blog

I’m back, bitches. I’ve been roused from my slumbers by a friend’s link to the Not Ashamed campaign against the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK. It’s fronted by George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

A great cloud of witlessness

Apparently, it’s getting harder to be a Christian in this country. So, what’s the problem? The campaign’s choice of heroes of the faith makes it clear that the essence of Christian practice is stopping gays getting the same rights as everyone else, getting yourself special exemptions from workplace dress codes (keeping up with the Muslims, I suppose), and proselytizing on the taxpayers’ time. The Ministry of Truth examines these bold martyrs in detail (I’ve previously discussed the cases of Olive Jones and Gary MacFarlane myself) and concludes that they probably should be ashamed, really.

Now, I’ve had a rough time over the last few months, hence the lack of posting, and some Christians have been very kind to me (as well as some non-Christians, of course). So I’d formed a different view of the essentials: I had thought they were things like kindness and goodness, those things against which, as St Paul says, there is no law. But who am I to disagree with the former Archbishop of Canterbury?

I imagine Carey would say that if you can’t spurn the gays or wear a silver ring to school, you can still be a Christian, but well, it just wouldn’t be the same: hence the campaign’s description of the heroes as “those who have suffered”. It must have been awful for them.

The grand metanarrative

Some time ago, Weeping Cross (who is one of those moderate religionists of the sort that never gets enough publicity for condemning the extremists: glad to help) wrote that

the narrative of persecution is a terribly comforting one for many modern Christians, and is to a great degree generated by them. It’s a way of taking cultural marginalisation and making it a sign that they’re getting something right: people don’t like the truth, so the more truthful we are about the Gospel, the more disliked we will be.

Someone called JPea commented on Heresiarch’s latest, informing us that all this is part of the cosmic battle between good and evil which will soon culminate in the kind of end of series finale where they blow the entire special effects budget. Luckily, Rev Cross was around to tell them not to be so silly: “Try looking at what’s actually happening and not trying to fit it into a grand metanarrative.”

I’m not sure that’s a realistic instruction for most of the Not Ashamed types: the whole point of that style of religion is to be part of the big story (I’ve just discovered Greta Christina had my idea first, curse her). The mundane facts that Christian observance is on the decline in this country and that more and more people won’t put up with discrimination against gays must be invested with cosmic significance: there is a conspiracy of “strident” atheists and “politically correct” bureaucrats, with the Dark Lord behind it all. If the meteor that flew by last night wasn’t a special signal to me on whether I should buy a new car, then how terribly shallow it all is.

Edited: One of my nice Christian friends didn’t like the Advice Dog image which was attached to this posting, so I removed it.

Battleground God is doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s a quiz on God-belief. It doesn’t try to argue for theism or atheism, but rather, checks whether your beliefs about God are consistent. I think I did the quiz a few years ago, but I did it again, and found I’m still a logically consistent atheist (at least as far as a quiz which asks a few True/False questions can tell), which was nice.

You’ll never find a Nessie in a zoo

There was some debate over these two questions:

Q10: If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.

Q14: As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.

If you answer True to both, you get “hit” (which is bad, because you’re on a philosophical battlefield, remember). The site says:

Earlier you agreed that it is rational to believe that the Loch Ness monster does not exist if there is an absence of strong evidence or argument that it does. No strong evidence or argument was required to show that the monster does not exist – absence of evidence or argument was enough. But now you claim that the atheist needs to be able to provide strong arguments or evidence if their belief in the non-existence of God is to be rational rather than a matter of faith.

The contradiction is that on the first ocassion (sic) (Loch Ness monster) you agreed that the absence of evidence or argument is enough to rationally justify belief in the non-existence of the Loch Ness monster, but on this occasion (God), you do not.

On Facebook, AH (and perhaps RH) said that the cases were different because of the “years of trying” part: Nessie is supposed to live in Loch Ness, so a thorough search might be enough to convince us that she’s not there. If we cannot find God, however, maybe we just haven’t looked everywhere yet.

I think the “years of trying” thing is a red herring here, so the question is badly phrased. The FAQ for the Nessie question explains that in both cases, you’re presented with a lack of positive evidence that something does exist, rather than a positive evidence that it does not (edit: as I said below, on some definitions of evidence, this is a distinction that makes no difference, but it’s one the site seems to make, so we’ll run with it). If you propose using sonar to search Loch Ness, a true Nessian will not be moved: didn’t they mention that Nessie is undectable to sonar? You might find it suspicious that the Nessian knows in advance what experimental results they’ll need to excuse, but that’s merely a demonstration that the Nessian doesn’t believe in Nessie but rather believes in belief in Nessie. It’s not an argument that there’s no Nessie.

The FAQ adds that the Q14, the God question, doesn’t actually specify our current knowledge level about the universe: if we found explanations for the universe’s existence which did not involve God, this would not show that God does not exist, in the same way that the sonar survey wouldn’t show that Nessie didn’t exist, but the question is whether it’s rational to conclude that Nessie and God do not exist merely because of a lack of evidence that they do. Again, I think the “years of trying” in the Nessie question confuses things here, because it puts us in mind of the current state of affairs.

PH objects that the empiricists who wrote the quiz have assumed that God is the same sort of thing as Nessie. But the FAQ points out that the Nessian could say that, while of course Nessie and God are very different, they still assert that Nessie has the ability to evade detection. The atheist could then legitimately wonder why the theist gets to make the “you can’t disprove God” move while the Nessiant can’t make a similar move.

Edited: simont makes the point that we pretty definitely know what we mean by “Nessie”, and there aren’t in fact Nessians making clever claims that Nessie just isn’t the sort of thing that can be detected, whereas this isn’t the case for “God”. The fact that the FAQ has to go into it that particular “hit” in such detail means they could have done it better. A more obviously supernatural belief which doesn’t entail theism or atheism would prevent some of the arguments about those two questions. So, I’ve now concluded that it is fair to object based on the usual meaning of “Nessie”, and that Q10 should probably be about the existence of ghosts.

Bayesian homily

This talk of absence of evidence and evidence of absence reminded me of the appropriate Less Wrong article. I think the FAQ has confused evidence and proof. Absence of evidence for Nessie is evidence of absence of Nessie if that evidence would even slightly make us believe more strongly in Nessie (assuming the evidence is the sort where you either see it or you don’t, rather than having several possible outcomes: I’ve not worked out what happens in that case). This is just the same as the healing prayer case we mentioned before. Many Christians claim that their God’s existence is so obvious that anyone who doesn’t accept it is culpably deceiving themselves. I think this must mean that they would agree that we should expect to find evidence of the Christian God, in which case, if we don’t, that weighs against his existence.

Down at the Graun, they’ve been looking into those “traditionalists” in the Church of England, the ones who are involved in the most recent bout of the Interminable Anglican Sex Kerfuffle. Andrew Brown has discovered complementarianism, and he doesn’t approve. He’s found the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust‘s site, wherein he’s learned that trustees sign various declarations of their doctrinal rectitude, annually (which seems a bit lax: I’d go for twice nightly, and three times on Saturdays). We’ve discussed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy before, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was mentioned during the ComplementarianFail drama of 2009. It’s the Danvers Statement which has Brown so exercised, and he quotes a few choice passages from it for your enjoyment.

Intelligent, willing submission

Now, my old church was a Reform one, so I remember a bit about this stuff. I’ve been sharing my memories of those halycon days of “intelligent, willing submission” here; wheeling out the inevitable Houseplants of Gor gag (and handcuffs) here (another commenter has actually read John Norman’s books: fun times); making simont‘s point about the failure mode of complementarianism here; and arguing that Christianity is not necessarily evil here.

Some of the reports I’ve seen about the Sex Kerfuffle have been theologically confused (not Brown’s of course: he correctly identifies the Reform people as Calvinists). It’s reported that the “traditionalists” might all defect to Rome: in Reform’s case, this is about as likely as Ian Paisley getting all chummy with Jessel the Tri-felge Putenard. The traditionalists are two distinct groups, both of whom suspect that the other lot aren’t really Christians, but who are prepared to make common cause over the vital issue of penises and the possession (bishops must have them) and disposition (they must not put them too near other men) of the same. It is the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics who might defect to Rome.

Disestablishmentarianism

The Graun‘s recent editorial warned that the church should either get with the programme or face disestablishment: “The Church of England now expects both the benefits of establishment and the cultural freedom of private religion. At the very least, a national church should not become disconnected from the best values of the country it serves.”

The Graun seems to think that the established church should be what Andrew Rilstone describes as “the Church of Dumbledore”, a sort of deistic religion whose purpose is to work for social goods, “baptising the dead and burying the sick”. Rilstone originally wrote The Ballad of Reading Diocese the previous time a Kerfuffle over Jeffrey John arose, but it remains as relevant as it was then.

The National God Service, the Church of Dumbledore, seems to be one of those oddly British historical vestiges, like the monarchy. While I don’t particularly see the point of it, it hardly seems worth the trouble of getting rid of it. A church which patronises women and views gay relationships as sinful, on the other hand, should go its own way: the state should have nothing to do with such an organisation. It’s not clear to me who’s currently winning: I’ll watch developments with interest.

Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable programme recently featured the atheist physicist Victor Stenger talking to the Christian statistician David Bartholomew about whether the failure of healing prayer experiments provides evidence against God’s existence. You can listen to the programme, and see some of the lively debates which occurred on Premier’s site, here and here. Bartholomew’s claim seems to be that these sort of experiments just can’t give any evidence about God, either for or against his existence. If the experiments had instead shown prayer did help with healing, he’d be among the people cautioning his fellow Christians not to draw any conclusion from it.

God is not a pigeon

So, why can’t experiments tell you anything about God? On the Premier forums, Tom Coverly summarises Bartholomew’s argument by saying that “God is a person, not a pigeon” (presumably a reference to Skinner’s experiments). But the objection that God is a person doesn’t seem to stand up: psychologists do useful experiments on people, after all, so God’s personhood alone can’t be the problem. Likewise, the fact that God knows every detail of the experiment isn’t necessarily a problem: not all experiments involving people can be done as blind trials (for instance, I suspect it’s pretty hard to come up with a placebo therapist when comparing antidepressant drugs to therapy).

The reason why scientists do healing prayer experiments in the first place is that Christians generally do claim that God answers prayers. They usually (though Coverly does not, as we’ll see) anticipate that some prayers are more likely to be answered than others: they might say that God is more likely to answer a prayer to heal a sick child than a prayer to give someone a brand new Ferrari. I’ll assume that Christians have some evidence for these beliefs. The claim that healing prayer experiments don’t provide evidence about God is then a rather strange one. Is this other evidence that the Christian has invalidated because they believe God is a person and that God knew he was providing the evidence? What makes the healing prayer experiments different?

Whatever can be destroyed by Bayes’ Theorem should be

Perhaps foreseeing this problem, Coverly claims that he does not think God is more likely to answer certain prayers than others, in fact, he says that humans cannot anticipate God’s actions at all. How should someone who agrees with Coverly bet on prayer experiments? How should an atheist bet? Suppose there are two outcomes: call healing the result that the prayers had a healing effect (after allowing for everything else), and no healing the result that the prayers had no effect. If we think that God exists but we cannot anticipate his actions, we should bet that the two are equally likely: after all, if we bet preferentially either way, we’re anticipating God’s actions (we could not bet, Coverly’s preferred option, but let’s suppose we have to bet, so we’d best minimise our losses). If we think that God doesn’t exist, we should bet strongly on no healing.

What this means is that the result no healing still provides more evidence for the claim that “God does not exist” than Coverly’s claim that “God exists but you can’t anticipate the result of prayers”. The claim that “God does not exist” is bolder: it sticks its neck out and says “you’ll certainly see no healing“, so that when no healing occurs (and it does), this claim is confirmed more strongly than the claim that which predicts you’ll see no healing about half the time. We can turn this into mathematics if we like, but that’s the gist of it.

Of course, there are other possibilities, such as “God exists but likes hiding from scientists more than healing sick people”, and in fact, this claim is confirmed over Coverly’s by our observations of no healing. Clearly, this area needs further research to differentiate the possible claims (for instance, we might investigate whether there is some threshold of seriousness for an illness, where God switches over to preferring healing to hiding from scientists): don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t learn anything about God from science.

C. Michael Patton writes honestly about the day he lost his faith, and how it came back again. One paragraph of his struck me: “My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another.”

It’s a popular line of thought, but so far as I can tell, not well founded. If you think Patton was right, you think that the statements:
1. There is no God.
2. People are of greater moral value than rocks.
are incompatible: if one is true, the other cannot be. But, on the face of it, I see no reason to think that. To make an argument, you’d need to introduce other, related, statements and back them up. (If you spend a lot of time debating this sort of stuff, you’ll noticed I’ve taken a leaf from William Lane Craig’s book. My response is pretty similar to his response to the logical Argument from Evil, where he points out that his opponents have just made statements without showing how the statements are logically related).

I mentioned this in the comments on Patton’s post, and have been discussing it with The 27th Comrade. Comrade makes the weaker claim that “If God doesn’t exist, it is not necessarily true that people are not rocks”. He then goes on to claim that a person’s value can only depend on a transcendent, immutable opinion; and that without God, there can be no objective moral values.

But I see no reason why, if there are moral facts independent of human opinions, they would be defined by the opinions of a (non-human) person. I also don’t see how this makes values objective, since that word usually means “independent of anyone’s opinion”.

On the horns of a dilemma

At this point, I mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma (which I apparently introduced to William: I’m glad someone’s learning something from my ramblings). If God sets what is moral by his opinions, they seem arbitrary: God could have made anything moral by fiat. If God’s moral opinions reflect some other independent facts (as my opinion that “the sky is blue” does, say), while God may well know the facts better than we do, the facts would still be facts if he did not exist.

If you’ve had some evangelism training, you’ll know there’s a popular response to the dilemma, which is to say that goodness is part of God’s essential nature: not external to him, but not something he chooses. Craig adds that we understand what words like “good” mean without reference to God; it is informative, rather than tautologous, to learn that “God is essentially good”. But it seems then that any being which had the morally good properties God is claimed to have would be good, whether or not that being existed. As John D says, “All that Craig is doing is ascribing certain moral properties to God, but it is these moral properties that provide the foundation for morality, not God. He is talking about necessary moral truths, not necessary theistic truths. In other words, morality is still not ‘up to God’, it merely inheres in him.”

Comrade seems to have got diverted by my examples of horrifying things God could have made good by fiat. I was unclear here, and unfortunately I chose as examples some of the horrifying things the Christian God actually does in the Bible, which Comrade then felt compelled to defend (I often run into this problem with theists: with hindsight, I should have avoided the sensitive subject of racism when talking to robhu about complementarianism, but I had trouble thinking of an example of discrimination which evangelicals don’t already think is a good thing). But that wasn’t my point, which was rather that, if morality is based solely on God’s opinion, there’s no reason to suppose that God’s opinion is anything like what we mean by “good” (notice that Craig is cannier here).

Comrade asserts that (edited: if there is no God) we have no basis to judge anything that has evolved as wrong, referring to Orgel’s Second Rule: “evolution is cleverer than you are”. But again, I see no more reason to identify “what has evolved” with “good” than I do to identify “God’s opinion” with “good”. Evolution may be clever, but clever isn’t the same as good.

The psychology of moral arguments

What I take from this is that some people want different things from moral values than I do. Some people just intuitively feel that if there isn’t a God, they can’t get those things. What they seem to want is:

  • Moral values must be “objective”: this means they cannot be pure opinion, unless it’s the opinion of someone they can always trust and who has much higher status than them.
  • Moral values must be unchanging.
  • Moral values must be “grounded”: this word is often used. It’s not clear what it means for morality to be grounded, but it gives us a strong visual image of grounded objects (at least, I assume you’re also seeing a tree with an extensive root system underground), so suppose it does well as an intuition pump. God is supposed to be pretty solid, in non-physical sort of way: I hear he’s a bit like a rock.

LiveJournal are annoying me sufficiently that I’m seriously considering moving this blog to another site. I’d appreciate recommendations for alternative sites or blogging software.

What they’ve done

As jld explains in more detail, LiveJournal are including code from Driving Revenue Inc., an advertising company, in every page they serve (including friends-locked postings). When you move your mouse over a link, the code tells Driving Revenue’s site, outboundlink.me, what the link is. Their site responds with a new link. If you click, your browser ends up where Driving Revenue said to go, which may or may not be where you though you’d end up.

The point of all this messing about is to make money from affiliate links. Some sites will give you money for sending traffic their way. These sites know it’s you sending them traffic because they give you an affiliate code. When you link to that site from your own, you append the affiliate code to the link. Driving Revenue re-writes those links so they’ll make them money instead, and passes a cut to LJ.

If you’ve got a free account on LJ, re-writing links would be fair enough. One of the ways LJ covers the cost of free accounts is through advertising. But I’m paying LJ money so this blog won’t have adverts on it. If they’re going to break that contract, I don’t want to pay them any more money.

Also, even for free accounts, the way LJ/Driving Revenue have implemented this is very dodgy.

Why it’s dodgy

Firstly, this is bad for privacy and security. LJ are disclosing any link you happen to move your mouse over to Driving Revenue, so I hope nothing you link to in your locked entries is confidential. Worse, the way this has been implemented gives Driving Revenue the same authority as LJ: they can more or less do what they like, including stealing your cookies and impersonating you. Even if Driving Revenue aren’t malicious, they are incompetent ( as described below), and security problems at Driving Revenue now potentially become security problems at LJ. LJ went to a lot of trouble to lock down this sort of problem a while ago. Now they’ve given away the keys to the kingdom.

Secondly, Driving Revenue Inc are incompetent. They’ve had multiple attempts at the script now, and it’s still not right. You might have noticed that when you move your mouse over a link on LJ and quickly click on it, nothing happens. This seems to be because moving the mouse starts the process described above, and clicks don’t “take” until it’s finished. On top of this, the script is too zealous. It re-writes links in a way which breaks them (for example, andrewducker recently linked to this article: if you click the link, you’ll end up somewhere random on the same site).

What I might do about it

I’m using Adblock to block the script, so I’m not affected by it, but people visiting my blog are. This isn’t what I’m paying for, so, unless LJ sort it out soon, I’m off. Wherever I end up, I’ll keep reading my friend list here, and I’ll probably cross-post and direct comments to my new home.

The traditional thing to do is to flounce to Dreamwidth, but that seems to be intended for people who enjoy mannerist identity politics and writing about how their fanfiction in which Snape vigorously rogers Harry Potter will inevitably smash the kyriarchy. But seriously, Dreamwidth is in active development and they’re doing some cool stuff, though I’m a bit worried they’ll run out of money. I don’t want to move again, so I’m looking for somewhere stable, preferably under my own domain.

So, I’ve been playing with WordPress, which I’ve installed on the hosting account for my own domain. It looks quite nice. The only downside is a half-hearted implementation of threaded comments: WordPress allows threads up to 10 comments deep and then just stops letting people reply, rather than doing something sensible like folding them. It’s possible to use third party commenting sites like Disqus or Intense Debate with it, though, and those seem to do threading better. Edited: WordPress does “proper” blog stuff like comment feeds and pingbacks, which I’m currently doing with Python scripts and gaffer tape on my LJ, which also gives it an advantage over Dreamwidth.

I’ve got access to scripting languages and MySQL, and I presume there are other blogging packages out there: any recommendations?

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton wonders why some people believe and others don’t. He hews pretty close to the standard Christian answer that people know there’s a God but don’t admit it because they don’t want to admit to God’s authority (actually, it’s educated Christians who know there isn’t really a God but don’t admit to it).

Moses and the Prophets

I was interested in his discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. The Rich Man ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to visit his brothers and warn them, but Abraham (who’s in charge of Heaven and Hell in this story, in a sort of Jewish version of St Peter’s role, I suppose) tells the Rich Man that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Patton says this illustrates that “we have a much bigger problem than the lack of evidence”.

Well, maybe we do, but we certainly do have the problem of lack of evidence, and the Abraham of the parable is either irrational or encouraging the Rich Man’s brothers to be so. People rising from the dead is strong evidence in a way that merely writing books is not, because many worldviews have books which advocate them and they can’t all be right, and because the fact that your opponents write books isn’t very surprising to a whole load of views. Resurrections, on the other hand, are very surprising to views which don’t predict them.

This, then, is how you should pray

I was listening to the Christian philosopher Tim Mawson on a podcast recently. He thinks atheists should pray to God to reveal himself, which seems fair enough: I’d like to try it if I can think of what would be a fair positive and negative result. Any ideas?

Pre-commitment

Crucially, Mawson agrees beforehand that a negative result is evidence against Christianity, which makes him more rational than Abraham. As I mentioned previously, I’ve been following Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fun bit of creative writing which explores what would’ve happened if Harry Potter had been educated in science and rationality before the Hogwarts people turned up. Mawson’s attitude is a bit like the alternate Harry Potter getting everyone to agree on the significance of possible outcomes before doing an experiment at the beginning of this chapter of the story.

Edited: Speaking of Hell, there ended up being a lively discussion on Hell on one of my previous posts, which you might also be interested in.

Via pseudomonas, I got the news that Conservative high-flyer Philippa Stroud founded a church that tried to ‘cure’ homosexuals by driving out their ‘demons’. The Observer quotes a couple of people who were on the receiving end.

If you engage with Christians about philosophical arguments, where, say, God is advanced as the best, most elegant explanation for creation or the order in the universe, it’s easy to forget that both evangelical and Catholic Christians are committed to belief in the existence of Satan and his minions. For some reason, these Christians tend to downplay this aspect of their belief when evangelising. I’ve previously mentioned the slippery slope that someone might go down, from intellectual arguments for deism, to the Christian Trinity, to a pantheon with angels and demons and bears, oh my.

Those Christians who do believe in the Adversary can be further distinguished by how readily they’ll invoke him as an explanation. My former church saw the Prince of this World as primarily a tempter, not as someone who might possess a person: it might be the Devil’s fault if you had, you know, urges, but I don’t recall anyone attributing illness or even homosexuality to the actions of the Beast (as opposed to the generally fallen state of the world).

It sounds like Stroud’s church is a charismatic church, where people expect to have spiritual encounters, both with God and with the Evil One, much more directly than at more conservative evangelical churches.

Christian blogger and author Adrian Warnock tells us he plans to vote Conservative, partly based on Stroud’s influence on the party. He’s not talking about demons, though, but about social justice: both in Warnock’s article and the Observer‘s, it’s obvious that, in Stroud’s church, the hair-raising stuff about demons is married to a genuine concern for the poor, which I think can only do the Conservative party some good.

Still, I can’t help but think there must be alternatives where the party both wants to help the poor and doesn’t have its social policy written by people who believe demons cause The Gay.

Edited: Iain Dale writes that Stroud has been smeared by the Observer, and quotes a statement from her in which she denies that she thinks homosexuality is an illness. I think questions remain, though: after all, the Observer article didn’t say she did think it was an illness, did it?

Edited again: Andrew Brown chimes in with a utilitarian argument for Stroud.

And again: odd that the media isn’t reporting this one, isn’t it? Pam’s House Blend talks about why, and also has this comment from one of the people the Observer interviewed.