Link blog: richard-dawkins, science, funny, psychology

Give us your misogynists and bigots

Dawkins on the Poaching Pope. "Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity." How strident!
(tags: richard-dawkins catholicism religion christianity anglicanism pope)

Triple negatives and Conservapedia’s support for Hitler « Gowers’s Weblog

Gowers shows that Conservapedia's article on Richard Dawkins proves that Conservapedia is evil, using MATHS.
(tags: funny mathematics maths conservapedia richard-dawkins morality)

Out of LSD? Just 15 Minutes of Sensory Deprivation Triggers Hallucinations

Interesting stuff. Reminded me of Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World", where he talks about how common hallucinations are.
(tags: psychology science hallucinations wired brain neuroscience)
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Dancing: Pat pp Bruce: Waltz, Clive: Waltz

<lj-cut text=”Cut for waltz triggers”>
Pat pp Bruce: Waltz

Start facing diag wall about half way across a short side.
Spin turn, turning lock across corner (end in pp, ready to move diag centre on new line)
Running weave.
Back, side, cross (sway to R to lead cross).
Double reverse spin.
Forward, side, cross (sway to L to lead cross).
Back, side, rotate to throwaway oversway.
Recover and chasse out.

Clive: Waltz

Start facing diag wall at the beginning of a long side.
Two steps of a natural (forward R, side L), stretching L side up, step back R (back diag centre) and pivot to face diag centre as you lower. Clive was dancing this as “bouncing off” the full extent of the stretch into the pivot, I think.
Open telemark (end in pp ready to travel diag to wall)
Open natural (cross over her, right shoulder back on step 3)
Back under body (L), heel pull (pull R heel in and push it away to the side, then put weight on it), curve walks L, R to end OP facing back diag wall with sway to R (1,2&3) (she has a heel turn followed by the curving walks)
Back L, heel pull R, forward L, to end facing LoD
Double natural spin (like double reverse, but opposite feet): forward R, side L starting to turn, turn and lower onto L leaving RF free). You’re going to step OP on her RHS with your RF, so you need a bit of body rotation at the end to put her a bit more on your RHS than usual, but not too much.
Wing (forward R on her RHS, draw LF to RF without weight for 2, 3)
Chasse to R (in St C’s this is across the new LoD on the short side),
Weave ending.

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Link blog: robin-hanson, anglicanism, roger-zelazny, life

Was our oldest ancestor a proton-powered rock? – life – 19 October 2009 – New Scientist

Of course not, God did it. Still, it's a fascinating theory, and a well written article from New Scientist.
(tags: evolution life science dna research biology ocean bacteria abiogenesis)

Zelazny, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”

Zelazny's classic short story.
(tags: roger-zelazny ecclesiastes SF scifi mars)

The death of death… « The Saint Barnabas’ Blog

The blog entry of the Anglican priest and goodwill diplomat who's been railing against secular funerals and Tina Turner songs at religious ones, who found himself reported on in the Torygraph and Daily Fail. Choice quote: "Whereas the best our secularist friends (and those they dupe) can hope for is a poem from nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection." Well, Christians certainly have the *hope* of resurrection, I suppose. And we can all agree that Tina Turner is a bad thing.
(tags: religion death funeral christianity anglicanism secularism)

Overcoming Bias as it Suits Us

When Eliezer met the feminists: an old thread on mswyrr's LJ which got started when Robin Hanson wondered why the Overcoming Bias community was so male. It's an interesting precursor to the Pickup Artist debates over on Less Wrong.
(tags: feminism cognitive-bias overcoming-bias eliezer-yudkowsky robin-hanson)
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Losing My Religion or The Truth About CICCU: talk to CUAAS

The talk to CUAAS was surprisingly well attended, given I spoke at the same time as Jo Brand, who I met on my way to the loos (we exchanged nods, as one speaker at the Cambridge Union does to another: it is not the done thing to make much of these things). I’m not sure how many CICCU people turned up, since they didn’t make themselves known to me (apparently one woman was frantically making notes during my sermon, a well known evangelical habit, so I suspect there were a few). I spoke too fast, but people in Cambridge hear fast, so that’s probably OK.

Below, you can find my notes, with some hyperlinks to expand on the things I said.

“The Truth about CICCU”?

  • Not my tabloid headline, blame your committee 🙂
  • No toe-curling tales of secret rituals, alas.
  • In fact, none of this stuff is a secret.
  • But if you’re not a Christian, you might be curious about just what “those people” get up to, and why.
  • And if you’re a here as CICCU person wondering what I’m going to say, you’ll find out some stuff I wish I’d known as a CICCU member.
    • Not just that God isn’t real, either 🙂

Who I am:

  • Came up in 94, Churchill, NatSci (physics) for 4 years.
    • That means I’m incredibly old and all this stuff could be out of date
    • But I had a look at the CICCU website and things sound familiar, so…
  • Lived and worked in Cambridge after that, going to the church I went to as a student.
    • Gradually lost my faith during 2002.
    • Still interested in talking about religion and trying to understand it.
      • As well as taking the mickey occasionally.

How I got in

  • Parents sent me to a church school because of the “ethos”.
  • Followed a friend to Christian Union meetings there.
  • Read the entire New Testament as a sixth former, decided it sounded true.
  • So, I came up Christian already, but didn’t have a church.
  • Went to CU meetings at Churchill because a “Christian Union” sounded like a good thing to be in, just like the ones at school and sixth form were.

What it was like

  • I have my old emails. Everyone should keep theirs. So….
  • Initially, I just went to the college CU meetings, not the central ones in town.
  • College CUs got together, sang songs, prayed, read the Bible.
    • Though CICCU appointed the college reps, the individual CUs were friendlier to non-CICCU Christians than the central meetings.
  • Also got into a “prayer triplet”: meeting up with a couple of other guys to pray for each other and discuss what was often quite personal stuff. Nearest thing to a confessional in the evangelical world.
  • Everyone was friendly but over the course of the first year I began to feel that CICCU weren’t where I was:
    • I had gay friends and I knew CICCU disapproved of homosexuality (though not of being friends with gay people: how else to evangelise?)
  • Prayer triplet wanted me to go to one of the churches in Cambridge and stick with it. I was a bit shy of churches, but started going to St Andrew the Great.
    • St Andrew the Great is one of the churches in Cambridge that gets lots of students.
    • It’s Church of England, but conservative evangelical:
      • Evangelical: not just “in favour of converting people” (though that too): Bible inerrancy, personal response to God, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for sins). See the CICCU Doctrinal Basis.
      • Conservative: not politically (necessarily) but not given to things like speaking in tongues, prophesy in the church and so on. Emphasis on finding what God wants through Bible reading and prayer.
    • I thought StAG was good
      • Preaching was, and is, more interesting than sermons at middle of the road churches
    • But more “fundamentalist” than I was.
      • They’re not fundamentalist really, they’re evangelical, but I wasn’t very theologically sophisticated at that point.

  • Turning point: at the end of the first long vacation, went to CU “House party” in Derbyshire. (Churchill plus a couple of nearby colleges)
    • Mix of God stuff and walking, playing games and stuff.
    • The Bible stuff was impressive: the guest preacher had done a lot of thinking about the book we were reading.
    • The people were also impressive: I wanted to me more like them.
  • Decided to start reading the Bible by myself regularly, and praying.
  • Generally felt more committed to Christianity (and gradually became more evangelical).
  • Started going to the central meetings in town.
    • CICCU is a big name in some Christian circles, so they got people whose books I’d read and who were good speakers.
  • Briefly stopped worrying about how to get women to like me, which is tricky for a first year NatSci.
    • Then started worrying about how to get Christian women to like me.
  • Someone obviously noticed I’d got serious, because I was asked to lead Bible studies for my college’s CU in my third year.
    • Met other UCCF staff worker and study leaders to study the passage ourselves, went back to college and lead the group.
    • The “right answers” from the UCCF guy tend to win out because it’s hard to get anyone else to say anything at all (they’re shy), not because no other answers were tolerated.
  • CICCU missions
    • Happen in Lent term.
    • There’s a mini-mission on off years, and a big one every 3 years so every undergrad gets at least one big one.
    • Have always caused a bit of controversy, some years more than others.
    • Usually someone says something stupid about gay people, or someone gets offended by finding a gospel in their pigeon hole.
      • Handing out copies of a gospel to your friends is incredibly nerve wracking. Personally I don’t see the need to get offended by that: it’s a free book.
      • On the other hand, as an atheist I’d press them on the stuff about gays as hard as possible: it’s not nice (unlike the “permanently nice” image Christians have), and it’s not even what all Christians think. I get the impression a lot of evangelicals are secretly embarrassed about it.
    • I dragged friends to a few of the events, but none of them converted, fortunately.
  • Strategy varies: either “gospel is magic” or trying to look at “worldviews” (one CICCU mission when I was an undergrad was even called Paradigm Shift).
    • CICCUs current web pages suggest “gospel is magic” is fashionable again. Also, flares are in this season.
    • Note that Christians who believe Romans 1 often think that philosophical or theological arguments are a smoke screen for people who don’t want to admit that God exists and they should worship him.

  • Summer holiday camps
    • Run by Christian organisations, for churchy kids and friends.
    • Usually sort of activity holiday combined with telling the kids about God stuff.
    • Practically compulsory for CICCU members (“strongly encouraged”).
    • I found a programming/electronics one called LiveWires, which was great.
      • Not at all like “Jesus Camp”, if you’ve seen the film.

How it felt.

  • It can’t be all bad, or no-one would do it, right?
  • It feels good to be part of a group dedicated to what you think is a worthy cause.
    • To the extent that Christians evangelise, they’re acting in your interests, according to their beliefs.
  • Christians are not all stupid (just mistaken). CICCU’s brand of Christianity was intellectually satisfying (but closed, of which more later).
    • Seriously studying the Bible turns out to be interesting.
    • Being taught by big names at the top of their game, likewise.
    • CICCU’s version of inerrancy allows some parts of the Bible to be myth (in the technical sense) rather than reportage.
      • Did not require you to be a young earth creationist. I was a theistic evolutionist.
  • A lot of worries about whether you’re doing enough/your best.
    • The evangelical anthropology is deeply pessimistic about human nature.
    • You can find forgiveness, but only by admitting you’re basically bad.
    • Christians always think everyone else around them is a better Christian (or at least, I did).
  • Tension between piety and worldliness.
    • It would be possible to spend your entire social life doing Christian stuff (CICCU explicitly told us not to: how else to evangelise?).
    • Whether/how much to drink.
    • Fuss about trivia: Halloween formals.
    • Guilt about sex, inside and outside relationships.
      • Relationships with non-Christians are a big no-no, but people do it (usually the Christian women, much to my annoyance).
  • These are people trying to find their way in the world.
    • “Strident” pronouncements may hide insecurity.
      • Though sometimes people really mean them, so it’s best to engage with the arguments.
  • Most Christians doubt.
    • But exercise “faith” in the sense of “trust” in a person.
    • “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Why I got out

  • Real life comes as a shock for many student Christians. CICCU/StAG knows this. To graduands, they say:
    • Many of you will “fall away”. (Possibly apocryphal) UCCF surveys give numbers like 50% after 5 years. So…
    • Get into a “church where the Bible is taught”.
    • Don’t get into relationships with non-Christians.
  • Of course, I stayed at StAG and got into a relationship with a Christian woman.
  • But CICCU had taught me that the most important thing was whether Christianity was true, and I slowly became convinced that it wasn’t.
  • Christianity rests on facts: “facts, faith, feelings”
  • The truth shouldn’t depend on who you’re with.
    • Why is it that so many Christians give up if Christianity is so obviously true?
    • “The devil made me do it”: is he stronger than God?
    • Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, chapter 4:

      Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” [Is this sounding familiar?] So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

  • Here are my reasons. There are others, but these are the ones that did for me:

  • Evangelical morality is sensible in some places and horrible in others.
    • obvious: homosexuality
    • less obvious: anthropology that says everyone’s really bad and deserves Hell.

  • Is God really good? The OT is a problem, the NT perhaps (surprisingly) more so:

    “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.” – A. A. Milne.

    In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”‘ or merely slapping his side & chortling “God, isn’t God a shit!” – Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. “Randolph” is Randolph Churchill.

    • Evangelicals think the OT massacres are history, and that the Bible accurately records God commanding them, and even telling Israelites off for not finishing the job properly.
    • The other nations around Israel were brutal too, but can an omnipotent God do no better than to have armies slaughter men women and children?
    • The NT is popularly seen as fluffier, but Jesus talks a lot about Hell, as does Paul. As for the book of Revelation…
      • Some respected evangelicals (John Stott) believe that non-believers will be destroyed rather than punished eternally.
      • Some (C.S. Lewis) have adopted a Buddhist idea where “the doors of hell are barred from the inside”. But this seems to conflict with the judicial model of substitutionary atonement. Does God judge us or not?
      • If you push evangelicals, they’ll tell you you’re going to hell, though they might fall back on one of these ideas.
      • Hell makes God seem vindictive (since failing to worship him is the biggest sin), arbitrary (since some people get better evidence than others), and incompetent (since he relies on fallible humans, who do a bad job of evangelism).
  • Problem of suffering
    • Freedom of action is a good thing, but we all recognise limits.
    • Some suffering just seems gratuitous: diseases, natural disasters.
    • Christians don’t have any good answers, they just have a “possibly, therefore probably” argument: God could possibly have a reason, and that’ll do for us.
  • How do I know what’s good without God? Well, how do you know with God (Christians disagree, as do other theists)?
    • Everyone has the problem of where you start from when deciding what is moral, and this includes Christians, whatever they may tell you. Unnecessary suffering seems pretty bad to most people.
    • Assume C.S. Lewis is right and that our moral sense somehow does come from God. But we think it is immoral not to lift a finger to help someone, especially when doing so would have little or no cost to us. Contradiction: either Lewis is wrong, or God isn’t good.

  • Where’s God?
  • Conservative evangelicalism tells you not to expect too many supernatural experiences, the Bible is sufficient.
    • But why not? Can argue about “free will”, but does God care less for your salvation than for the Apostle Paul’s?
  • Evangelicals hate the term “religion” to be applied to their beliefs. True (that is, evangelical) Christianity is a relationship with God, not a religion (by which evangelicals mean “empty rituals trying to earn God’s favour”).
    • But this “relationship” is odd. One party doesn’t talk much, and when he does, the people he’s talked to disagree radically about what he said. As Carrier says, this is not what we’d expect if God really wanted a relationship with us.
    • “Free will” doesn’t work here: Christians actively want some communication from God (especially in the painful throes of doubt).

  • In the end, during an on-line debate with another Christian about some point on the Bible, I realised we were debating about a book, and God either wasn’t there or didn’t care. I stopped going to church in early 2002.
  • It took me over a year to get from there to the point where I’d call myself an atheist.
    • Leaving is hard: sometimes you still want there to be a God.
    • You have told friends you’re a Christian.
    • You’ve even got Christian friends. And girlfriends…
      • That relationship didn’t last (partly because my faith was waning), and when it was over, I realised there was nothing keeping me from admitting my position any more.
  • So here I am.

What I wish I’d known

  • Some of this stuff is blindingly obvious now, and yet…

  • I got in because I read the NT and it sort of made sense to me, so:
    • Don’t believe everything you read.
    • Ask yourself why you feel something is right.
    • The NT has pretty good manuscripts. Most variations are insignificant, but the mere fact of variations ought to give inerrantists pause (see Bart Ehrman‘s books), plus some stuff does seem important: the earliest gospel account of the Resurrection is textually doubtful.
    • Even if a book describes some things accurately, it has not necessarily got all of them right.
    • Evangelicals like to accuse non-Christians of treating the Bible differently from other ancient literature. Herodotus writes history and has dragons in it. Should be believe in dragons?
    • Evangelicals like to say that the origins of Christianity are best explained by the Resurrection, so we cannot treat such accounts differently from other history without begging the question (that is, assuming what we want to prove, namely, that there was no Resurrection). Lessing and the ugly broad ditch:

      “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

      This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.”

    • In fact, evangelicals have not explained why we should treat the Resurrection stories as true if we don’t also accept better attested miracle claims. (Fatima miracle of the Sun, 1917, accompanied by visions of Mary: should we become Catholics?).
  • I got further in because evangelicals had an impressive system for interpreting the Bible.
    • This method seems completely obvious to evangelicals. You probably won’t have much luck convincing them otherwise.
    • Satisfying but closed:
    • Evangelical Bible overviews (such as the one I taught) assume a unity in the Bible. This glosses over a lot of differences.
      • See liberal Christians or Ehrman again.
    • It’s anachronistic:
      • Not the way the church was doing it for many years (allegorical interpretation, see Karen Armstrong, despite her bad rep among atheists). When did true Christianity start again?
      • Not the way the NT writers interpret the OT (see Peter Enns).
    • It’s always possible to make inerrancy work (Quine), however odd it looks from the outside.
      • But it forces you to adopt some twisted interpretations. It’s ironic that people with so much reverence for the Bible end up doing it so much violence.
  • I stayed in because I thought it was right to trust God, that such trust was a virtue.
    • But this transplants our intuition that we should trust friends onto someone whose very existence is in question.
    • We should not change our minds for bad reasons. If we’re depressed, it may look as if God’s not there, and if we’re happy, we may think he is. But…
    • We change our minds less often than we think, because we see ourselves as fighting for our chosen side (atheists are not immune to this). Eliezer Yudkowsky:

      Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.

    • Yudkowsky is good. Read his stuff.
  • I stayed in because I didn’t know what was outside.
    • People who aren’t your friends if you leave weren’t your friends anyway.
      • Not that this is necessarily a failing on their part: we all have acquaintances we wouldn’t see if we didn’t do some particular activity.
    • Your world does not collapse into chaos if you leave.
      • Unless you’re prepared to really work at it by being stupid. So don’t do that then.
    • If there isn’t a God, then this, here, now, is what a world without a God looks like. Eugene Gendlin:

      What is true is already so.
      Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
      Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
      And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
      Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
      People can stand what is true,
      for they are already enduring it.

There was a question and answer session afterwards. I remember some questions along the lines of:<lj-cut>

Why didn’t you realise it was nonsense, you’re a scientist? What about carbon dating?

I wasn’t a young earth creationist, and neither the CU nor my church said I should be. In fact, YEC and ID weren’t particularly popular among Cambridge evangelicals back then (though some people did believe them). I don’t know whether British evangelicalism has changed under the influence of America in recent years.

The problem is not so much that intelligent Christians directly contradict science, but that they make up additions which aren’t backed by evidence.

Was it OK to have doubts as a CICCU person?

Yes. Churches and CUs expect it, things like prayer triplets provide an environment where such doubts can be expresssed. What they don’t really expect is for people to doubt successfully. At the end of it all, they should still come out an evangelical.

What’s the disagreement I’ve noticed between CICCU and college chapels?

It’s historical: CICCU got very evangelical in response to the SCM’s liberalism. College chaplains didn’t like CICCU because of demarcation. Still, it depends on who’s running the college CICCU group and who’s running the chapel that year: sometimes they get along just fine.

Would you agree now that Christianity isn’t intellectually satisfying?

Yes and no. Yes: borrowing from Kuhn again, evangelical Christianity is a paradigm in which it’s possible to get useful things done, according to the paradigm’s ideas of what is useful. Those things are satisfying: learning more about the Bible is intellectually satisfying, seeing people become Christians is emotionally satisfying, and so on.

No: because I wasn’t satisfied, and I’ve yet to be convinced that any Christian arguments hold up. (My questioner said he’d kept going to CICCU talks thinking this time he’d hear a good argument. I think I rashly praised Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, which caused a bit of a stir: maybe there weren’t that many CICCU people there after all).

On Craig: has someone won a debate if they’re wrong?

You can admit Craig wins debates without thereby being compelled to become a Christian. His opponents aren’t wrong (IMHO), they just fail to make their case (usually). As scribb1e said later, you don’t call something a proof in mathematics if it’s invalid, even if the result turns out to be true. Arguments are not soldiers, again.

Consider yourself lucky you got out so young. Do you feel relieved? Do you miss it?

I miss aspects of it: the working towards a common cause already mentioned; the singing; the feeling that everything’s under control. But yes, I was very relieved not to have to struggle any more with it. I think I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about stuff which wasn’t worth worrying about. I’d hate anyone else to do the same: hence the web page.

Thanks to CUAAS for inviting me and giving me pizza. I had fun, and I hope my listeners did too.

Edited: Rave reviews continue to pour in. Well, William liked it, anyway, and has some observations on “atheist societies” to boot.

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I’m giving a talk to CUAAS tomorrow

I’m giving a talk to the Cambridge University Atheist and Agnostic Society tomorrow, Monday 19th October, at 7.30 pm in the Union Society building (the one behind the Round Church). Apparently it’s £1 for non-members, a bargain if ever I saw one.

I’ll cover some of the ground covered by my Losing My Religion essay, with a bit more of a Cambridge focus. I think they’re hoping for some dark secrets about CICCU, which is unfortunate, because as far as I know there aren’t any (anyone who knows different is invited to leave a comment below), but I’ll do my best.

Edited: I’ve blogged my notes and what I remember of the Q&A after the talk.

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Link blog: christianity, religion, philosophy, cambridge

Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics

D Gene Witmer on how best to response to Christian presuppositionalists. I ran into one of them online recently, which was fun.
(tags: religion presuppositionalism apologetics christianity philosophy rationality logic induction morality system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

God is not the Creator, claims academic

In a sense, this isn't news: a lot of the religions that were contemporaries of Judaism had a creation story involving gods making order out of chaos rather than creating the universe from nothing, though I'd previously read that this was referred to in the Bible more obliquely than the this new theory suggests (e.g. water + Leviathan symbolises chaos in Psalm 74). If this idea catches on, it'll be interesting to see the new ideas the Abrahamic religions come up with to harmonise this with science 🙂
(tags: religion bible history christianity creationism creation god chaos)

Plantinga: Religious Beilef as Properly Basic

A nice introduction to Plantinga's ideas. I've not read his books, so I don't know how accurately they're summarised, but it seems to fit with what I've read elsewhere.
(tags: belief philosophy plantinga epistemology christianity religion alvin-plantinga)

PRISMs, Gom Jabbars, and Consciousness

Peter Watts talks about a paper which claims consciousness arose out of the need to chose between conflicting motor impulses.
(tags: consciousness science scifi sci-fi peter-watts)

Demon ready to kill in city church

Magus Shadee (Wiz 5, Necromatic) apparently cast Summon Monster in the big Catholic church in Cambridge. Local clerics of Papem, god of guilt about sex, say they'll summon the City Watch, though it's not clear what they'd do about it. I'd've thought the clerics would be better off casting some defensive spells of their own.
(tags: woo-woo christianity cambridge occult paganism witchcraft)
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Christian Presuppositionalism: buh?

I recently had a random encounter with a proponent of Christian presuppositionalism, over on the Premier Christian Radio forums. Presuppositionalism is a pretty odd position: not content with pointing out the evidence in favour of Christianity, as most Christians do, the presuppositionalist apparently reckons that unless you presuppose the existence of the Christian God, you can’t possibly make any sense of the world at all. The original thread the discussion was on got very convoluted (not helped by Ning‘s limit on thread nesting depth: if you ever want to start a social network, don’t use Ning, it’s crap). I started another one over here. My initial posting is below, for my reference and also because I’d like to know what you guys think of it. I’m an amateur philosopher, but I know there are some pros reading. Here’s what I said:

I’d like to clear the decks a bit rather than arguing in circles. I’m kind of new to presuppostionalism. I used to be a reformed evangelical, but more of an evidentialist (now I’m an atheist, as you might have gathered). Here’s what I’ve managed to glean so far:

Presuppositionalism (as advocated by Sye, at least) seems to be the position that it is necessary to presuppose that the Christian God exists in order to make any sense of the world at all. On this view, the Christian God is the only possible explanation for various stuff which we need for the world to make sense, like logic, mathematics, and our apparent ability to reason from specific cases to general cases (“all the copper we’ve seen conducts electricity, so all copper conducts electricity”). (This sort of reasoning is usually referred to by philosophers of science as “induction”, but note that it’s not the same thing as “proof by induction” technique you may have learned in maths lessons). I’ll refer to these things as “logic and stuff”.

<lj-cut text=”Now read on…”> The method of attack used by the presups (I’m now going to start using this abbreviation to save me from RSI) is to present the only possible alternatives as Christianity (of the reformed, inerrantist sort: liberals presumably need not apply) and radical scepticism, the belief that knowledge is impossible. You can see this method at work on the previous thread here, and in Sye’s responses to Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher. This is a bold claim: not only is the Christian God an explanation for logic and stuff, but it’s the only possible one.

Sye himself doesn’t appear to have an argument that Christianity is the only possible explanation. On Law’s blog, he asserted something called “the impossibility of the contrary”, but never made an argument in detail that the contrary is in fact impossible. Instead, his tactic is to attack whatever other possible position his opponent prefers, or, if his opponent won’t commit to a single preferred position, to attack them on the basis that they are using logic and stuff without sufficient grounds to believe that it produces true results.

David Snoke, a Christian professor of physics, has written a critique of presup from a reformed Christian perspective. It’s an interesting article: Snoke also goes into the history of presup ideas and various schools of thought within presup. I’m guessing Sye is more taken with Cornelius van Til than with Alvin Plantinga.

Of course, as I don’t possess the Holy Spirit, I’m unqualified to judge Snoke’s Biblical arguments. Instead, here are a few problems I see with presup:

1. Presups have not established the impossibility of the contrary. If presups were merely to claim that the contrary was unlikely, it might be possible to make an argument if presups could defeat all other known possibilities, but an argument to establish impossibility requires ruling out unknown possibilities as well.

2. Presup does not in fact remove the problems of knowledge that it claims to, so not only doesn’t establish itself as the only way to avoid radical scepticism, but doesn’t establish itself as a valid way to do so. Examples:

2a. Presups claim knowledge from God by revelation, but have not accounted for disagreements among Christians. Presups claim that the presup position itself is a revelation from God, but it seems God has not given this revelation to Christians like Snoke (and Richard Morgan, in the other thread). A presup might claim that God gives different revelations to different Christians, but this seems to further undermine their position (see below).

2b. Presups claim that non-Christians actually know the Christian God exists but suppress this knowledge. (Other Christians, for example, Richard Morgan and Karal (whose replies seem to have disappeared), disagree, another instance of problem 2a). While it’s possible for people to be deluded, presups have not explained how a mere mortal could shut out the revelation of an omnipotent being. Why not, as Carrier says, expect that “Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.”?

2c. Presups claim that non-Christians have no grounds to trust the evidence of their senses, memory or reasoning, but this is also true of presups. Whether the presup claim is that God’s reveals himself to their senses (by reading the Bible, say) or directly into their minds, someone with control of the Christian’s senses or with the inner workings of their mind could still deceive them (for example, by making what are apparently revelations from God). In this, the Christian is no better off than the non-Christian. Worse, even if God exists, according to Christians, humans cannot understand all his motives. Though he is generally in favour of truth, God might give a false revelation if it served his own purposes, just as God apparently allows suffering for some greater purpose despite being generally in favour of relieving suffering. So the presup cannot have absolute confidence in the truth of revelation even if it comes from God.

2d. Preups claim that the Christian God makes induction work, but I’m not quite clear what the actual claim is here. Do they claim to have a solution to the New Riddle of Induction, for example?

3. Presups claim that the Christian God is the only possible explanation. There does not seem to be a good reason why other sorts of God would not do.
3a. Sye mentioned that Allah will not do because the Quran contradicts itself. Yet he also claims that non-Christians cannot interpret the Bible correctly. If this is a legitimate move, surely a Muslim could claim that a non-Muslim could not interpret the Quran correctly (they might even add “How do you like your argument now?”) In fact, Sye’s reference to the contents of the Quran seems to be an evidential objection to Islam, not a presup one at all (but I won’t grass him up to the Presup Doctrinal Rectitude Council if he doesn’t want me too).

4. Worse, it’s not clear that some atheistic views won’t do as well as presup. In the other thread, I suggested Platonism, the view that logic and stuff exists necessarily and non-physically, and that this stuff governs the universe, and is perceptible to humans either because humans have some faculty that allows them to perceive it, or because humans evolved in a universe so governed (the second of these is probably weaker, but it’s a line of retreat in case the perceptual argument doesn’t work).
4a. Sye asks whether logic and stuff reveals itself, on this view, or whether humans perceive it autonomously. On Platonism, I take it the latter is true, because logic and stuff is impersonal, not a personal God. This seems to remove part of objection 2c, namely, that God might chose to deceive us, since impersonal stuff cannot chose anything. It also does well against the equivalent of options 2a and 2b, since if perception of logic and stuff is a human faculty, it may be weaker or non-existent in some people, and logic and stuff cannot be said to have chosen to allow this to happen.
4b. Sye asks for an example of such perceptions. I’d say that the truth of modus ponens is something we can just see to be true, and on Platonism, we just see it using this faculty.

To sum up, presup seems a vain attempt to avoid the problem that every theory of knowledge has to start somewhere (or be circular or infinitely recursive, I suppose) by grounding the starting point in God. However, I think I have more confidence that, say, logic “works” than we do in why. I drive my car without knowing what’s under the bonnet, and, unless there’s a Cartesian daemon deluding my senses, it apparently still gets me from A to B. I might claim that it runs on petrol (gasoline) or on batteries or on some as yet unknown technology, Sye might claim it runs on God. Yet the world is as it is: my car runs on something, and if it isn’t God, it’s something else.

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Department of dirty hacks: the link blog script

As promised, the link blog stuff is now working. It’s pulling links and descriptions from my Delicious bookmarks and posting them to LJ in batches of 10 or more, or when there’s stuff to be posted and nothing’s been posted for 4 days. Let me know if it becomes annoying.

Here comes the science

It turns out there’s a PHP script called Delicious Glue to do this, but that would involve using PHP, so no (gateway drug: next thing you know, you’ll be using Perl). It looks like that script also doesn’t cope with the brave new world of Unicode terribly well, doesn’t tag the LJ post using the tags from Delicious, and doesn’t support the elaborate posting scheme described in the previous paragraph. Also, it wasn’t invented here.

So I did it in Python. Mark Pilgrim’s excellent Universal Feed Parser module does much of the heavy lifting. Posting to LJ using XML RPC turns out to be surprisingly easy using the built-in xmlrpclib. Most of the faff comes in getting it to persist state between runs of the script, which I’m doing using pickle. Here’s the code: you’d need to be a programmer to adapt it for your own use, but if you are, it shouldn’t be hard. I’ll probably run it daily using cron.

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Link blog: religion, christianity, de-conversion, politics

What Is Evil For The Darwinist, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan posts some well-reasoned letters from readers on the question of what a non-theist would call "evil" (presumably responses to the old "how can you say God is evil when you don't have a basis for morality?" question). Bizarrely, he then describes them as showing "contempt" for religion. There's no pleasing some people. The letters are good, anyway.

seek and ye shall find…. but what?

“If you REALLY had been a Christian you would have never de-converted.” vs the observation that many de-converts are former Christian ministers.
(tags: de-conversion religion christianity)

Buddhism and the God-idea

Interesting. I liked: "Whether we call those superior beings gods, deities, devas or angels is of little importance, since it is improbable that they call themselves by any of those names."
(tags: buddhism god religion)

Why it’s so hard to quantify false rape charges. – By Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore – Slate Magazine

False accusations probably account for 8 to 10% of all accusations, though the research isn't conclusive, and it's not clear how this compares to false reporting of other crimes. Interesting story about the falsely accused man who found support from his girlfriend who had been raped some time ago: emotions were similar on both sides.
(tags: feminism research rape crime)

Justice with Michael Sandel – Home

Harvard has put Michael Sandel's justly popular "Justice" course on the web. Well worth watching.
(tags: education philosophy morality ethics video community politics harvard justice)

Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermaneutics

Susan Wise Bauer in Christianity Today, writing about Peter Enns, who noticed that the NT authors don't interpret the OT the way evangelicals would. I liked this bit: "This is the exactly the kind of exegesis that terrifies most evangelicals. The man who admits that meanings can be "read into" Scripture stands on the fabled slippery slope, right above a sheer drop-off, while below him churns a sea of relativism, upon which floats only a single overloaded lifeboat, captained by a radical feminist gay & lesbian & transgender activist who is very anxious to make the final decision about who gets pitched overboard."
(tags: bible hermaneutics peter-enns christianity religion paul old-testament)

What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.

This sounds familiar.
(tags: ex-christian de-conversion atheism christianity religion)

Omnipresent G-d (LORD_YHWH) on Twitter

God's on Twitter, with some new commandments. I don't know why these atheists complain about divine hiddeness. "My word is a knife made white by heat, such as that which one uses to cut pastrami." – wisdom for us all there.
(tags: god yhwh religion funny satire christianity judaism twitter)

Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks

An interesting essay which talks about the demarcation problem in science and argues that we should be against creation science because it's wrong, not try to argue about what science is. I'm shocked he referred to a Christian belief as "bollocks". I got told off for that once.
(tags: bollocks science pseudoscience epistemology empiricism logical-positivism karl-popper popper creationism dover)

Thunderbirds will grow a generation of mad engineers

FAB, Mr Ellis.
(tags: warren-ellis thunderbirds tv)

On The Possible God Of Philosophy And Cosmology Vs. The Personal, Historical God Of Faith

Camels With Hammers links to Dennett's remarks on hearing William Lane Craig's cosmological argument, and then talks about the gap between the source of the universe (which we should properly be agnostic about) and the gods of major religions.
(tags: daniel-dennett dennett william-lane-craig craig cosmology kalam philosophy physics)

Rock-Bottom Loser Entertaining Offers From Several Religions | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Cruel but funny
(tags: onion religion funny satire humour)

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Greta Christina talks about "other ways of knowing" and their uses, as applied to the theism/atheism debate.
(tags: religion epistemology science atheism greta-christina empiricism)

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Peter Watts gives his grand theory for why religion hasn't died out. It's all about preventing free-loading once societies get above a certain size.
(tags: peter-watts religion evolution sarah-palin politics psychology signalling)

Whence Rationality?

Some responses to the evolutionary argument against naturalism. The point that evolution is unlikely to come up with the sort of elaborate errors Plantinga mentions is new to me.
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The Devil went down to Cambridge OR Attacking the Darkness

The ever-reliable Cambridge Evening News reveals that dark forces are gathering in Cambridge: “Magus Lynius Shadee, self-named King of All Witches, has announced he will open in the city centre by December 24” (I don’t know what it means for a magus to “open in the city centre”, but I’m not sure I want to stick around to find out). Local church leaders aren’t too pleased about this, and warn of bad juju.

This set me thinking about the time the vicar at my former church told us that educated Cambridge Christians hadn’t taken the stuff in the Bible about demons seriously enough. Basic theism is all very well at first, but inevitably you move on to the harder stuff. Initially, you’re all “everything that begins to exist has a cause” but before long you start thinking that the Resurrection is pretty good evidence for Christian theism (after all, as the Christian sort of God exists, it’s likely that he would raise Jesus from the dead, therefore the Resurrection is not terribly unlikely; therefore, given the New Testament evidence, the Resurrection happened; therefore the Christian sort of God exists).

Tragically, for some people even that’s not enough. Not satisfied with a Trinity, they crave other supernatural beings. From there, it’s a slippery slope to “I had doubts about the validity of that Resurrection argument / fancied that boy/girl/sheep / had a bit of a funny turn late at night: SATAN DUNNIT!”

When I was a lad, the school Christian Union leaders told us Dungeons and Dragons was a doorway to danger, a gateway into Satanism. I’d like to suggest that Christianity is a gateway to Dungeons and Dragons. This isn’t a completely new idea: arkannath suggested it in the comments of one of my old posts, which you might also enjoy.

Father David Paul’s (Cleric level 1, patron: Papem, god of guilt about sex) warning that “People who go to these things often end up with mental problems” is best read as a caution to people with poor Will Saves. Rev Ian Church is clearly some sort of adventuring cleric (level 3, patron: Jeebus, god of circular arguments) on a quest to put a stop to Shadee (Wizard level 5, necromancer). Our hero has tracked the villian to his underground lair, wherein “there were several ritual and seance rooms and what really struck us was the intense and extreme cold in the rooms”. Church (by the way, am I alone in thinking that naming your cleric “Church” is only one step up from calling your characters “Bob’s fighter 1”, “Bob’s figher 2”, and so on? Not sure what the DM was thinking with “Shadee”, either) neglects to mention how he turned several undead and avoided some tricky pit traps while he was down there, but we can assume he’s just being modest. There were plenty of XP given out that day, I can tell you. Still, it looks like Shadee escaped, and now the campaign is coming to the streets of Cambridge. The local peasants are pretty excited by the prospect.

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