Friday, October 31, 2008

Historicity of Jesus

Hi Georges

You commented on the last jesus historicity post:

I'm trying to imagine how the religious cult that became Christianity got started assuming there never was a charismatic Jesus character for people to coalesce around. Try to imagine Islam spontaneously coming into existence without Muhammad, Sikhism without Guru Nanak, Mormonism without Joseph Smith or Scientology without L. Ron. How would it work, exactly? Any examples?

Perhaps it coalesced around some other individual or individuals, such as e.g. the "disciples", or Mary Magdalen. There are many candidates.

Hell, I don't know. But the fact that I don't know doesn't mean it's probably true there was a historical Jesus.

Compare a case where e.g. several people claim to have witnessed a person in a house, who then, amazingly, walked through a wall.

Why do we possess such testimony? How does it arise? I don't know. People often seem terribly convinced. Now not only does the miraculous nature of much of what they saw lead me to think their evidence is not nearly good enough to make reasonable the belief the miraculous thing happened, the miraculous part taints their testimony that there was any such person, let alone that he walked through the wall.

Under such circumstances, we need really good independent evidence that someone was indeed there, before it's reasonable to believe it (perhaps there was, of course).

So what's the evidence for Jesus? We have the testimony of four more or less anonymous gospel writers, quite possibly none even an eye-witness, plus Paul, none writing within even twenty years of the events they describe (most writing decades later), all of them true believers, all attributing fantastic miracles to this person.

Surely this is not really good independent evidence.

Incidentally, this Deacon, Ken got the wrong end of the stick, and graciously amended his post. Point is - I don't say there wasn't a historical Jesus. I just say that, given the evidence I have seen so far, I am not very sure either way. This gets me accused of irrationality and even insanity!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

SCIENCE AND RELIGION: Simon Singh, Mary Warnock, Jack Cohen, Stephen Law

Presented by Centre For Inquiry London and South Place Ethical Society

Saturday, 25th April, 10.30am-4pm.

A day exploring the relationship between science and religion


Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL.

£10 (£5 for students) BOOK NOW. Send a cheque payable to 'Center for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, at the above address. Alternatively pay by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI London” link at www.cfilondon.org and follow the instructions.

10.30AM REGISTRATION

11-12AM JACK COHEN. Why I believe in evolution - or in Omphalos!


The evidence for evolution converges from at least three directons: from the fossils, from the DNA sequences, and from contemporary examples (Darwin's finches, African cichlids, bacterial and insect resistance). “Creationism", or "Intelligent Design" are out because they don't explain, they haven't the Authority, and Grand Canyon/Flood ideas are simply absurd. But there are other choices, particularly if you Believe: the Plymouth Brother Philip Gosse wrote "Omphalos" a few years before Darwin's "...Origin..." (his son Edmund wrote "Father and Son'). The problem is that the rock column is genuinely and persuasively ancient, while the Bible insists on some thousands of years of history. God made Adam mature, with a navel (omphalos) and that's the clue... It's such a pretty idea, and makes so much more sense than the standard Creationist's story! If only there were a God, that's how It would've done it!

Jack Cohen is an internationally known reproductive biologist, who consulted for test-tube-baby and other infertility laboratories, and has worked in Assisted Conception Units. He was reproductive biologist in the Zoology Dept at Birmingham University for thirty years, later in Warwick Maths Institute for five where he was an Honorary Professor. His last position, at Warwick University, bridged the Ecosystems Unit of the Biology Dept and the Mathematics Institute, and his brief included bringing more science to more public awareness – which he still attempts.

12-1pm SIMON SINGH. Big Bang – the gospel according to Monsignor Georges LemaĆ®tre

Simon Singh, author of best-selling scientific and mathematical books including Big Bang, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial, will talk about the Big Bang model and how science develops its theories. He will also explain how the concept of the Big Bang was initially developed by George Lemaitre, who successfully combined his careers as a cosmologist and a priest.

2-3pm STEPHEN LAW. Empirical evidence against the God hypothesis

Stephen Law is Provost of CFI London, senior lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College University of London, and author of philosophy books including The War For Children’s Minds (about faith schools), The Philosophy Files (for children 12+) and The Philosophy Gym (which includes dialogues such as “The Strange Case of The Rational Dentist” and “What’s Wrong With Gay Sex?”).

Stephen will look at what appears to be powerful empirical evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, and at how the faithful respond to that evidence.

3-4pm BARONESS MARY WARNOCK. Religion as humanism


Baroness Mary Warnock is one of the Britain’s leading public figures. She is perhaps best known for her recently expressed views on assisted suicide, and her role in the production of the Warnock report - an inquiry into human fertilisation by the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, which she chaired.

Legal stuff: CFI reserves the right to change or cancel events without notice.

Camp Quest UK



Camp Quest is now operating in the UK, I discovered last night, after meeting Samantha Stein, who is the director. She is going to be running some really excellent programmes for kids aged 9-15. This is the antidote to Jesus Camp.

The first camp-quest is 27th-31st July 2009. Check out the website at:

www.camp-quest.org.uk

The blurb says:

Camp Quest, founded in 1996, is the first residential summer camp in the Europe, United States and Canada specifically for irreligious children or the children of nontheistic parents (including atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, skeptics, (nontheistic) rationalists, freethinkers, brights, antireligionists, and others who hold a naturalistic worldview). The camp is offered as a godless alternative to traditional religious summer camps, such as vacation Bible schools.

The camp’s programs and activities also include what is usual for summer camps: campfires, canoeing, crafts, drama, games, nature hikes, singing, and swimming. Sometimes, however, a spin may be used, such as the telling of an ancient mythical tale around the campfire or the debunking of creationism on part of a nature hike or fossil hunt. Both competitive and cooperative sports are used. Past activities have included how to make a crop circle and visiting old cemeteries to use tombstones as clues to the mores of the past.


I stress that, as Samantha describes it, this is not an atheist indoctrination camp (!), but a free-thought camp. You can book on the website if your kids are interested.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jesus: historical evidence for crucifixion

Rev Sam writes (comment on my last Jesus historicity post):

Hi Stephen, if you ever get around to resuming this element of the conversation, you might find this of interest. He's much more of an expert than me.

Stephen's response:

I did watch it. His argument is that the early Christians would not make up a crucifixion story as the Messiah was not someone they would expect to be crucified. The expectation was the Messiah would defeat the Romans, not be executed by them. Of course this is a bog standard argument that gets repeated over and over. He concludes anyone who thinks the story is made up is living in a fantasy land.

This seems to me an amazingly weak piece of evidence.

He is second guessing people's motives for why they would invent a story in which the expected Messiah dies.

First, there may be reasons why they would want their Messiah to die and come back to life. In fact, aren't there some very, very obvious reasons why they would want that? You want to invent a Messiah. But unfortunately no one has defeated the Romans or introduced the Kingdom of God just yet - which is what the Messiah is supposed to do. Hmm. What sort of story might you construct? Or perhaps the Messiah claim got tacked on to a made up resurrection story in order to give it authority, the story then being adjusted to make the Messiah claim fit.

Second, even if the tellers did have a motive not to include this element, and also had no reason to include it, so what?

This chap's argument rests on something like this principle:

If a story, presented as true, reporting many bizarre/miraculous events, contains an element that we think the tellers would have a motive not to include, then that bit of the story is probably true.

This is feeble. After all, alien abductees are often very embarrassed about saying what's been shoved up them. That's not a bit they'd choose to include. Should we conclude that bit of their stories is probably true?

If this is the best Dr. James McGrath has for supposing the Jesus crucifixion story is almost certainly true, I think he's in big trouble. This is an example of the sort of thing that has me beginning to wonder whether this whole branch of academia [post script - I mean, history] - dominated by Christians - isn't mostly bullshit. To me, the standard of inquiry seems woeful.

Remember, I don't say the crucifixion of an historical Jesus is a made up story. I say it's not unreasonable for me, given the evidence I have seen thus far, to suppose it might be.

Of course I don't rule out the possibility that better evidence will come along.

Monday, October 27, 2008

WEIRD SCIENCE DAY: Saturday 17th January.

Please do your best to advertize this event (for an A4 poster, email me).

Centre For Inquiry London
and
South Place Ethical Society
present

WEIRD SCIENCE

A day exploring the science of the weird, and weird and flaky science

Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stephen Law

Saturday, 17th January 2009. 10.30am-4pm.

Venue:
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
London
WC1R 4RL

£10 (£5 for students)

To book tickets, send a cheque payable to 'Center for Inquiry London' to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL Alternatively payment can be made by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI London” link at www.cfilondon.org and follow the instructions.

10.30am REGISTRATION

11am-12am RICHARD WISEMAN

Investigating the impossible: A skeptical approach

For over 20 years, psychologist Richard Wiseman has delved deep into the mysterious world of the paranormal, carrying out high profile, and often controversial, investigations into the impossible. In this talk, Wiseman describes some of his more colourful adventures, presenting a scientific look at a range of seemingly paranormal phenomenon, including fire-walking, ghostly encounters, and ESP.

12am-1pm CHRIS FRENCH

Eight Years of Weird Science at Goldsmiths

The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) was set up by Professor Chris French in 2000 in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths (for full details, visit www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/apru). Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those that are often labeled "paranormal". Over the last eight years, members of the APRU have investigated a wide range of weird and wonderful topics, including alien contact experiences, sleep paralysis, haunted houses, dowsing, and telepathy. This overview will present the results of such investigations - and also reveal why Uri Geller cannot stand Richard Wiseman!

2pm-3pm STEPHEN LAW

Is creationism scientific?

Polls consistently indicate about 100 million Americans believe the entire universe is six thousand years old and that all species were created as described by Genesis. Even more amazingly, many of these people also believe that this theory is consistent with the scientific evidence. Indeed, there are multi-million dollar research centres in the U.S. run by PhD-qualified staff, that aim to defend young-Earth creationism. How have so many people become so deluded about what is, and isn’t, good science? What are the basic confusions? Stephen Law illustrates with his own pet theory – that dogs are spies from the planet Venus.

3pm-4pm BEN GOLDACRE

Listen up flakes: science is seriously so much more interesting than anything you can make up with your woolly new age claptrap.

About Ben Goldacre. Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster and medical doctor from the UK who is best known for his 'Bad Science' column in The Guardian newspaper, examining the claims of scaremongering journalists, quack health products, pseudoscientific cosmetics adverts, and evil multinational pharmaceutical corporations, as well as wider themes such as the medicalisation of everyday life and the psychology of irrational beliefs.

Centre For Inquiry website launched.

The cfi London website is now fully functional. Comments please...

Go here.

Many thanks to David McKeegan for doing an excellent job.

Use www.cfilondon.org or www.cfiuk.org. Do not use www.cfilondon.org.uk or www.cfiuk.org.uk as they take you to the US site which we are not now using.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 8

This chapter explains Dawkins antipathy to religion. He lists many examples of religious fundamentalism and nuttiness, much of it malign. But what of my local vicar? His brand of religion seems very benign. Yet Dawkins sees even the moderate religious person as posing a danger, for they are still, he thinks, promoting unquestioning "faith" as a virtue:

Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If someone announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith or another, or none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (p. 347)

I imagine many moderate religious people will see this as a caricature of their faith. "Of course we don't expect children to show blind, unquestioning faith. Of course we encourage them to think and question", many will say.

Many will also insist there is an objective justification for their particular set of beliefs. They'll perhaps start with the historicity of Jesus, say, and build out from there, explaining why this interpretation can be shown to be objectively to be more accurate than that, etc. The philosopher Richard Swinburne is an example of a Christian who certainly doesn't make his belief rest on blind, unquestioning faith, but on e.g. philosophical argument (I think Swinburne's belief is wrong, of course.)

I suspect that, whether or not it's true of Richard, it is true of many thoughtful Christians that they do think their belief is fairly reasonable, and that they could, in principle, be persuaded to reject it if shown that it really isn't very reasonable at all. In which case it's not a "faith" position of the sort Dawkins describes.

So it's true, I think, that Dawkins does oversimplify here. But then he is right about a great deal, too. For example, there is a kind of automatic "respect" given to religious beliefs simply because they are religious - a respect that is heavily ingrained in us (I catch myself giving it sometimes) but which really is not warranted (as I argue here).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Article by Giles Fraser: "Why don’t humanists give value to humans?"

Giles Fraser: "Why don’t humanists give value to humans?" Church Times, 24th October 2008.

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value. Instead, secular humanists are becoming increasingly cavalier with their central belief. They have become a bit like Christians who don’t believe in God. This leads me to ponder whether human life is really all that safe in the hands of humanists.

Here, for instance, is a passage from the British Humanist Association’s website: “Religious people also often use phrases like 'the sanctity of life' to justify the view that life has intrinsic value and must not be destroyed. Humanists, too, see a special value in human life, but think that if an individual has decided on rational grounds that his life has lost its meaning and value, that evalu ation should be respected.”

Oh, how nice: humanists think life has a “special” value, whatever that means. Less sarcastically, it is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular hu man ists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living.

My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike accident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the difference between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.

Baroness Warnock recently suggested that elderly people ought to offer themselves for euthanasia. “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives — your family’s lives — and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service,” she said.

The truth is that Christians make better humanists. In the 1480s, the whole humanist revolution was kicked off by Giovanni Pico and his weighty tome An Oration to the Dignity of Man. Pico called for a public debate, insisting that human dignity derives from God. That debate needs restarting.

Not only have contemporary atheists snatched the term humanist and claimed it as their own, but — in the name of choice — they have sold out on the very value that inspired humanism in the first place: the dignity of man (and woman, too). Shame on them.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

Letter from Stephen Law to the Church Times in response to the above article:

“Why don’t humanists give value to humans?” asks Giles Fraser. But of course we do. The disagreement between we humanists and Fraser concerns the source of that value. The humanist finds it right here in the real world – in the brief lives we live out on this planet. Fraser places the source in a mysterious, supernatural other realm. Trouble is, if Fraser’s God does not exist – and I’m afraid he doesn’t – then, it is Fraser’s view, not the humanist's, that leaves our lives without dignity or worth.

Many humanists, like many Christians, will suspect that 23-year old disabled former rugby player Daniel James’s decision to take his own life was not the right decision under the circumstances. Like most Christians, they would try to help Daniel see that perhaps he still had much to live for.

True, most humanists would say that, if Daniel had clear-headedly decided it would be best if he took his own life, then, ultimately, we should not stop him. We should not compel him to live on for decades against his own will. But I suspect that even quite a few Christians would agree with that.

“Shame on them”, says Fraser about we humanists. What is shameful is Fraser’s use of this tragedy to engage in a bit of simple-minded point-scoring against humanists. Fraser thinks he looks down on us from the moral high ground. I look down at him in the gutter.

Stephen Law

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London
Member of the BHA's Humanist Philosophers Group.

Friday, October 24, 2008

An invitation to meet Mr Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya, aka Adnan Hoca) - "future ruler of the entire world"?

I was recently invited to fly to IstaNbul to interview Mr Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a Muslim who has published very many books challenging evolution, including, of course, his lavishly illustrated and produced Atlas of Creation, provided free to thousands of schools around the world.

I received a phone call from Mr Oktar's representative, Seda Aral, correcting "minsinformation" about Oktar, and explaining why his successful attempt to shut down Richard Dawkins website in Turkey was entirely justified. Oktar styles himself a defender of freedom of speech, and insists he was defamed.

Actually Oktar also attempted to get e.g. The God Delusion banned in Turkey, despite the fact that it says nothing about Oktar.

Dawkins explains why Oktar is a world-class nincompoop here. It's hilarious.

Despite the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey as the guest of Mr Oktar, I'm not going.

It seems many others have received such offers, such as this writer for New Humanist (scroll down and you'll see one of the comments is from "Nathan" who also received an invitation). Oktar's budget for self-promotion seems to have no limits - as Dawkins points out, OUP estimated the cost of producing his Atlas at half a million quid. Where's the money coming from (there's a clue below)?

Why aren't I going? I am not nearly as well-known as Dawkins, of course, so I don't much mind appearing at low-key events such as this one in London, because I don't think I am providing much "oxygen of publicity", and may succeed in casting a few doubts into the minds of the audience.

However, Oktar is different - he's powerful and, I suspect, dangerous, and I wouldn't feel comfortable taking his money. The Dawkins episode is nothing compared to some of the other stuff it seems Oktar has got up to. He stands convicted by a Turkish court and faces a three year prison term. Oktar is appealing against the conviction. While this conviction has been reported in the West (see Reuters), the sheer scale of the various allegations being made against Oktar (in court and out) has not yet received much attention over here. To date, it's only the Dawkins website ban that's attracted interest.

For example, there have been some very serious allegations about cult activity:

THIS BIT REMOVED - GO HERE FOR EXPLANATION.

Oktar insists he is simply the victim of conspiracy.

Oktar, also known as Adnan Hoca, was arrested after "Operation Adnan Hoca" which involved 2,000 Turkish police officers, according to this quite amazing story from the Turkish Daily News.

THIS BIT REMOVED - PLEASE GO HERE FOR EXPLANATION.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

WEIRD SCIENCE DAY: Saturday 17th January.

WEIRD SCIENCE

A CFI London event (in conjunction with SPES)

This is a one-day event on Saturday, 17th January 2009. 10.45am-4pm.

There may be a modest entry charge [POST SCRIPT - it will be £10, £5 for students - to book a ticket send a cheque to Suresh Lalvani at the venue address below].

Venue:
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
London
WC1R 4RL

11am-12am

RICHARD WISEMAN

Investigating the impossible: A skeptical approach

For over 20 years, psychologist Richard Wiseman has delved deep into the mysterious world of the paranormal, carrying out high profile, and often controversial, investigations into the impossible. In this talk, Wiseman describes some of his more colourful adventures, presenting a scientific look at a range of seemingly paranormal phenomenon, including fire-walking, ghostly encounters, and ESP. Discover whether such phenomena really exist, what the future holds for parapsychology, and why we are all attracted by the lure of strange stuff. Free packet of peanuts for the best question.

About Richard Wiseman. Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman started his working life as a professional magician and currently holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He frequently appears on the media, and has written over 60 academic articles and several books, including The Luck Factor and Quirkology.

12am-1pm

CHRIS FRENCH

Eight Years of Weird Science at Goldsmiths

The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) was set up by Professor Chris French in 2000 in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths (for full details, visit www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/apru). Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those that are often labeled "paranormal". Over the last eight years, members of the APRU have investigated a wide range of weird and wonderful topics, including alien contact experiences, sleep paralysis, haunted houses, dowsing, and telepathy. Many paranormal claims have been scientifically tested under properly controlled conditions along the way. This overview will present the results of such investigations - and also reveal why Uri Geller cannot stand Richard Wiseman!

About Chris French. Chris French is a Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths. He has published over 100 articles and chapters covering a wide range of topics within psychology. His main current area of research is the psychology of paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He is the editor of The Skeptic magazine (UK version).

2pm-3pm

STEPHEN LAW

Is Creationism Scientific?

Polls consistently indicate about 100 million Americans believe the entire universe is six thousand years old and that all species were created as described by Genesis. Even more amazingly, many of these people also believe that this theory is consistent with the scientific evidence. Indeed, there are multi-million dollar research centres in the U.S. run by PhD-qualified staff, that aim to defend young-Earth creationism. How have so many people become so deluded about what is, and isn’t, good science? What are the basic confusions? Stephen Law illustrates with his own pet theory – that dogs are spies from the planet Venus.

About Stephen Law. Stephen Law is senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, editor of THINK: Philosophy for Everyone (Royal Institute of Philosophy), and Provost of CFI London. He is the author of many philosophy books, including The Philosophy Files (for children 12+) and The Philosophy Gym (which contains such dialogues as “The Strange Case of The Rational Dentist” and “What’s Wrong With Gay Sex?”)

3-4pm

BEN GOLDACRE

Listen up flakes: science is seriously so much more interesting than anything you can make up with your woolly new age claptrap.

About Ben Goldacre. Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster and medical doctor from the UK who is best known for his 'Bad Science' column in The Guardian newspaper, examining the claims of scaremongering journalists, quack health products, pseudoscientific cosmetics adverts, and evil multinational pharmaceutical corporations, as well as wider themes such as the medicalisation of everyday life and the psychology of irrational beliefs. He has a background in medicine and academia, trained in Oxford and London, works full time for the NHS, appears regularly on radio and TV, and has written for publications as diverse as Time Out, the British Medical Journal, New Statesman and The Lancet, as well as writing and presenting 'The Rise Of The Lifestyle Nutritionists' and 'The Power of Placebo' in 2008 on BBC Radio 4.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Debate with Muslim creationist

THIS DEBATE HAS NOW BEN CANCELLED (apparently because of the furore over the Jewel of Medina).

I am debating a Muslim creationist - Sharif Hafezi - next Saturday, 25th October, 6.30pm. I have v. little time to prepare so anyone who can advise me about this brand of creationism do get in touch.

It's at:

Froud Centre
1 Toronto Av
London,
E12 5JF
Tel: 020 84782468

map here.

For public transport the closest tube station is East Ham (Hammersmth & City/District). There is also nearby overground rail links at Manor Park (available from Stratford platform 8) and Woodgrange Park.

Kyle S on Atonement (BOOK Club 7)

In comments on the previous post, Kyle S has been defending his version of the Biblical theory of atonement from the charge that it "doesn't make sense" (see previous post). I respond below.

Hi Kyle S

You say the Biblical account (or rather, your version of it – many Christians, such as Rev Sam, reject your version) must make sense, “Otherwise, how would we be able to discuss the precise meaning of certain statements or consider possible counter examples?”

As I said, the sense in which it “doesn’t make sense” is not that the words are meaningless, but that the theory is bonkers. E.g. Like believing that fairies are what make the flowers grow (n.b. if you read the preceding post you will see that the context makes it perfectly clear that that is what I meant.)

You then say:

“Most of the responses to me in this thread seem to be along the lines of 'but that doesn't fit well with my understanding of morality'.”

Not quite. I say that these beliefs are not moral truths:

1. All wrong doing must be “paid for” with suffering and/or blood.

2. The sins of one person can be "paid for" with the suffering/blood of another.

3. We are all so utterly steeped in sin, that only the torture and death of a sinless god/man can "pay" the price and save us from… (well, what, hell?)

You can just assert these are moral truths, of course.

However, seems to me, you yourself don’t really buy into this moral point of view: while primitive peoples might have ordered their lives in accordance with it, no modern Christian does. You would surely consider a court that, say, allowed an innocent child to be sacrificed to “pay for” a murderer’s sin to be profoundly immoral. Indeed, somewhat bonkers! This would not “make sense”, morally speaking.

That's precisely my reaction to your little theory about Jesus' blood and suffering "paying for" my sins.

BTW, do you really see each human being as so full of sin that a price must be "paid" in blood, suffering and death, and not just their blood, suffering and death (for that wouldn't be nearly a big enough "price") but that of a sinless god/man? Can't you take a step back and see, not just how bonkers that is, but also what an awful, poisonous word view it is?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 7.

This chapter argues that not only should we not base our morality on scripture, as a matter of fact we don't base it on scripture - "and a very good thing too" (p. 267).

The chapter begins with the Old Testament - presenting a range of Outrageous Tales. I myself remember, as a child (perhaps about 9 or so), being puzzled by the Old Testament. Not only did my church school present the stories as true, they were clearly supposed to encapsulate a moral perspective we were expected to admire and emulate. Even at the time, I found it hard to reconcile the Christmas message of baby Jesus meek and mild with the jealous, bloodthirsty tyrant who told Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son.

There's a lot in this chapter. I am going to focus on one thing, which also puzzled me as a child. The atonement. Dawkins says:

"I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic, and repellent. We should dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitousness and familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment...?" (p.287)

While I don't agree with Dawkins about everything, I do agree with him about this. Particularly about the anaesthetic of familiarity killing of our awareness of just how ridiculous the whole theory is. It is, indeed, a sort of scapegoat theory...

"...executing the an innocent in order to pay for the sins of the guilty.... To cap it all, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place: an awkward fact... which fundamentally undermines the premise of the whole tortuously nasty theory. Oh, but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn't it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual?" (P. 287)

I think this is one of the finest passages in the book (which I admit is in many ways flawed). I, like Dawkins, find myself utterly baffled by the whole story. It really doesn't make any sense (of course, for some, the fact that we can make no sense of it is precisely what makes it, not a load of cobblers, but truly impressive - you see it's a holy mystery!)

What I'd like to see is how Christians respond to this. How would the Rev. Sam respond, for example? If you've got a minute, Sam...?

Monday, October 13, 2008

angel (good)


angel (good), originally uploaded by stephenwilliamlaw.

Found this tatty old negative. Self-portrait taken about 23 years ago in my bedsit in London. The inclusion of kitchen sink is deliberate. I have left the dust and scratches on, as I like the effect.

Clearly there was something slightly wrong with me back then. I even made those wings myself. Could be this year's Christmas card.

angel (bad)


angel (bad), originally uploaded by stephenwilliamlaw.

Here's the bad angel. Rather unhealthy obsession with religion even back then....

Saturday, October 11, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 6.

It's a week late, but it's here.

I found this one of the most interesting chapters of the book, despite the fact that I knew much of what was in it already. Dawkins very effectively marshals much of the recent empirical work that has be done on the evolutionary roots of morality in order to refute the silly, but widespread, view that without religion society will quickly degenerate into a seething cesspool of depravity.

Many of the points Dawkins makes here I also make in The War For Children's Minds. He includes some that I don't, and vice verse

For example, I didn't include the Hauser/Singer work, and Dawkins does not attempt to deal with that very popular move - "The only reason Western civilization has not collapsed without religion is that the moral capital has not run out yet." I discuss the "moral capital" move - as used by U.S. neo-cons and the Bishop of Oxford - here.

I suppose I should provide at least one criticism of the chapter, or anticipate one that might be made. So here goes.

At the end, Dawkins says:

The springboard for this discussion of moral philosophy was the hypothetical claim that without a God, morals are relative and arbitrary. (p.267)

In fact, surprisingly, this chapter never deals with the objection that, without God, morals are relative and arbitrary.

Yes, it gives a causal explanation of why we have the moral attitudes and beliefs we do, which I am sure has much truth to it.

But the "springboard" issue - that without God, morals are relative and arbitrary - really turns on the questions: (i) are our moral beliefs are really true (rather than false, or meaningless, or whatever)? (ii), if so, what makes our moral beliefs true? and (ii) what grounds have we for believing them true?

Dawkins's causal story leaves these three questions pretty much unanswered.

It's one thing to explain causally why someone believes killing is wrong, quite another to explain how killing is wrong is or can be true (given, say, a purely naturalistic world view like Dawkins's), yet another to explain what grounds there might be for supposing killing is wrong is true.

Dawkins's critics will insist you need God to explain the latter two things, and that without God, there can be no genuine moral truth or moral knowledge. They will want to see Dawkins provide alternative, non-religious answers.

Trouble is, Dawkins does not bother to supply any such answers. And yet, at the end of the chapter, he seems to think has has (see the above quote). He thinks he is tackling the "springboard" issue.

That's odd (Dawkins may be muddling reasons and causes here [see part two of this essay]).

Note that Dawkins's causal story is actually compatible with a range of answers to these questions, including, I suspect the standard religious one.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT at 15.53 11.10.08: To put this all into a soundbite: Dawkins answers the question, "Will we be good without God?" whereas the "springboard" challenge is "Can there be good without God?"

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Apologies

Er, v sorry about delays re posts. Total work meltdown....

I am hoping we can be back on track shortly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

FRSA etc.


Apologies for there being fewer posts. I am totally snowed under, what with beginning of term, plus getting some rather labour-intensive, but rather exciting, things sorted for Centre for Inquiry. News on that shortly.

I will, eventually, be getting back to a number of issues left hanging, such as Jesus' historicity.

God Delusion Chpt. 6 will be tomorrow.

One bit of news is that I have been elected a fellow by the Royal Society of Arts, which means I'm an FRSA. I initially threw their invitation to become a fellow in the bin, as I had little idea what the RSA was, and you have to pay £120 p.a. to belong. Then they contacted me again and I realized it was, actually, something of an honour to be invited. Their building on the Strand is rather impressive, and has wifi, a cheap bar and decent restaurant. It seems, primarily, to be a club. Karl Marx, Adam Smith and Dickens were all members.