January 2010

Britain in 2010: More tolerant, more Conservative, but less likely to vote | Society | The Guardian

British attitudes getting more socially liberal but more economically right wing.
(tags: politics survey economnics society labour conservatives)

BBC – Mark Easton’s UK: Conservative estimates on violence

Is the UK really broken?
(tags: badscience society politics statistics crime violence murder knife)

LRB · Anne Enright · Diary

Iris Robinson, madness, corruption and Protestantism. Anne Enright's stark, evocative article on the latest turn in Northern Irish politics.
(tags: psychology corruption politics depression religion ireland iris-robinson)

Suffering and the vain quest for significance – Paula Kirby

Haiti and theodicy: "The idea that any of this has anything at all to do with us, that it was created with us in mind, or that our 'sinfulness' has had any effect whatsoever on the majestic, monumental and utterly indifferent laws of physics, is egotism of the highest order."
(tags: haiti theodicy religion suffering earthquake christianity)

As a toxic neo-atheist fundamentalist neo-rationalist sceptic, it was difficult to know what to hope for in all the kerfuffle about the Equality Bill: is it better that the government narrows the scope for discrimination against homosexuals by religious organisations, or better that the church publicly admits it’s so important for it to discriminate that it’ll use the votes of the bishops in the House of Lords to accomplish it? Which will bring in the Kingdom of Dawkins sooner? It’s so hard to tell.

The only winning move is not to play

The story so far: the Government wanted to specify the scope of the religious exemption from the Bill’s provisions, after the European Commission said the existing exemptions were too broad and might result in legal action from the EU. The Government told the churches that their somewhat cosy position would not change and that the new wording was merely clarifying it, but the churches weren’t taken in: there were petitions organised by charming characters, everyone got terribly excited, and there was an amendment proposed in the House of Lords to strike out the more specific language. As Andrew Brown’s blog posting has it “Eight serving bishops and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, voted for the decisive amendment which was carried by five votes”. Eight bishops and five votes, you say?

Brown says this may be a pyrrhic victory for the church, as its actions have shown it’s out of touch with Radio 4 listeners and other worthy types. If you were Rowan Williams (you remember, Rowan Williams), you’d probably be wondering how long the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism will be able to hold out against the floccinaucinihilipilification of the Christian heritage of this country.

Decorate the church with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches

It’s not just Radio 4 listeners the church has to worry about. Over at the Times, Ruth Gledhill wonders why men don’t go to church. She quotes from this painfully awful advice from a Christian charity on how to make the church attractive to men: “Men appreciate ‘professionalism’… things done well. For instance, if you use a drama make sure it is good, otherwise men will find it embarrassing” (women are, of course, undiscriminating); “does the church always need to be decorated with flowers? … How would it go down to decorate with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches?” How would it go down, readers?

Gledhill has a serious point, which is that the church is undergoing the evaporative cooling of group beliefs: society is getting more socially liberal, and those left in the church less so, because those who do have liberal beliefs cannot stand to stay in the church. Though Gledhill has some anecdotes about thriving liberal churches, she doesn’t back this up with data.

Luckily, someone else has gathered a whole load of data. According to the Guardian, the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research showed that “36% of people thought sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were ‘always or mostly’ wrong, down from 62% in 1983” (detailed numbers are here, if anyone wants to play with them). Gledhill links to the chapter on religion from the survey, which makes interesting reading: between 1983 and 2008, the percentage of the sample describing themselves some sort of Christian fell from 66% to 50%. “No religion” rose from 31% to 43%. The percentage describing themselves as “Church of England” fell from 40% to 23%. In 2008, 62% said they never attended religious services.

We’ll nae be fooled again

As Brown says, there’s a tension between the government’s role in promoting libertarian freedom and promoting social goods. There is an argument for freedom of association, but the question is where to draw the line. My preference would be to allow the exceptions the church wants, on the condition that organisations making use of them will not receive public money or tax exemptions (such as charitable status). The church is dwindling, and out of step with society: the rest of us should not have to pay for it.

Anyone for another petition?

To give the impression that I’m fair and balanced, this time round I’m looking at a bad argument which is usually used by atheists.

There’s a scene The West Wing where President Bartlet tears a strip off an evangelical Christian talk radio host. In the scene (you can see it on YouTube, or read a transcript), the evangelical tells Bartlett that the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. Bartlet then launches into a series of rhetorical questions, asking how he should carry out other Old Testament rules which we’d now find ridiculous, if not downright evil: “My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?”

Let’s call this the Barlet gambit: the President’s argument seems to be that it’s inconsistent for evangelicals to say “homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so”, because they’re not also keeping these other rules which are also found in the Bible. The gambit is a favourite with people who argue with evangelicals about homosexuality: sometimes they even quote Bartlet.

Unfortunately, the Bartlet gambit fails as an argument.

What’s wrong with it

Evangelical Christians have reasons why they’re not keeping the Old Testament laws despite regarding the Old Testament as scripture. The question comes up in the New Testament itself, once we reach the Acts of the Apostles, where we read of the first non-Jews converting to Christianity (up to that point in the story, what will later become Christianity is still a movement within Judaism, although a few Gentiles are impressed with Jesus in the gospels). The Council of Jerusalem ruled that Gentile Christians are allowed to eat shrimp and wear mixed fibres and, luckily for penis owners, don’t have to be circumcised.

So, according to Acts (which, like the rest of the Bible, is inerrant, remember), Christians sorted this stuff out in the first century AD. They aren’t going to worry about atheists calling them hypocrites for wearing cotton/polyester blend while “hating the sin and loving the sinner”.

Perhaps Barlet is specifically objecting to the evangelical’s use of Leviticus, which does put homosexuality on a par with things which aren’t kosher, rather than with things which are morally evil. Alas, even without Leviticus, there are other Bible passages which can be pressed into service against the gay, and you can rely on evangelicals to know most of them, because the issue has become a defining feature of evangelicalism. We could argue that these passages don’t apply to modern committed homosexual partnerships, but evangelicals don’t find these arguments impressive.

What to do instead

In the UK, many rank-and-file evangelicals are educated professionals. They didn’t get into religion to give gays a hard time, and, unless they’ve completely disappeared up their own sub-culture, they tend to be a bit embarrassed by the anti-gay stuff. Still, because it’s “what the Bible says”, they feel they’re obliged to go along with it anyway, even if the Guardian wouldn’t approve (the evangelical jargon phrase for that sort of thing is that it’s a “hard teaching” where you’ll just have to “trust God”).

If I were a gifted orator like Barlet, I think I’d appeal to their sense of justice. Is there perhaps something odd about the way churches accept straight couples who are openly in their second or later marriage (something about which Jesus had some strong words to say), but wouldn’t be happy with an openly gay couple? Some hypocrisy there, maybe?

Or we might try empathy. There’s the problem that, as Valerie Tarico says, evangelicalism “can re-direct our mother-bear instincts away from protecting vulnerable individuals and toward protecting the ideology itself. Believers may come to feel more protective of their religion than they are of actual human beings.” Still, it might be worth a go: is it fair to say that gay people cannot form committed romantic relationships? Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you obey the evangelical rules, it seems rather a lonely place.

Why It’s So Tricky for Atheists to Debate with Believers | Belief | AlterNet

Greta Christina lists some "heads I win, tails you lose" arguments against atheism: not criticising serious theologians, fatwa envy ("you wouldn't say that to Muslims"), "atheism is a religion" and so on.
(tags: religion atheism argument debate abiogenesis greta-christina)

Airbrushed for change – MyDavidCameron.com

Remixed Tory campaign posters. I like Hoodie Cameron.
(tags: politics funny uk government election david-cameron conservatives tory)

Stephen Meyer’s Bogus Information Theory

Criticism of Stephen Meyer's "The Signature in the Cell" based on Meyer's mistakes in information theory (or rather, the way he uses a made up definition of "information"). HT to Leonard Richardson, who rightly says it's a good introduction to what "information" does mean, regardless of what you think of Meyer's book.
(tags: information shannon entropy mathematics maths kolmogorov signature cell stephen-meyer intelligent-design creationism)

Pat Robertson is not unchristian

"This Jesus dude, and the new testament in general, is not all sweetness and light and "love thy brother" though those things definitely appear in more abundance than in the Old Testament. But still, according to the Gospels, Jesus spoke more about hell than about any other subject."
(tags: haiti pat-robertson hell christianity religion jesus)

Know Your Godless Heathen Positions

"It has become common, especially for the critics of atheism, to conflate atheism, materialism, naturalism, evolution, and natural selection. Then, an objection to one of these positions is taken to undermine all of them. This would be a mistake since there are several distinct positions here that the atheist may or may not also accept. And much of the energy that has been expended to knock them down is wasted because several of them turn out to be compatible with theism. Let’s clarify:"
(tags: science philosophy atheism matt-mccormick materialism naturalism evolution)

Russian Commuters Treated to Free Roadside Pornography

According to FOX News, "traffic jerked to a standstill". Via comp.risks.
(tags: funny traffic russia road porn pornography)

‘Witch’ set to stand in general election

Everyone's favourite Cambridge witch, Magus Lynius Shadee, is going to stand for MP for Cambridge. Policies include getting rid of faith schools (sort of want), banning RE lessons (do not want), more tax on booze (do want, I think). Previously, Shadee was in the news for summoning demons in the local Catholic church, and for threatening to open an occult shop in Cambridge. He's Satan's gift to local journalism.
(tags: witchcraft woo-woo paganism politics)

Gay Teen Worried He Might Be Christian

The Onion scores again. HT to Friendly Atheist.
(tags: politics religion humour funnny onion homosexuality)

Oh no! “Licentiousness breeds extremism”

"Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a worrying column in The Independent. It is not worrying because of the concerns she raises about "licentiousness", "social nihilism", "debauchery", etc., but because it is another example of blaming the victims. Somehow the blame for Islamist terrorism is to be sheeted home to the relative sexual permissiveness of Western (in this case, British) society. It is also worrying because Alibhai-Brown is supposed to be an example of a moderate Muslim"
(tags: islam muslim uk politics sex religion terrorism)

Conversations About The Internet #5: Anonymous Facebook Employee – The Rumpus.net

Interesting stuff about privacy and re-writing PHP. HT to Andrew Ducker.
(tags: culture internet facebook security privacy media social programming php)

Beyond belief

Short but interesting article on the growth of atheism in Australia.
(tags: atheism religion australia)

Heresy Corner: Sir Ian Blair defends the indefensible

I do try not to link to every single thing Heresiarch posts, but this is a particularly good one. " Evidence that the powers have been used inappropriately is not hard to find. Much more striking is the lack of evidence that the powers have ever been used appropriately. No terrorism-related charges have been brought against anyone as a result of a search carried out under the 2000 Terrorism Act".
(tags: terrorism politics ian-blair crime police)

God and Morality (Part 2): Owing Duties and the Euthyphro Dilemma

A good introduction to the Euthyphro Dilemma, the problem faced by people who claim moral facts can only exist if God exists: if God is a moral expert, the moral facts he's an expert on are independent of him (so you don't need God for moral facts to exist); if God is a moral "engineer", there's little motivation to do what he says, since he might tell us to do what we regard as terrible things. I mentioned the "it's God's nature which defines good" response in the comments.
(tags: morality euthypro-dilemma ethics religion)

The God Squad

"In a little-noticed press release on Wednesday, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a group of 13 "inter-faith" advisers to act as its "sounding board" on all things faith." Heresiarch names the lucky 13 and provides some background on each of them, although he doesn't tell us which one is Judas. "Not a humanist in sight", he says. It's enough to make you vote Conservative…
(tags: politics religion labour new-labour uk inter-faith)

BBC News – Frozen Britain seen from above

(tags: bbc news photo satellite uk weather snow cold)

Strange Horizons Fiction Department: Stories We’ve Seen Too Often

Strange Horizons lists SF plots they don't want to see because they see them so often.
(tags: writing scifi sci-fi sf science-fiction plots funny literature books)

There’s an awful lot of nonsense talked about religion and atheism, from both sides of the fence. Today, I’m looking at a specific set of theist (usually Christian) arguments, namely, those related to “worldviews“. Fear not, though, theism fans: this is the start of a series on bad arguments, and the atheists have it coming too…

Note: the section titles here are links which should take you straight back to the section. So if you find someone playing “Spot the Worldview” online, you can link them straight to this page to show them the error of their ways.

Slightly less difficult

As I’ve mentioned before, talk of worldviews became fashionable among evangelicals when I was an undergraduate. Back then, one of the big evangelistic events the Christian Union organised was called Paradigm Shift, a term borrowed from Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As part of our evangelism training, we read Nick Pollard’s book, Evangelism made slightly less difficult, which was about helping people to see the flaws in worldviews other than Christianity (Pollard writes about this approach here).

There were some good things about this approach. Engaging with the arguments of people who disagree with you is better than writing those arguments off as a smokescreen put up by evasive sinners. It’s more realistic than the major alternative approach, which was (and still is) treating Two Ways to Live as inherently magical, so that the most important thing was to “proclaim” it to non-Christians as often as possible. Still, worldview talk can go wrong. Here are some ways I’ve seen that happen:

Worldview X is false, therefore my preferred rival, Y, is true

This is an example of the false dilemma fallacy. As gareth_rees says, theists may assume (but not show) that the worldview they’re proposing does better than a major rival, and spend all their time attacking the rival. In creationists’ attempts to disprove evolution, there’s an implicit assumption that if evolution fails, the Christian God is the next preferred explanation. Similarly, much apologetical effort is directed against materialism or physicalism, when it is perfectly possible to be an atheist and believe in ghosts, say. Matt McCormick’s useful article, Know Your Godless Heathen Positions, makes clear the distinctions between a number of possible positions (atheism, materialism, naturalism, and so on).

This is not a fallacy if an atheist is, say, a committed materialist who won’t accept religion for that reason. In that case, a theist would need to clear the ground by arguing against materialism. The fallacy occurs when, having cleared the ground, the theist fails to build their own argument.

Spot the Worldview

We all have views about how the world is, but many theists assume that all atheists bought a well-known brand that’s available in bulk (as Christianity itself is, albeit in a variety of sizes, colours and flavours). A while back, on this thread, many theists seemed to assume that all atheists would be strict materialists. That’s not how I’d describe myself: I’d say I’m a provisional materialist, at best.

Sometimes, theists assume they can argue against these atheist brands merely by mentioning their names and saying that everybody knows brand X is inferior. For example, you might be in the middle of talking about Dawkins’s books when a theist tells you that “Richard Dawkins is a logical positivist, and positivism has been debunked”. This doesn’t work on it’s own: first they have to show that Dawkins is a logical positivist (he’s not, he’s a scientific realist), then they have to give some argument against positivism, and lastly show it’s relevant to an argument about whether his books are any good.

Everything is a faith position, atheism is a religion

Evangelical Christians like to argue (wrongly) that “everyone worships something”. This translates into worldview talk as statements like “everything is a faith position: I have faith in God, you have faith in human reason/science/the Conservative Party”. You might hear the theist make a statement like “atheism is a religion”. What could they mean by this?

They might mean that everyone has to start by assuming some stuff (that they’re not in the Matrix, say, or that scientists aren’t just making their results up), assuming stuff you can’t show is “faith”, therefore everyone has “faith”, and therefore Christian faith is as justified as any other. This goes wrong in a couple of ways: firstly, it assumes that all such assumptions are equally reasonable. They aren’t: for example, they can be differentiated by how easily we could tell if they were wrong. Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

Secondly, this use of “faith” isn’t how many Christians like to use the word. According to Christians, faith means putting your trust in a person. Christianity transplants notions of loyalty to friends onto loyalty to worldviews. With the exception of those of us who worship at the Church of Dawkins, atheism isn’t about loyalty to or trust in a person, nor is steadfastness in a particular atheist view seen as a virtue (quite the reverse, as far as I’m concerned).

They might mean that there are atheists who, for example, organise into groups to further their aims, or raise funds for the cause. As Poke argues, even atheists may feel they should not organise into groups because “that’s what religion does”. The atheists should recognise that doing the opposite of what mistaken people do doesn’t make you correct. The theists should recognise that forming into groups and raising money is not what makes something a religion.

Finally, they might mean that atheists imitate the worst features of religion. This could be true: both religious and non-religious groups may fall into uncritical supercriticality, the idea that it’s wrong to criticise any argument that supports your position. It would be right for a theist to criticise an atheist group which fell into this trap, but not all of them do so.

This blog is now syndicated over at Planet Atheism, the aggregator for all your online atheism needs.

If you’re reading this there, hello and welcome. I’m a former evangelical Christian who’s now an atheist. You can read the story of how I de-converted, and listen to me talking about it on Premier Christian Radio. There’s more about me and this blog on my profile page.

If you’re new here, you might want to start by reading the stuff in the “best of” category. Have fun!

Chris Wood – atheist spiritual – Come Down Jehovah

Chris Wood's atheist spiritual/folk song, which I quite liked. HT to Andrew Rilstone.
(tags: youtube video music atheism folk religion jehovah)

Belle De Jour Is The New Pretty Woman – The Rumpus.net

"when somebody like Belle de Jour shows up, an astonishing amount of energy seems to get spent on rushing to remind the general public that she is not representative of prostitution"
(tags: media prostitution uk)

Is aviation security mostly for show? – CNN.com

Bruce Schneier: "When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense."
(tags: security terrorism politics travel news bruce-schneier)

Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Remembering the Lost

"William Lane Craig addresses a question from a Christian who's troubled by one of the most wicked doctrines of that theology, the dogma of Hell. Craig's correspondent wonders whether the saved will feel compassion for the damned, but also worries that it would be a violation of free will for God to erase their memories of their lost loved ones."
(tags: atheism christianity heaven religion hell william-lane-craig)

Salvaging Santa « de-conversion

"If we are to save our Santa culture from this insidious secularism that makes mockery of our faith, we need to acknowledge our weaknesses, and adapt to the changing cultural climate. Here are a few suggestions."
(tags: parody funny religion christianity santa christmas)

Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters | Sloshspot Blog

Motivational posters with Vonnegut quotes on them. I like: "PURPOSE: I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." (hat tip to andrewducker).
(tags: vonnegut quotations funny posters quotes)