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)

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.

Pining for the fjords or I Was A Twentysomething Matt Redman Fan

Friends have been playing with Spotify, which it turns out has a whole load of Matt Redman songs (imagine U2 singing about how Jesus is their boyfriend, and you’ve got it). I heard Redman at Soul Survivor when I went, many years ago. Though the charismatic services were a little bit scary at first, the whole thing fired me up to the extent that I alarmed my parents on my return by saying I was thinking of training for the ministry (I could have been the next John W. Loftus). At one of those services, I ended up wondering whether I should ask for prayer for healing. Looking back, I can perhaps understand how the Neumanns thought it was better to pray than phone an ambulance. The question of what, if anything, God is up to these days is a tricky one, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Praise the Prophets

A while ago, the Word of Dawkins came unto me, and the Spirit of Rationality rested upon me, and I spake forth, saying: “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them.” Prophetic, no? (You may say that I’d read about similar cases in the past, but I think you’re bringing a question-begging assumption of metaphysical naturalism to my text).

Rowan Williams has a map. He recently told everyone not to expect God to do much about global warming (by the way, Newsthump’s version of the story is good fun). Likewise, in the Neumanns’ situation, most Christians would call a doctor. So, I don’t think God is going to stop global warming or heal diabetics (much less amputees), and, for the most part, Christians don’t either. Of course, I don’t attempt to excuse the absence of the dragon by telling the story of the man on the roof of his house in the flood. But when you consider what we anticipate will happen, we’re not so very different after all.

Wasted youth

Dead parrotWhen I was a Christian, it seemed there was an unspoken understanding on these matters. God made all that is, seen and unseen; Jesus did all those miracles you read about in the New Testament; the statistical likelihood was that Jesus would, in the fullness of time, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring fresh supplies of lemon-soaked paper napkins. God could do anything. Still, right now, you were more likely to see answers to prayer about work stress and for courage to evangelise your friends than answers to prayers for people to be healed of cancer. Or at least, it was best not to be too surprised that prayers for the big stuff might be “answered in a different way”. (That is, if someone dies, they don’t have cancer any more. No, really, this is not a joke). There were people who asked annoying questions about why God didn’t do more, dissatisfied customers if you will, but I just found them irritating. God obviously existed, so why couldn’t they just realise that?

The Neumanns did without this tacit understanding, which is unfortunate because having the understanding means you have the map: it’s what allows Christians to get along in polite society without, say, being jailed for killing their children. Rather, just as Elijah did, the Neumanns anticipated-as-if God would act. They believed Biblical promises on prayer, as reiterated by their supporters here and here.

So what went wrong? Well, regular readers will know that God isn’t real, though Christians can hardly say so. The usual excuse won’t do, alas: it can’t be that the Neumanns lacked faith. A family with sufficient faith to gather to pray around their ailing child as she lies on her deathbed is surely an example for Christians everywhere, even the ones who believe in doctors. Likewise, even if God has provided doctors, it seems mean-spirited for God to penalise the Neumanns for not using them: which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? We must look for better excuses.

Things not seen

Perhaps those Bible verses aren’t intended to be the promises they seem to be (though they seem pretty clear to me, so if you encounter this argument, I hope you will chastise the person making it for twisting the Scriptures). Perhaps, as the Neumanns apparently believe, God foreknew that the kid would eventually turn away from Jesus, and took her home early to prevent it (though I’m disappointed by their liberalism, in that after their child died, they didn’t slit the throats of the local pastors and turn instead to Baal, Satan or Dawkins, which would have been a more biblical response). Still, both these explanations are at least possible, and if the maintenance of your belief is itself a virtue, that possibility should suffice. As recent convert Sam Harris says:

These people [that is, neo-militant rationalist atheists like Jerry Coyne] are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…

Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible – and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue – and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.

Perhaps God is not deceased, but merely pining for the fjords. This, too, is possible. And the heart rejoices…

Religion and cartography or I Was a Teenage Theistic Evolutionist

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

Less Wrong

William liked the bit in my last post where I said that most believers are carrying a map of the real world somewhere, because they know in advance what excuses to make for the apparent absence of gods and dragons. Of course, I stole it from Overcoming Bias (mentioned previously here). Carl Sagan’s point in the original invisible dragon story is about falsifiability. The crew over at Overcoming Bias use it another way, to think about what’s going on in dragon-believer’s head when they know enough anticipate the results of testing for the dragon, but not enough to say “there’s no dragon”.

It’s that sort of keen observation that keeps me going back to Overcoming Bias despite all the stuff about freezing your head when you die. The aim of the game for Biasers is to have a map which matches the territory, and to be able to read it aloud. They’ve started Less Wrong, a new site where anyone can contribute something they think will help achieve this aim. It’s based on the code for Reddit, where users can vote stories up or down, though at Less Wrong, the editors manually promote stories to the front page, and there’s a separate page where you can view stuff that’s merely popular. You can follow Less Wrong on LiveJournal by adding less_wrong to your friends list.

The community is working pretty well so far. Watching the decline of Kuro5hin makes me worry that community moderated sites will turn to crap (although there’s still some good stuff over at k5, such as an article about the tendency of community moderated sites to turn to crap), but having real humans in charge of promoting articles might mitigate that. The system has given some new voices a chance, notably Yvain. Here are some of my favourite articles so far:

I’ve made a few comments over there, although nothing earth-shattering: sympathising with someone whose girlfriend left him for Jesus, or talking about Bernard Woolley and irregular verbs.

I’ve been thinking about posting some more about what I’ve got out of Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong here on LJ. It’s all very well ranting about religion, but rationality isn’t graded on a curve. Don’t worry, religion-rant fans: I’ve got a few more of those lined up too.

Belief in cats

A while back Andrew Brown over at the Grauniad posted a list of the 6 Points of New Atheism. There was a bit of a bun-fight among the atheists about this, because, though Brown’s an atheist, he was criticising Dawkins Our Leader. It got even more fun when Dawkins turned up in the comments. (My own contribution was to treat the 6 Points as one of those internet quiz memes: I score 2.5/6 for New Atheism, which makes me slightly more Old Skool than New, I suppose). It’s a bit like that Southpark episode where the Unified Atheist League fights the Allied Atheist Allegiance. What’s the fuss about? Here’s part of it.

Most Christians say God is omniscient and omnipresent. Yet the Christian woman whom Yellow blogged about, the one who wrote to a Christian problem page with her self-pleasuring problem, clearly doesn’t really believe God is present and watching her all the time. But she at least believes that believing those things is virtuous for a Christian. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this latter sort of faith belief in belief.

This doesn’t just apply to religion. palmer1984 posted a poll which suggest similar things apply to moral beliefs. It is virtuous to say that we should care for people in other countries as much as we do for those in our own, but most people don’t really believe it.

Some people, especially those with a scientific education (or a certain sort of evangelical Christian background), think of belief as affirmation of a set of propositions. To those people, it’s obvious that these propositions should not be internally contradictory or conflict with reality. But, as Saunt Yudkowsky observes “it is a physical fact that you can write “The sky is green!” next to a picture of a blue sky without the paper bursting into flames”. The same applies inside our heads. Dr Vilayanur Ramachandan’s fascinating experiments on anosognosia patients seem to show that explaining why a belief is valid and changing your beliefs are separate systems in the brain.

I take Yudkowsky’s point that speaking of belief doesn’t capture the psychology here precisely because “beliefs” are often taken to be propositional sentences, but our brains don’t deal in those much. Instead of talking about what someone “really believes”, I suppose he’d prefer to say that the woman speaks-as-if she believes God is omnipotent and omnipresent, but, at least in some instances, behaves-as-if God is not.

Brown says he’s annoyed with neo-atheist rationalist fundamentalist sceptics because neo-atheists think that all brains work like theirs or can be convinced to do so, but that thinking is wildly optimistic. This is the point of Brown’s Freud vs God post, which you should all go and read. See you in 5 minutes.

Back? Brown’s getting this stuff from Dennett and from anthropologists who study religion, such as Pascal Boyer. Boyer details his views over at a sceptics’ website, where he tells sceptics off for their narrow understanding of religion. Another anthropologist, Scott Atran, does a similar thing on, responding to Sam Harris and others in the wake of the Beyond Belief conference back in 2006.

The anthropologists say that religious beliefs should not be understood as propositional statements about the world, however much they resemble them. What of God’s omnipresence and omniscience? One thing religious people do with this belief is check whether an action is morally right by imagining what their model of God would think of it. This might be done retrospectively, if a religious context provokes thoughts of God. They certainly don’t anticipate-as-if God is in the room and watching.

Brown has linked the ideas of the anthropologists with the observation that most people don’t try to formulate coherent propositions on anything, including religion. I don’t know whether the anthropologists would agree with this, I’d need to read more of their stuff to tell. It’s clear that most religious people do try to draw a map of the real world. As Yudkowsky illustrates with his dragon-believer example, most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them; or as heroes of the faith for showing such belief, like the monks and martyrs. I’d paraphrase Brown’s argument as “most people don’t see the virtue of having one map for all occasions, or of being able to articulate it”.

Of course, if you’re a religious believer, you might find the anthropologists’ approach a little patronising. Some of you seem to have beliefs which are propositions about how the world is. As I said over on robhu‘s journal a while back, Dawkins at least does believers the courtesy of taking them at their word. What do you think?

More Ehrman: God’s Problem: why do we suffer?

Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.

<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will

Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.

Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.

Natural evil

Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.

Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.

The Holocaust

Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.

Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.

What The Bible Says

The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.

Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.

Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.

Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.

Summing up

Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.

Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.

Stiff upper lips

Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).

Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?

Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?

I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.

Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂

There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.


According to the Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog, the Intelligent Design people (specifically the Discovery Institute) are getting interested in neuroscience (see also part 2), attacking the idea that consciousness has a physical basis and advocating Cartesian dualism.

This seems to have been rumbling away for a while, but people are writing about it at the moment because New Scientist noticed.

You can write a long article on what people have thought about consciousness, so what’s the problem with the IDists joining in? First, neuroscientists are objecting to IDists’ claims that scientific experiments prove things that those experiments don’t actually prove. As Amanda Geffer of New Scientist points out, experiments that show therapy can alter brain function don’t prove that the immaterial soul is acting on the brain, merely that the brain isn’t indivisible, so parts can act on other parts. The therapy described reminded me of mindfulness therapies, and of Yudkowsky’s recent reflections on Which Parts Are “Me”? (Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as “me”).

Novella also objects to IDists quote-mining (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you) from philosophers like David Chalmers in order to bolster their claims. Novella says that Chalmers does not argue for an immaterial spirit, so it is a mistake for those who do to claim him for their side. IDists could quote Chalmers if they wanted to argue that there is a hard problem of consciousness, but it would be dishonest to quote him in support of their proposed solution, or indeed to say that the hard problem Chalmers speaks of has anything to do with evolution.

Edited to add: Chalmers discusses the New Scientist article on his blog, and doesn’t sound very impressed with the theists’ efforts to recruit him for their cause. The Chalmers link came from Chris Hallquist, whose blog I recommend.

Is this IDists’ new strategy after they got planed in the Dover judgement? A while back, I mentioned that they might need a new way around the establishment clause in the US Constitution. I’m not sure this can be it, as consciousness isn’t on the curriculum in most schools, but it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.

Overcoming Bias: how can we obtain beliefs closer to reality?

Some of you already read Overcoming Bias, the blog of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (I’ve seen gjm11 commenting there, and wildeabandon mentioned it, I think). I’ve been reading quite a bit of the archives recently, as evidence by the number of comments I’ve made referring to old postings there.

The bias of the title is cognitive bias, the psychological term for systematic mistakes human minds tend to make. The purpose of the blog is self-help and social change: “If we know the common patterns of error or self-deception, maybe we can work around them ourselves, or build social structures for smarter groups. We know we aren’t perfect, and can’t be perfect, but trying is better than not trying.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the main contributors there. He’s an interesting character: heavily invested in ideas about the Singularity and Friendly AI. His stuff on Overcoming Bias touches on those interests, but is worthwhile even if you consider such ideas silly (I’m not sure whether I do or not at this point: my instinctive reaction that this stuff is far-fetched may be an example of bias).

What I like about his writing is that it’s usually clear and incisive. He shows a passion for reason (contrary to Star Trek, a passion for reason isn’t a contradiction in terms) and almost a reverence for it. You get the feeling that his SF stuff about Bayesian masters undergoing the Ritual Of Changing One’s Mind isn’t just an illustrative analogy. Coming so soon after I read Anathem, I see the blog as one place where this world’s avout hang out. Stuff like Diax’s Rake would be right up their alley.

livredor once told me that one of my biases is to latch on to someone very clever and align my beliefs to theirs (I think this bias is a common one among technical people who have taught themselves some philosophy). So I ought to be a little careful when I read his stuff. Yudkowsky’s faults are that he’s also self-taught, so needs his (likewise very clever) commenters to point out that he’s covering old ground, has missed out on the standard arguments against his position, or is not using the standard definitions of some terms (such as the case where he argues his moral views are not moral relativism, for example). Some of the postings where he talks about how he used to think a whole load of wrong stuff and now doesn’t can get tedious (ahem). In some cases he’s made extended series of posts where I don’t understand the conclusion he’s trying to draw (the series on morality is an example).

Still, I’m very much enjoying articles like his articles on staging a Crisis of Faith (which isn’t ultimately about losing religious faith, but about changing long-held opinions. It’s good introduction to the blog as a whole, as there are links to many other good articles at the bottom of it), Cached Thoughts, Are Your Enemies Innately Evil? (shades of Bartlet’s “They weren’t born wanting to do this” there), Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points, Belief in Belief (not quite your standard Dennett argument); and his argument that Elijah conducted the original scientific experiment.

I recommend the blog to you lot. If you like reading blogs on LJ, you can find it at overcomingbias.