’t do for the theist to reply “But belief in God is a matter of faith” if by “faith” they simply mean “not proven”. For the atheist’s point is precisely that not only is belief in God not proven, it’s also downright unreasonable: as unreasonable as, say, belief in fairies.

But then it would be underhand of theists to appeal to the extreme sort of faith (a form of “faith” they would probably find it impossible to sustain) to fend off rational attack by an atheist, and yet, when the atheist has left the room, to revert back to claiming that while they have “faith” in God’s existence, nevertheless, belief in God is “pretty reasonable, just not proved ”.

Yet this is what many theists do. By surreptitiously switching between the two senses of “faith” they engage in a philosophical sleight-of-hand. They craftily use “faith” to dodge the need to deal with evidence and arguments which, on the face of it, show belief in God to be downright irrational, while at the same time continuing to maintain that belief in God is quite reasonable.

Of course, not all theists resort to such linguistic trickery. Many try to deal honestly with the arguments and evidence. Others confess they cannot: they bite the bullet and simply believe while admitting they have no more reason to believe than they have to believe in fairies. My point is that all theists should do one or other of these two things. Unfortunately, many do neither. They choose instead to pull a fast one with “faith”.

A bad argument

Here’s another, different, trick that theists sometimes pull by switching between these two senses of “faith”.

“Look,” the theist may say. “I admit I can’t prove God exists. But then the atheist can’t prove He doesn’t. So atheism and theism both require a leap of faith. But if theism and atheism are both faith positions, than they are equally irrational, aren’t they? They are intellectually on par.”

This argument trades on the same ambiguity in the term “faith”. The claim that atheism and theism are equally a matter of “faith” in the sense that neither is conclusively and irrefutably proved is here being used to obscure the fact that the evidence and arguments may overwhelmingly support one position over the other. The two positions may well not be intellectually on par.

After all, I can’t prove that fairies exist. But neither can I conclusively prove that they don’t. It doesn’t follow that it would be just as sensible for me to believe that fairies exist as it is for me to believe that they don’t.

Similarly, while both theism and atheism may qualify as “faith” positions in the “not proved” sense, it may be that the belief that there is no God is just as rational as the belief that there are no fairies, i.e. very rational indeed. In short, it doesn’t follow that if atheism and theism are “faith” positions in the “not proven” sense then they are “faith” positions in the extreme sense.

The argument may be bad, but, as I say, it’s popular. Here’s an example I recently came across on the internet:

“God’s existence cannot be proved by physical means. However, neither can it be disproved. What does this mean? It means it takes complete and utter faith to believe there is a god (or gods) and complete and utter faith to believe there is not one.”

This argument appears to involve the same slide between the two uses of “faith”. It moves from “Neither theism or atheism can be proved or disproved” to “Therefore, both are a matter of “complete and utter faith”.

Now I admit that the fact that neither atheism nor theism can be proved really does entail that both are “faith” positions in the weak “not proven” sense of faith (though notice that this doesn’t entail that the two positions are intellectually on par). But the author concludes that it must therefore take complete and utter faith to believe that God exists/doesn’t exist. This strongly suggests that she thinks both are “faith” positions in the extreme sense. And if both faith positions in the extreme sense, then it really does follow that atheism and theism are equally irrational.

You can see that the author trades on the ambiguity concerning what “faith” means. By sliding from one of the two uses of “faith” to the other, the author creates the false impression that atheism and theism are intellectually on par. A nice rhetorical trick.

The arguments behind “faith”

Suppose I claim to have “faith” in God’s existence. We have seen that, if I mean by this only that I accept that God’s existence can’t be proved, I may still take my belief to be quite reasonable. More reasonable, in fact, than the atheistic alternative.

Indeed, as I have indicated, theists who claim to have a simple and trusting “faith” rarely consider their belief to be no more sensible than is, say, the belief that Elvis is still alive and well, living out his life in secret. The second belief is clearly irrational and absurd, the theist will no doubt point out, for there’s little in the way of supporting evidence and pretty good evidence to the contrary.

But is belief in God any less irrational and absurd? I can’t see that it is.

Yet few theists are willing to accept that belief in God is this irrational. Even those who claim simply to have “faith” – who insist they “just believe” – will often, if pressed to explain why they believe, quietly whisper, “But the universe must have come from somewhere, mustn’t it?”

It turns out, in other words, that behind claims to “faith” often lurk the standard theistic arguments (in this case, argument (vi) above). These arguments, while perhaps not explicitly laid out in the mind of the believer, nevertheless make their presence felt. Arguments (v) and (vi) in particular are extremely seductive. It takes most of us considerable intellectual effort to understand why they are (at least as they are usually formulated) fallacious. It’s unsurprising, then, that even those who claim to have “faith” often take their belief to be reasonable.

Of course, the belief that Elvis lives is rather frivolous and inconsequential. Belief in God is not: it can have huge, life-changing effects. There’s no doubt that the question “Does God exist?” is one of immense seriousness and importance. It has dominated human thinking for thousands of years. Belief in God seems to answer a yearning that most of us have. It’s not to be dismissed lightly.

Still, the question remains whether there is any more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that Elvis lives. Are those who believe in God any better justified? The answer, perhaps, is that they are not. We shouldn’t allow talk about “faith” to obscure this fact, if it is a fact.

Having faith in other people

To finish, I want to turn to yet another way in which the expression “faith in God” tends to get used.

We often speak of “placing our faith” in someone. When I saw David Beckham walk up to take that penalty in the World Cup match against Argentina, my friend Mike said, “He’s going to miss!” But I said, “Have a little faith in Beckham. He’ll do it.” And Beckham scored. So I was right to place my faith in him.

We constantly place our faith and trust in those around us. I have faith in the postman: that he will deliver my letters and not chuck them in the bin. I have faith in my bank manager: that she will deal with me honestly and won’t disappear with all my money. Indeed, without this sort of trust in others life would become impossible, wouldn’t it?

So it seems that placing our faith in others is generally a positive, even an admirable, thing to do . But then, whether or not it’s reasonable to believe in God, isn’t it, by the same token, positive and admirable thing to place our faith in God?

The Santa case

The above argument involves a serious muddle. In fact, we can distinguish two further senses of “having faith in so-and-so”. On the one hand, we have believing that a person will act in a trustworthy and/or reliable manner. On the other hand, we have believing that a person exists.

Notice that these are two very different sorts of “faith”. The first sort of “faith” simply takes for granted that the individual in question actually exists. The “faith” merely concerns the character of that person. Having made that distinction, let’s now consider the following case.

Dad is short of money and Christmas is coming. His two children are eagerly awaiting their presents, but he cannot afford to buy them any. Still, he is not disheartened. In fact, he’s feeling quite upbeat. Dad knows there is little reason to suppose that Santa Claus exists, but nevertheless places his faith in Santa Claus to produce presents for the children on Xmas day.

“Don’t you worry, children,” says Dad. “I know that Santa is a good person. I feel quite sure that he will bring you lots of presents.”

Is this father’s “faith” in Santa, a “faith” he also encourages in his children, really a positive and admirable thing?

I think not. The problem is that, unless Dad has pretty good grounds for supposing Santa exists, his faith in Santa is faith of a downright silly, and, in this case, potentially upsetting and damaging sort.

In short, to place your faith in the goodness of a person is only positive and admirable if you have pretty good reason to suppose the person in question actually exists.

So what I want to know is: what reason is there to suppose that God exists? If there isn’t any, then I think theists should acknowledge that placing your faith in God’s goodness is not a positive and admirable thing to do. In fact it’s a downright silly, perhaps even damaging, thing to do.


Theists use the word “faith” in several different ways, often without acknowledging or even realizing that they are doing so. In fact, by surreptitiously switching between uses, theists use the term “faith”

• as a tool by which they can, quite unfairly, avoid justifying their belief and sidestep awkward atheistic arguments (“But belief in God is a matter of faith, not reason!”),
• to disguise the fact that atheism is far , far more reasonable than theism (“But they’re both faith positions!”), and
• to borrow, quite illegitimately, some of the positive sheen that attaches to having “faith in others” in order to gild their own more dubious “faith in God”.

I confess that, as an atheist, I find this sort of sleight-of-hand with “faith” highly irritating. I wish the theists would stop it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Outrageous Tales From The Old Testament

Below I mentioned that the Old Testament God seems something of a monster (genocidal, petty, vindictive, fickle, vicious, performs weird loyalty tests on Job, Abraham, etc.) Indeed, here's that quote from Waugh again about Randolph Churchill's shock on actually reading the Old Testament:

Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, had been annoying his friends by talking too much. They wagered he could not keep quiet for a week. Churchill, a keen gambler, thought he could win the bet by reading the Bible. But he didn't last long. After a few pages, he was heard to exclaim, "God! God's a shit!"

In response to this and comments, Guess Who says:

As someone who actually reads Hebrew and has published exegetical articles on the Hebrew Scriptures, I would just like to say that I find that Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists read the bible in the same way. How do they read it? Entirely without sophistication, unable to appreciate irony, humor, metaphor, or purposeful moral ambiguity. They leave everything they may have ever learned about literature behind them. If people read Shakespeare the way Skeptic's Annotated Bible reads scripture, they would say "Cassius was an imbecile - he thought that Caesar was some kind of huge monster-giant as big as Godzilla" after all, he did say that Caesar "doth bestride the world like a Colossus"!

Let's discuss. Obviously, we should be sensitive to metaphor, irony, etc.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Bikes, wanking, and the law

Incidentally, regarding the recent legal case involving a sexual relationship between a man and his bicycle, I have to say I agree with Bristling Badger. Go here.

[Post script: Actually, I may have been hasty. Possibly, the issue is that this chap deliberately arranged "accidentally" to reveal himself in this way. If so, there's a charge to answer. It's not clear, as P says, exactly what the issue was.

However, there's also a question about the appropriateness, shall we say, of any lawyer describing his own client as a "sad little man".]

Brief intro to Singer on speciesism

Following on from my post on Scruton below - this may answer some of your points and questions...

Each year about five billion animals are slaughtered in the United States. They are killed to satisfy the American taste for their flesh. The vast majority of us consider this sort of treatment of other species morally acceptable (or at least nor particularly unacceptable). But is it?

After all, we know, do we not, that animals suffer? They are also, to differing degrees, capable of enjoying pleasurable experiences as well. Why then are we morally permitted to treat the members of other species so very differently to our own?

Singer’s challenge

In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer presents us with precisely this challenge: to morally justify the way in which we discriminate between our own species and others. His conclusion, shocking to many, is that this discrimination cannot, in fact, be morally justified. Indeed, Singer believes that the vast majority of human beings are currently guilty of what Singer terms “speciesism” (an expression first coined by Richard Ryder) – a form of bigotry against other species comparable to sexism and racism.

Of course, no one has ever suggested we shouldn’t be able to discriminate between conscious beings, or that we are not often morally justified in doing so. For example, we discriminate between children and adults. We give adults the right to vote, to drive, and live their lives more or less as they see fit, while withholding all these rights from children. But this discrimination is morally justified. Children are not yet mature enough to be able to exercise the right to vote responsibly or to drive a vehicle safely. Here is a difference that does indeed morally justify our discriminating in the way we do.

On the other hand, withholding the right to vote on the grounds of sex and skin colour is morally unjustified. Sex and skin colour are irrelevant when it comes to the ability to exercise the right to vote. Refusing such rights to women and non-whites therefore constitutes a form of bigotry. Were we to deny the vote on the basis of sex and skin colour, we would be guilty of sexism and racism.

So the difficulty the vast majority of us face, if we are not to find ourselves guilty of a similar form of bigotry, is to justify the way in which we discriminate between humans and other species.

Mental sophistication

Perhaps the most obvious suggestion to make is to point out that humans are far more mentally sophisticated than other species. We are more intelligent than they. We possess a shared language. We have a sense of right and wrong. And so on. Don’t these differences between humans on the one hand and cows, pigs, apes and sheep on the other justify the difference in treatment?

Singer doesn’t deny that our superior mental powers can, under certain circumstances, be morally relevant. Suppose we want to test a product on live subjects in a way that causes great pain and possibly death. One option would be to kidnap adult human beings from a local park and test it on them. Another would be to use animals instead.

Singer points out that testing on kidnapped humans might well result in greater suffering than testing on animals. If we start abducting and experiment on some humans, those that remain will soon figure out the danger and anticipate that they too may be kidnapped if they go out for a walk. Far more stress and anxiety may be caused than if we simply test on animals, who are too dim to experience any such anticipatory fear. In this case, perhaps we can make a slightly better case (if not a good case) for testing on animals than we can for testing on humans.

But, as Singer points out, sometimes our superior intellect means that we will suffer rather less than would an animal subjected to similar treatment. We can explain to prisoners of war that they will eventually be safely released, whereas wild animals incarcerated for a similar period of time cannot be given that knowledge, and so may suffer rather more than similarly incarcerated humans.

The mentally impaired

Perhaps the most obvious difficulty with the appeal to mental sophistication to justify the way in which we discriminate against other species is that some humans are no more mentally sophisticated than are some animals. Human babies, in fact, are far less cerebral than are mature primates. And of course there are many unfortunate mature humans who, either through and accident of birth or subsequent disease or damage, are no smarter or more mentally sophisticated than is the average ape. If certain forms of mental sophistication are our criteria for determining who is deserving of full moral consideration and who is not, then the boundary between those who are deserving and those who are undeserving will not coincide with the boundary between our species and others. It seems that we will have to say that, if it is morally acceptable to experiment upon or kill for meat the smarter animals, then it is morally acceptable to treat babies and the mentally impaired in a similar way. Or, if we continue to insist it is morally wrong to treat the less cerebral humans in this way, then we will have to say that it’s equally wrong to treat the smarter animals in that way too. What we cannot consistently do is draw the boundary between those deserving our full moral concern and those who do not where it is currently drawn – along the boundary between the human species and the rest.

A new attitude towards other species?

Singer’s own view is that we can quite rightly morally discriminate between sentient beings. He agrees it would be more wrong to kill a normal adult human being than it would be to kill, say, a mouse (in Practical Ethics, Singer suggests this is because a human, being a self-conscious being, can, and typically does, have a preference to go on living, whereas a mouse can have no such preference).

However, Singer argues that there is no moral justification for the way in which we currently discriminate. Discriminating solely on the basis of species is no more justified than was our earlier discrimination on the basis of sex and race. So far as justifying our current practices is concerned, whether or not sentient beings have feathers or fur, a beak or teeth, two legs or four, is simply irrelevant - as irrelevant as skin colour or sex.

When we now look back a few hundred years to how white people discriminated against black, and men discriminated against women, many of us are shocked. With hindsight, it can be difficult to understand how those who were engaged in these practices were unable to recognise that what they were doing was wrong. “How could they not see?” we ask.

The day may come when the human race looks back on the way we currently treat other species – raising and slaughtering five billion a year, in many cases under the most horrific conditions, simply to satisfy our taste for their flesh – and ask that same question. If that day comes, it will in large measure be Peter Singer’s legacy.

How not to avoid the charge of speciesism

Peter Singer has many critics. Many criticisms focus on Singer’s utilitarianism. For an overview of some of the main criticism of utilitarianism, see the chapters on Mill (chpt XX) and Bentham (chpt XX). However, even if we reject utilitarianism, the challenge Singer sets us – to point to the morally relevant difference between humans and other species that justifies our current discriminatory practices – remains. If we cannot meet that challenge, it is difficult to see how we can avoid the charge of speciesism, whether or not we’re utilitarians.

Unfortunately, many people are under the misapprehension that if they can come up with some cogent objection to utilitarianism, that is enough to fend off Singer’s charge of bigotry. That is not the case.

This extract is from my forthcoming book (out June 2008): The Great Philosophers

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alain de Botton interview on Philosophy Bites

Hear Alain de Botton defending himself against his philosophical critics (which would include me) on Philosophy Bites here.

For my review of The Consolations of Philosophy in the Mail on Sunday go here.

Note that, towards the end of the interview, Alain suggests that the kind of analytic philosophy I and other professional mainstream academic philosophers do (when I publish in journals) is largely a waste of time. For the most part, only the sort of thing he does (the more "literary" stuff addressing the problems of everyday living) is worthwhile. That's also implied by the book (see quote on back cover, 1st ed.).

But then he says near the beginning of the interview that he was surprised when academics took him to task. He says:

I was quite surprised. I quickly became aware that I had done a very bad thing, but it was unclear to me for a while what that bad thing is supposed to be.

Surely he shouldn't have been that surprised?

The problem many academics have with Alain's book and his subsequent remarks is that, in effect, he rubbished the kind of thing they do, did so on a very intellectually flimsy basis, then said he was "surprised" at the response, putting it down (in this interview) to "the narcissism of small differences" (I assume he means their narcissism?) and adding "we should all have been friends and, basically, on the same side."

You can't rubbish what others do, and then, when they get upset, insist it's only a "small difference" and that you're "basically on the same side"!

I am very happy to be friends with Alain (he's a nice bloke - I've met him), but, on the specific issue of what philosophy should aim at, we're not on the same side. Alain says it should aim at dispensing practical advice and consoling thoughts. I think philosophy should aim at truth, whether the truth be useful and/or consoling or not.

Indeed, in the book, Alain seems pretty uninterested in whether what e.g. Seneca or Socrates have to say is actually true so long as it helps make life more bearable. It doesn't seem to matter that some of the philosophical theories he presents actually contradict each other. Philosophy is simply a medicine cabinet offering us a range of therapeutic and consoling thoughts - a little Seneca for your frustration, some Epicurus for your money worries, and so on.

I actually think that dispensing agony-aunt style wisdom is something philosophers do very badly. I'd leave that business to Miriam Stoppard and Claire Rayner.

Rarely does even the best practical philosophy console us. Usually, it gives us a hefty and deeply uncomfortable kick up the pants (e.g. Peter Singer).

Of course, I do agree with Alain there's no harm in trying to make philosophy accessible, stylishly presented and immediately relevant to day-to-day life where possible. But sometimes some of the very best philosophy is none of these things. That doesn't make it a waste of time.

[Post script. This was edited on 22/11/07, as I suspect I might have slightly misrepresented Alain. Incidentally, I cannot place my copy of The Consolations, and would be grateful if anyone could remind me of the quote that appeared on rear cover of hardback, 1st edition (Epicurus, I think it was). It particularly irritated me, I seem to remember!]

[Post post script - here's the quote from the back cover, 1st edition (where it appears without comment):

'Any philosopher's argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless; for just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn't expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn't expel the the sufferings of the mind.' Epicurus.

Thanks to Michael Rooney.]

Scruton and other species

Scruton's justification for discrimination against other species

Roger Scruton attempts to justify our discriminating between pigs etc. and similarly dim humans by appealing to both potential and normality:

It is in the nature of human beings that, in normal conditions, they become members of a moral community, governed by duty and protected by rights. Abnormality in this respect does not cancel membership. It merely compels us to adjust our response… It is not just that dogs and bears do not belong to the moral community. They have no potential for membership. They are not the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust.
Scruton, Roger (2000) Animal Rights and Wrongs, third edition (London, Metro), pp. 54-55.

Scruton concludes that, because of these differences between pigs, etc. and similarly dim humans, we are morally justified in discriminating as we do (killing and eating former; caring for the latter, etc.).

There is, I think, something intuitively deeply implausible about Scruton’s attempt to justify our current discriminatory practices. Consider the following thought experiment.

Thought experiment: a dim parallel species

Suppose that on a planet many light years from the Earth there has evolved a species that bears an uncanny resemblance to we humans. They look much like us, and indeed are physiologically and genetically very much like us. However, they are dim. They have no moral or aesthetic sense. In fact, they are no more mentally sophisticated than is the average pig. As a species, they are not, to borrow Scruton’s phrase ‘the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust’.

Now imagine we are presented with two groups of individuals. The first group are orphan offspring from this other planet. They are dim because individuals belonging to that species are normally, naturally dim. The second group are terrestrial human beings: the orphan children of men and women like ourselves. But they too are dim, as dim as the extraterrestrial group, in fact. The second group’s mental impairment is due to a nuclear mishap. Their fathers were accidentally irradiated, resulting in damage to the genetic code handed down to them.

Let’s suppose these two groups are otherwise identical. Indeed, they are molecule-for-molecule duplicates of each other. The immediate cause of their dimness is in each case the same: their genetic code. However, while the two groups share the same code, they possess it for different reasons. The terrestrials possess it because they are the unfortunate victims of a recent nuclear accident. The extra-terrestrial group possesses it because of their evolutionary ancestry.

Note that while the members of the extra-terrestrial are ‘normal’ for their kind, the terrestrials are not. Human beings, under normal conditions, develop into smart, sophisticated creatures like ourselves. They are that kind of thing.

Also notice that, unlike the extraterrestrials, the terrestrials once had the potential to be smart. Had their fathers not been involved in that nuclear accident, they would have been as mentally sophisticated as ourselves. The extra-terrestrials, on the other hand, were always going to be dim. That is their nature.

Let’s now test our moral intuitions with the following question: Are we morally permitted to discriminate between these two groups? In particular, would it be wrong to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the second group but not the first?

If we are permitted to kill and eat, experiment upon etc. those who belong to species the normal members of which are dim, but not those who, while dim, are members of a species that, as a kind, is morally and intellectually sophisticated, then we may kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the dim extraterrestrials, but not the dim terrestrials. If what matters, morally speaking, is what under normal conditions the members of a certain kind will become, then while we are morally obliged to extend to the dim terrestrials special treatment, we can kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. their molecularly-indistinguishable doppelgangers with impunity.

Similarly, if it is potential that counts, then while we have a special duty of care towards the terrestrials, their extra-terrestrial doppelgangers can in good conscience be put on the truck to the abattoir.

But of course this verdict is profoundly counterintuitive. How can we be justified in treating these molecule-for-molecule duplicates so very differently, simply because they differ in terms of potential and what is “normal” for their kind?

Suppose a mistake is discovered: a couple marked out for the special care centre we have designed to look after the dim humans are suddenly discovered to be of extraterrestrial origin. Would we be justified in diverting these two to the abattoir instead? Surely not.

What this thought experiment elicits (in me, at least) is the very strong intuition that the difference between the two groups in terms of both normality and potential does not justify this difference in treatment.

Indeed, what the thought experiment brings out, in me at least, is the intuition that the difference in normality and potential is simply not morally relevant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Outrageous Tales From The Old Testament

Clearly there's something wrong with me as Outrageous Tales From The Old Testament is indeed available from amazon sellers. Here you are.

Alexander Waugh's very funny book is here.

I like it very much but irritatingly it lacks references.

Outrageous Tales From the Old Testament?

Some more genuine church signs from I particularly like the last one. "A spirit filled church", is a nice touch.

Very Old Testament. Their God is a smiting, fighting God urging his people to take up arms against his enemies. Does anyone have a favourite Old Testament tale involving God's gratuitous smiting, genocide, etc.? What's the most outrageous tale? Personally, I think Abraham and Isaac is hard to beat.

As Alexander Waugh relates in his book God - The Biography.

Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, had been annoying his friends by talking too much. They wagered he could not keep quiet for a week. Churchill, a keen gambler, thought he could win the bet by reading the Bible. But he didn't last long. After a few pages, he was heard to exclaim, "God! God's a shit!"

Talking of which, I have been trying for ages to get hold of a copy of Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament, now out of print it seems. If anyone has any idea how I can get a copy, do let me know. Neither the NSS nor Forbidden Planet actually have it, despite what it says on their websites.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Animation script

There's a script I wrote for an animated cartoon available here. Never got made in the end (too expensive for one thing).

This episode is on whether a machine could think. It would have been one of a series.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Gordon Brown and Himmelfarb

I am glad to see I am not the only one to be disturbed by Gordon Brown's enthusiasm for the writing of Gertude Himmelfarb, right-wing neo-con and Victorian-style moralist, wife of Irving Kristol ("the Godfather of neo-conservativism") and mother of William Kristol (editor of Murdoch's neo-con magazine The Weekly Standard) [for wikipedia entry on this Fox-News-style publication, go here].

I devoted some of my book The War For Children's Minds to exposing the feebleness of Himmelfarb's thinking on the social need for traditional, authority-based religion (in my view, she's a light-weight: her books are heavy on quotes and historical references, which can disguise the flimsiness of her actual argument).

I like Gordon Brown, as it happens, but his enthusiasm for Himmelfarb's reactionary writing is a bit worrying.

A typical bit of Himmelfarb:

[i]t is not only conservatives... who now deplore the breakdown of the family; liberals do as well. [Few today] seriously doubt the inadequacy of education at all levels, or the fragility of communal ties, or the coarsening and debasement of the culture, or the 'defining down' of morality, public and private. It is no mean achievement to have reached at least this point of consensus.

Himmelfarb's cure for this moral malaise? Himmelfarb wrote an approving preface for Digby Anderson's This Will Hurt, a collection of essays by various neo-cons recommending we bring back the social stigmatization of unwed mothers, gays, etc. etc.

As American Prospect points out,

even a parody could not come up with chapters like "Administering Punishment Morally, Publicly, and Without Excuse," "Uniformity, Uniforms, and the Maintenance of Adult Authority," and "Ostracism and Disgrace in the Maintenance of a Precarious Social Order."

I can confirm that Digby Anderson's book is indeed unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps someone should slip a copy of the weirdly sadistic, Monty-Pythonesque, and Himmelfarb-approved, This Will Hurt into Gordon's Christmas stocking.

P.S. Digby Anderson's own contribution to this volume is "Ridicule as a Means of Resisting Outlandish and Socially Damaging Ideas". Yes indeed. I suggest we take the piss out of his book.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Psychic sophistry

Anonymous asked how to respond to someone who is very much into psychics like the U.S. Doreen Virtue. Should we humour them?

Probably depends on the individual. By far the best person to talk to is Tony Youens, who has a website here.

I actually asked Tony to write a piece for THINK on psychics, which you can read here. Hope it helps.

I also recommend you get your friend to read this.

When we launched THINK at Borders Bookstore in London, I advertized the event as involving philosophical discussion of psychic stuff and presented Tony as a genuine psychic. He did some nice stuff - spoon bending, telepathy, etc. and some audience members were taken in. At the end, we revealed the truth, and some people got very upset. In fact one insisted Tony really was psychic - he just didn't realize it.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Lying to children

Suppose I visit the wife and seven year old daughter of a colleague who has recently died. Now it turns out that the wife is a Christian, and she has told her daughter that her Daddy is now living in heaven with God and the angels. This is very comforting belief for both the wife and the little girl. Daddy hasn’t gone for ever. He’s merely moved to somewhere very nice, somewhere that they too will go in the end.

Now I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any sort of after-life. Suppose that this little girl asks me whether I believe in heaven. What do I say? Do I tell her the truth or do I lie?

Of course, if you happen to believe in God and the angels, you can tell comfortably tell her the truth about what you believe. But if, like me, you don’t believe in any of that, you find yourself facing a dilemma. Do you lie?

I would avoid telling her the truth if I could, perhaps by changing the subject. But I don’t think I could lie. I don’t think I could tell her I believed in God and heaven when I don’t. Even if the result of my not lying is that it shakes her own confidence in her belief.

Which at first sight is very odd, because if she were to ask me whether I believed in Santa and the elves living at the North Pole, I’ll happily lie. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to embellish the fib – by helping her put out Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot at bedtime, and then leaving bite-marks in the mince pie and gnawing the carrot once she’s gone to bed.

But if she asks me whether I believe in God and Heaven, I would find it very difficult to tell her what I consider to be a fib. Despite the fact that this little girl derives an extraordinary amount of comfort, and even some happiness, from that lie. Far more, in fact, than she derives from the fib about Santa and the Elves.

Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I operating with a blatant double standard? I’ll go out of my way to lie about Santa and the Elves. Yet I turn into Mr Principle when it comes to lying about God and the angels.

Well, may be not. As children grow up, we create illusory worlds for them to inhabit: little bubbles of deceit. One of these bubbles of belief is about goblins and fairies, another is about Santa and Rudolph. These bubbles soon pop, of course, We can’t sustain them into adult life. But, while they last, they are charming fantasies.

The trouble with the religious bubble, from the point of view of most atheists, is that it doesn’t always pop. Many of us continue to inhabit it throughout our entire lives. And it can dramatically shape our lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Six arguments for lying to children

1. Educational fibbing. My daughter and I often tell each other fibs. I say, “Did you know that there are fairies living under our garden shed?” To which she responds, but Daddy, why can’t we see them?” To which I answer, “They only come out at night.” To which she says “But then how do you know they are there?” and so on. The more we play this sort of game, the better she gets at figuring out when she’s being lied to.

Lying games are good way of showing children that, armed with nothing more than their own power of reason, they can often figure out what’s true for themselves.

Educational fibbing games can help them develop some intellectual and emotional maturity. They won’t be afraid to think or ask a question. It gives them a course in self-defence that will come in very handy when they are confronted by the corporate, religious and other psychological manipulators and snake-oil salesmen later on.

If we want our children to grow into good truth-detectors, these are the sort of skills we need then to acquire.

2. It makes them happy.

3. Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.

4. And we can vicariously enjoy their pleasure. Having children around who believe in Santa transforms Christmas – you can half inhabit their kitsch fantasy world for a few days.

5. Useful for controlling behaviour. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who's naughty and nice”. Santa is watching what you are doing even when Mummy and Daddy are not.

6. “Protecting” them from potentially upsetting or damaging truths.

Three arguments against lying to children

1. They will learn not to trust you. Crying wolf – won’t believe you when it really matters.

2. We are teaching them that lying is acceptable.

3. We can instill false beliefs that may hurt them later in life.

And, incidentally, some of the lies we tell we don’t ourselves properly register as lies:

• “You can be anything you want to be!” (cobblers, of course)
• “Looks don’t matter!" (perhaps they shouldn't, but they do)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

no comment moderation anymore

Potentilla has explained to me how to solve problem of fake comments (adverts), so comment moderation now switched off!

Another Bible belt sign

Deep down, you know it's true....

Bible belt sign

Yes, it probably is.

This is a genuine church sign (I'm correcting first post, which said it was a spoof - it's not). It's from a library of such signs held at www.churchsign (hit their link to "real church signs").

This one certainly expresses the view of some Christians, including, probably, Martin Luther: "Faith must trample all reason underfoot".

However, it's possible to construct fake signs too. If such childish humour appeals to you (as it does to me) go to

No morality without God?

Morality requires God? Here's a nice quote (pointed out to me by my friend Tom Pilling)

From My Country, My People (1935) by Lin Yu Tang.

"To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party."