atheism

In other news:

Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.

Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.

It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.

Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).

It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.

Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂

Alex Byrne in the Boston Review addresses the existence of God, pointing out that modern debates echo those of Hume and Paley (he of the watchmaker). Byrne talks about the Ontological, Design and Fine Tuning arguments for God.

The article is interesting because it addresses some weak responses to these arguments, from Dawkins’s The God Delusion. As gareth_rees said, the popularisation of this debate will hopefully encourage everyone to consider whether the reasons they have for their positions are good ones.

In other news, Father Christmas (who really does exist, otherwise who’s bringing all those presents, eh?) brought me Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, Bitches; and Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem (about the Problem of Evil). I expect I’ll be posting about those once I’ve read them.

Dawkins has published the complete interview he did with Derren Brown for the Enemies of Reason programme: it’s available on YouTube (in several parts, but that link is to a playlist which should play them in order). It’s mostly Brown talking about the techniques used by mediums, with occasional questions from Dawkins. I’m a fan of Brown, so I enjoyed it.

Like all the best people, the inestimable Mr Brown is an ex-Christian. The final part of the video re-iterates the first chapter of Tricks of the Mind, where he describes how he turned to rationality. He learned about hypnosis, which his fellow Christians claimed would allow in demons (keen students: from the teaching on demons in Matthew 12, or otherwise, show that this is What The Bible Says [5 marks]). He got into stage magic and learned how psychic powers were a con, and that believers in it were only interested in evidence in favour of their beliefs (this is what he calls “circular belief” in the book and video), and would discount or forget the evidence against them.

The young Brown realised this circularity applied to his own Christianity as much as it did to the believers in the psychics. As Brown says, it’s hard to see a difference between these sorts of claims, other than that religious claims have a certain gravitas from having been around for a long time. After all, you could probably construct plausible reasons for the psychic “misses” or why the people who are in contact with aliens can’t provide a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, just as you can for why God is silent (in fact, variants of “it doesn’t work because of your scepticism” and “you wouldn’t believe me anyway” are already common to all of them).

These beliefs rely on rear-guard actions against those who explicitly deny them, coupled with a personal conviction that the belief must be true. There’s little positive evidence in favour. We saw this in the case of Christianity, recently, when looking at Keller’s reasons for faith, much as Brown found when he investigated his former faith for himself.

Both Brown and Dawkins seem surprised that people don’t actually want to know that psychics have been debunked. Randi debunked Peter Popoff, but Popoff is still pulling in the donations. Although I’m occasionally irritated by Andrew Brown’s “New Atheists: UR DOIN IT WRONG” stuff, I think he’s right to say that most people don’t think the way Derren and Dawkins do, whether they’re theists or atheists:

It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.

It’s all a bit depressing really. Perhaps Plantinga is right and rationality doesn’t necessarily have a survival value.

robhu made a post on the Two Ways to Live presentation, which summarises the important points of evangelical Christianity. That particular posting’s intended to be evangelistic without getting de-railed by knowledgeable atheists, so I’ve move my original comment on it from there to here at Rob’s request. This posting remains open for whatever discussion you’d like to have on it (as do most of Rob’s), subject to my comment policy. Here’s my comment:

Serious points about the video, rather than silly ones, in no particular order:

The video doesn’t summarise Christianity, it summarises evangelical Christianity. You won’t find many universalists or liberals agreeing with it, and I think the Catholics would at least take a different slant on it. So I think it’s a mistake to leave out the “evangelical” qualification when talking about TWTL, unless you really do think those people aren’t Christians (which I don’t think you do).

<lj-cut text=”And another thing…”>TWTL assumes the hearer is prepared to accept that God exists in the first place, and that reading the Bible the evangelical way is a good way to find out what God thinks. This isn’t a problem if the intention is to summarise evangelical Christianity, but it is a problem if your intention is to persuade other people to believe it (which is usually what TWTL is for), because you’re not presenting any evidence.

There’s a difference between creating an inanimate object (like a mug) for a purpose and creating a person. People develop their own ideas about what their purpose is, and we don’t accord their creators (parents) the absolute right to determine it. Of course, a Christian could respond that God is supposed to be much greater than human parents, but in that case he stands in relation to us as a parent does to a very young child, or to an animal. In that case, we’d accept his right to bring us up how he wanted, but the way he ignores some children in favour of others and his eventual decision to shove those who aren’t his favourites in an oven when he’s tired of being patient with them would then become a matter for the NSPCC.

Penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. God is supposed to be so keen on justice that someone must pay for sin, but not so keen on justice that it matters whether he punishes the right person. Furthermore, in the Trinitarian understanding, Jesus is himself God, so the action of punishing himself starts to look like a game of solitaire. As gjm11 says, sin is so trifling that turning to Jesus can get you off, but so grave that an omnipotent God really has to send people to Hell if they don’t turn to Jesus.

The video guy repeats the claim that we shouldn’t wish God to deal with evil in case he zaps us right now, making God out to be about as clever as George Bush, with shock and awe the only thing in his toolbox. As we’ve discussed before, that argument doesn’t hold up.

Stuff I found on the web, probably on andrewducker‘s del.icio.us feed or something.

Psychology Today on ex-Christian ex-ministers and on magical thinking

Psychology Today has a couple of interesting articles, one on ministers who lose their faith, and another on magical thinking. Quoteable quote:

“We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever,” says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. “You’re trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You’re trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That’s hard work.” In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, “growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world.”

That sounds sort of familiar. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ex-fundamentalist, but I did find that giving up removed the constant pressure to keep baling.

The stuff about moral contagion in the magical thinking article reminded me of Haggai 2:10-14, where it’s clear that cleanness (in the Bible’s sense of moral and ceremonial acceptability, rather then lack of dirt) is less contagious than uncleanness. There’s possibly a link here to the tendency of some religions to sharply divide the world into non-believers and believers, and to be careful about how much you expose yourself to the non-believing world (q.v. the unequally yoked teaching you get in the more extreme variants of a lot of religions).

Old interview with Philip Pullman

Third Way interviewed Pullman years ago. It’s the origin of one of his statements on whether he’s an agnostic or an atheist, which I rather like:<lj-cut text=”The quote”>

Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.

The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.

But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.

So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.

This isn’t really a surprising statement, but, like Ruth Gledhill’s discovery that Richard Dawkins is a liberal Anglican, some people seem surprised that atheists aren’t ruling out things which some people would regard as gods. The point is that there’s no decent evidence that anyone has met one. Deism is a respectable position, I think (although I’m not sure why you’d bother with it), but religions which claim God has spoken to them are implausible because of God’s inability to keep his story straight.

The walls have Google

The thing about blogging is that you never know who’s reading. Someone called Voyou makes a post ending with an aside which is critical of A.C. Grayling’s response to Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion. Grayling turns up in the comments to argue with them.

(I keep turning up more conversations about the Eagleton review: see my bookmarks for the best of them).

“Compact of hypocrisy and secret vice”

Yellow wonders whether or not he should sign the UCCF doctrinal basis in this post and the followup. Signs point to “not”. Si Hollett reminds me of myself in my foolish youth.

Things that caught my eye on the web recently:

  • marnanel supplies the ultimate version of all those “which local dialect do you speak?” questionnaires that people have been doing lately.

  • Zarf, otherwise known as Andrew Plotkin, gives us LOLGRUES. Makes a change from cats, I suppose.

  • scribb1e thought I’d like The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus. Some of them are good, some of them are typical “the church is the people, not the building” Christian greeting-card verse (but as cartoons!) The artist shows some signs of creationism, but as I’m no longer a Christian, I don’t have to do my “please get off my side, you’re making it look stupid” bit.

    Inevitably, the cartoon with the most comments is the one about gay marriage. Inamongst the usual godhatesfags stuff (or rather, God hates the faggotry but loves the fags, naturally) there were a couple of links to interesting interviews with N.T. Wright (no relation), the Bishop of Durham. There was also an interesting comment from Tyler on just what Paul did mean by arsenokoites (the word translated by the NIV as homosexual offenders, about which there’s considerable debate as it’s a novel coinage as far as we know). Tyler points out that the Septuagint puts the two words that Paul has used in his portmanteau word right next to each other in everyone’s favourite bit of Leviticus (scroll down a bit for the Greek). So it looks like you practising gays (or even those of you who aren’t practising because you’ve got very good at it) are pretty much out as far as Christianity goes. Have you considered atheism?

  • If your internet connection comes from BT, Virgin Media or Carphone Warehouse’s Talktalk service, you should be aware of the evil that is Phorm, a cunning plan to intercept all your web browsing and use the knowledge of what you’re interested in (from your web searches) to display targetted advertising on collaborating websites. Richard Clayton has spoken to Phorm and has technical details of how the system works. It’s a horrible hack, in all senses of the word.

    Talktalk aren’t all bad though: they just told the British recording industry to get stuffed in a highly entertaining way. The BPI are now threatening to sue.

robhu linked to a post on convert_me in which pooperman realises he’s an atheist after reading Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. There’s some interesting reflection on the origins of scriptural literalism, which is related to the stuff about science and truth in my last post. pooperman writes:

Basically, Harris’ has ceded–on behalf of religion, apparently–the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental–that the “first” believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion–a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the “objectively true” that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham’s razor.


I’ve often heard that evangelicalism is a modern heresy, but I’ve never seen the historical evidence for it. Does anyone have any references for that idea?