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Showing posts from November, 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).

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 crackpot

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 bet

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

Sleight-of-hand with “faith”

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

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

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

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 ha

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 (

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

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 t

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.

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

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 M y 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."