Archive 2011

Peter Jackson — Satan’s Little Helper’ Ken Perrott Dec 29

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Who would have thought it! Turns out New Zealand film director Peter Jackson is working for Satan!

So Christians for a Moral America have got in early and announced a boycott of his Hobbit movies (see  BOYCOTT ANNOUNCEMENT: The Hobbit Movie). The Hobbit’s planned release is at the the end of November next year – in New Zealand.

“Peter Jackson has once again stepped up as Satan’s Little Helper to direct the two-part film and is once again using witchcraft and wizardry to peddle the film, even though the books had strong Christian undertones (good vs evil; Christians vs Atheists) but Jackson being the self-proclaimed Atheist he is obviously doesn’t want to present this movie in the way it was meant by Tolkien.”

Apparently boycotts are one of the main forms of activity (eg. BOYCOTT: Golden Globes 2012). Mind you they do seem to draw conclusion very easily – as this reaction to Chrsitopher Hitchen’s recent death – Atheists die quicker than Christians?

They are also active in promoting another rapture in two days time (see #RaptureNYE

’Other ways of knowing’ and their result. Ken Perrott Dec 28

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Here’s a little clip from one of Richard Dawkins presentations.

I think it’s a fitting illustration of what science would be like if epistemologically it behaved the way religion does.

It also ridicules the concept that religion has “other ways of knowing” which are more reliable than science.

Richard Dawkins: If Science Worked Like Religion

Slaughtering some sacred seasonal cows Ken Perrott Dec 26

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It’s about time for a bit of seasonal humour. And who better than Tim Minchin, who staunchly defends science and reason, to administer it. Here is a video which ITV cut from the Jonathan Ross show – apparently by direct orders from ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham.

It’s called WoodyAllenJesus – and watch it while you can (or download a copy. Tim thinks he may be asked to take the video off line

Thanks to Tim Minchin: I’m NOT on the Jonathan Ross Show

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Reacting to a death with respect and hatred Ken Perrott Dec 22

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I wasn’t going to write a eulogy to Christopher Hitchens, and I still won’t. After all there are some excellent eulogies on the internet by far better writers than me. But I am intrigued at the world-wide reaction to his death. So, in instead of a respectful eulogy here’s my thoughts on those reactions.

Hitchens’ death was expected. However, when it came I certainly experienced a shock. A strong feeling of disappointment and loss. And I think that must have been a common reaction judging from the widespread and immediate reactions on social networking sites.

There seem to be four common reactions to that sad news:

1: Respect for the person despite beliefs

I personally disagreed with some of Hitchens’ ideas and approaches but admired his literary skills, his principled nature, courage and forthrightness. Sure, he was often confident about some things he shouldn’t have been (I am thinking here of some of his comments on scientific issues) and I don’t particularly admire debaters for that skill which is often far from concerned with truth. Having said that, I think Hitchens’ destruction of his five opponents (four Christian apologists (including self-pronounced expert debater WL Craig) and the chairman, who intervened on  their side at the Christian Book Expo in Texas two years ago, is a classic. Rather like a tag wrestling match. If you haven’t watched it see Hitchens in the lions’ den. I also remember his mischievous, but I think honest, remark in a discussion that he did not actually wish to see the end of religion because he would miss the debates.

Most people disagreed with Hitchens’ support for the US invasion of Iraq. This was a common comment in these eulogies.

I thought I was being mature in having an objectively favourable impression of Christopher Hitchens, despite my disagreements with some of his positions. But I find that most people who have written eulogies and opinion pieces in the last few days have also exhibited that maturity. That is heartening.

Of course, that mature attitude was also one of Hitchens’ endearing features. He also had personal friendships with people despite differences in belief. Despite his atheism he had religious friends, for example. He was the sort of person who respected people – not beliefs. And that is how it should be.

2: A man of principle

We urgently need more principled people and that is one strong reason for the loss many of us felt. It’s not accidental that one of the first to bring Hitchens’ death to the world’s notice, and to write so positively about his life was Salman Rushdie. Clearly he appreciated Hitchens’ principled support when he had to go into hiding because of the fatwa, the death threat, placed on him by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran. And this was a time when so many others instead displayed cowardice and lack of principle by blaming Rushdie for this position!

Hitchens’ principled support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she had to go into hiding for similar reasons is another example. And she also faced cowardly criticism for her situation.

These principles not only enabled Hitchens to stand up and be counted on important issues relating to life and freedom like this. It also enabled him to fight against hypocrisy in his writings and speeches. Recently I read his The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice – it’s a short book and I recommend it to any who have not yet read it. In it Hitchen’s expertly exposes the hypocrisy of Mother Teresa‘s “charity” work, her alignment with, and support for, some of the most evil people and her lack of any real compassion for the people she “helped.” Hitchens also spoke about similar sorts of hypocrisy exhibited by religion everywhere. In doing so he was taking on a sacred cow, breaking a cultural taboo, which gives religion a free pass – freedom from criticism. Again a valuable example to us all.

3: Changing people’s lives

This was a common comment in recent days. That Hitchens has changed many people’s lives. Many commenters are referring to his literary skills – the beauty and strength of his writing. But for most this is about his courage and ability to stand on principles. And to express the beliefs that many had but felt unable to freely express because of their real or perceived unpopularity.

Particularly in the USA Hitchens book tours and debates provided the experience for non-believers, for the first time in their lives, of seeing their beliefs expressed forcefully, eloquently and authoritatively by a leading intellectual – in public! This encouraged many non-believers to “come out.” To publicly acknowledge their own beliefs. This was a liberating, life-changing experience for many of these people.

I think this has been an important feature of the so-called “new atheist” (gnus) phenomenon. One can sit back and criticise these people for calling a spade a spade, but the public activity of people like Hitchens. Dawkins, Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stenger and Dennett has played a huge role in consciousness raising – and in permitting people to be open about their beliefs.

On the other had, this reaction has shocked others. Who would have thought that the book tours by Hitchens and Dawkins through the Southern “bible belt” of the USA would have drawn such huge crowns and such approval? Some people just cannot forgive Hitchens and the other gnus for this harsh lesson.

4: Confirmation that “religion poisons everything.”

That subtitle “Religion poisons everything” really did upset some. While Hitchens was always keen to argue the point he of course acknowledged that a book title or slogan should not be taken as the literal truth.

Certainly I think the subtitle is incorrect – it should read “ideology poisons everything” – lets not give a free pass to other ideologies by limiting our criticisms to religion.

But what intrigued me is that some of the reactions to Hitchens death did provide confirmation for this slogan. The Twitter response to the news was huge – so great that some of the tags used trended worldwide. One tag trending was #godisnotgreat – the subtitle in question. And the reaction by some Christians to this tag confirmed the slogan.

Presumably those offended by the tag did not realise either that it was a book title or possible even knew who Hitchens was, let alone that he had died. Their reaction was simply to threaten death because the subtitle upset them!

BussFeed shows some of the Christian responses in the post 25 Ridiculous Reactions To #GodIsNotGreat. Responses like:

On the whole, of course, written responses to the news of Christopher’s death have not been so poisonous. And after all, most of those writing did not have an ideological barrow to push. Many wrote about his literary skills, such as the comment from World of the Written Word:

Vanity Fair, the magazine for which Mr. Hitchens worked, confirmed his death.
Mr. Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.

And then there were a few (very, very few) like the New Zealand blogger* who (unwisely) allowed his obvious hatred full reign using words like:

“prat, pretending, smug, arrogant, ignorant, belligerent.”

Presumably he was unable to see the irony in writing an arrogant, ignorant and belligerent post to accuse someone of being belligerent!
He is of course of the Christian apologist puersuasion and obviously really upset because of Christopher’s critique of religion.  But how can you be so far out of step with reality to say of Hitchens:

“He lived as a fool, played to the lowest common denominator, encouraged a generation of sloppy, angry argument makers and committed his career and a good chunk of his life to hostility towards his maker. His life was one of genuine tragedy.”

I guess there are none so blind . .

* I must admit an interest here having just been banned (for the third time) from commenting on this blog. This blogger apparently just can’t tolerate real debate.

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Sabotaging science Ken Perrott Dec 20

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I am aware that there are cases of scientific fraud and other scientific scandals. After all, scientists are human and just as capable as anyone else of immoral conduct on the job.

But this one is new to me. Scientific sabotage – when one scientist intentionally sabotages the work of a colleague. I wonder what the back story is to this case recently reported in The Scientist:

In May, the Office of Research Integrity announced its finding that postdoc Vipul Bhrigu is guilty of misconduct. Grad student Heather Ames thought she was going crazy when her experimental results kept messing up. But after conducting experiments in her boyfriends’ lab and getting solid results, she suspected foul play. Sure enough, her colleague Brighu was caught on tape sabotaging her samples. In July 2010 he pled guilty to malicious destruction of property and received 6 months of probation and a $10,000 fine.

I have always claimed that the real working of a science institute could provide plenty of material for a TV soap opera.

via Top Science Scandals of 2011 | The Scientist.

Christmas present ideas: This Hell would be useful! Ken Perrott Dec 18

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful.

This book is a real delight. As I conclude “there can be few vendors of unreason who miss out on their just rewards” in this hell.

Book Review: The Infernova by S. A. Alenthony

Price: US$11.21
Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: Blackburnian Press (August 11, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981967892
ISBN-13: 978-0981967899

This book is a real gem. Anyone with a science or sceptical bent will love it. Bloggers and commenters on blogs and other internet fora will especially appreciate it.The book is based on Dante’s Inferno. But it is a secular reinvention. In this new hell we get a chance to choose the villains — and their punishment.As for Dante’s work this is a drama written in verse.The villains are the irrational, the mystical and the dogmatically religious and their gods. Their punishments are designed to fit their crimes against humanity.Our guide is the great secularist Mark Twain. He describes the Infernova as the:

’very Hell

that the non-thinking and easily frightened

have built in the world. For mark you well,

a fictitious Hades we needn’t invent:

it is sadly, that world where you dwell.’

This is a hell ’where each class of Unreason is displayed’ and punished in nine

’descending circles of infamy

based on the Inferno that Dante made.’

Still this hell is not real — but simulated to educate us.

Enter, abandoners of reason

Our narrator is greeted at the doors of this hell by the inscriptions:

’I am the way of human delusion

I am the way of wilful ignorance

I am the way of needless confusion

To serve as effective testament

Of the price of Irrationality

Satire and justice raised this monument

If man would think, my need would disappear

As long as there is that cause of hell on earth

Abandoners of reason, enter here.’

The outer vestibule is for the unclear. People with important ideas who failed to lucidly communicate:

’For they matter not, your discoveries,

insights, or theories, if you mistranslate.

You’d better off not to speak one word

as would be those deceived when you obfuscate.’

Here we meet Einstein — who is there;

on my own reprimand.’

’Yes, during my time on the world’s stage,

I’d sometimes assume, implicitly,

that my audience was on the same page

concerning what the word ’God’ meant to me.

Namely Spinoza’s God, Natural Law.

Ah, what trouble from that capital ‘G’!

If only I could that word withdraw,

and get across in some alternate way

my pantheistic, sublime Sense of Awe.

For after I left the world, some would say’

‘Einstein believed in Him – God must be real!’

And made me their spokesman, to my dismay.’

The first circle houses the:

’Intelligent Mystics, the ones that learned

how to reason, but never could let go

of irrational conceits.’

Some who were victims of ’an age when myth rules’. Others who:

’used their wit to help conceal

that their philosophies did not make sense,

that their arguments were less than ideal.

For if there’s one drawback to intelligence

it’s that it can enable a false claim

to be given a plausible defense.’

Here we meet some of the early philosophers and scientists.Punishing the perpetrators of fallacyMark Twain guides the narrator through consecutive circles. We get to see those who argued fallacies. They employed the slippery slope, missing evidence, special pleading, and burden of proof. They indulged in rebuttal fallacies such as straw men, the poisoned well, ad hominen, and red herrings.Those who poisoned the well in their arguments are now forced to consume water from contaminated wells. And for :

’those that would frame

their rivals view as something else instead —

some weak position, easy to pshaw.

Their chastisement is to be fed

great handfuls of rancid and stinking straw.

And eat it they must, lest they decompose,

for the fibrous stuff on which they gnaw

also makes up their bodies.’

Then we get those claiming telekinetic powers, the astrologers and the UFOlogists. In the eighth Circle we meet the followers, who like sheep empower tele-evangelists. Then on to the racists, creationists, robbers of the future and priest paedophiles.The tele-evangelists are in full oratory flight. But:

“The punishment here was not to allow

the speakers to be heard as they touted

their spiritual wares incessantly

and in solitary tombs so spouted

their fiery, bombastic oratory

that the air roasted them.’

The creationists reside in a garden, a new Eden, where only animals and plants are visible. But

’every one

Of the creatures you see here was once a man

or woman. Now they are altered, undone

but there awareness kept intact. They’ve been

transformed to live in a primitive state

and to first-hand witness the origin

of new species. That is the timeless fate

for Creationists’

Sectarian violence, terrorists and prophets

On to the torturers and those who committed sectarian violence – including Pol Pot and Stalin. Then the Crusaders and terrorists.In circle nine we confront the prophets. There they are in their vast numbers, all set in stone and larger than life.

The charismatic figures that would head

cults or sects, in a figurative way,

were larger than life. ..

….Yet here they stand

mute and motionless, unable to find

any means to express themselves or command

attention — aggravate them much, it must.’

We see Mohammed:

’forced to obey laws

set for many women of his faith – bound

head to foot in a burqa, and the shame

in his eyes was visible and profound.’

The gods themselves

Finally at the very centre we come to the gods — again in huge numbers. Twain points out their natural origins:


of patterns and trends naturalistic

was the first step in mankind’s history

towards understanding. One cannot blame

stone-age tribes for thinking some agency

drove forth storms or bequeathed the fish and game

they pursued. The problem lies with those who

would cling to such notions once it became

clear these fanciful myths were wrong.’

Our narrator’s response to this parade of weird and wonderful gods?

’’We all worship the same god’ — I laughed at

this now, for the objects of devotion

varied so dramatically with locale,

culture, and time — and caused such commotion

and strife when they clashed. Could anyone fail

to see the simplest exegesis here?

That all these gods were each a fairy tale?’

So a great book. I certainly like to see justice. To see scoundrels punished at last. Whether they indulged in fallacious argument, deception of the innocent, crimes against humanity or provided excuses for such activity.Could it be improved? Well, some illustrations would be nice. I can just see old-style line drawings depicting the squirming of the creationists, the frustration of the silenced prophets and tele-evangelists. Maybe even the vast hordes of prophets and their gods.Alenthony has done a thorough job. There can be few vendors of unreason who miss out on their just rewards. It’s all very satisfying.If you think the same way I do you’ll enjoy the book.

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Higgs and homeopathy Ken Perrott Dec 16

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With all the news lately about the Large Hadron Collider and evidence for the Higg’s field I had to laugh at this little twitter exchange I saw this morning. It was apparently sparked by an advocate providing a quantum proof of homeopathy.

Christmas gift ideas: Aussie wisdom Ken Perrott Dec 15


Here’s another one suitable for Aussies, but one many New Zealanders will also find interesting

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism Edited by Warren Bonett.

Price: AU$35.00
Format: Paperback (448pp )
Size: 234mm x 153mm
ISBN (13): 9781921640766
Publisher: Scribe Publications (November 2010).

This is a book by Aussies, for Aussies. But given our similar histories and cultures there is a lot here for Kiwis as well.

It’s a collection of short articles by 33 Australians. They cover personal recollections and reflections. National history, education, social and cultural areas. Politics, philosophy and science. There is even a section on ’Religion and the Brain.’

As is the nature of such collections most readers will find something of interest. And different readers will inevitably have different favourites. My review reflects my own interests.

Why an Australian Book on Atheism?

And why now? Aussies, like Kiwis, are easy going. We don’t easily get our knickers in a twist — especially about religion. We feel our societies are secular. And why not ’live and let live?’

The editor, Warren Bonett tells us why in his article ’Why a Book on Atheist Thought in Australia?’ And his reply is relevant to us as well. Despite our illusions, Bonett argues, religion is embedded in the political systems of our countries. It has ’an automatic and largely unquestioned place in the public forum.’

Australian paid over $150 million for ’Catholic World Youth Day.’ And $1.5 million to help celebrate the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. Society places faith-based groups in charge of social services. Religious spokespeople appear to have unlimited access to politicians. And any criticism of religion provokes a response which ’sounds like aggression.’ How often have we heard such criticism, or indeed those making the criticism, described as ’aggressive, strident, and intolerant?’ Even ’fundamentalist.’ There is an unspoken rule ’You can’t criticise ideas of they are religious beliefs.’

And the privileges! Not least of which is the subsidy* we pay for with tax exemption purely based on supernatural belief. Religion also gets almost automatic, and unwarranted, recognition for authority on morality and ethics, education, human rights, healthcare and social services. Rarely are spokespeople for the non-religious consulted.

A New Zealand example of this is the work of our own Human Rights Commission on religious diversity. It treats this as a purely interfaith project thereby effectively excluding the non-religious sector from our diversity. Resulting publication give only lip-service, if that, to the non-religious. A typical example is their religious diversity police handbook which helps culturally sensitive behaviour from police in dealing with various religious groups. But no consideration of non-religious groups despite the high proportion of the population (one-third in the last census.) (See Police ignore non-religious).

Warren ably argues the case for the book. And, despite our illusions, he is not wrong.

Humour, history and theology

Many readers will welcome the inclusion of the words for Tim Minchen’s poem/song Storm. This is a real modern classic and I appreciate having the words easily accessible in a book I own. It’s something I am sure I will come back to often. To relive the performance.

Chrys Stevenson begins the book with a history of atheism in Australia (Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-wing Loonies.) It is fascinating. One day I hope someone produces a similar history for New Zealand.

Peter Ellerton’s article ’Theology is Not Philosophy’ attracted me. It is fashionable today for theologians to hide behind the label Philosophy. To use the word as if there is only one version of philosophy and it is the one they peddle. To try to give respectability to their dogma and pronouncements by labelling them ’philosophy.’

Ellerton, who teaches secondary school philosophy critiques theology by showing that, in contrast to real philosophy, theology does not encourage critical thinking and reasoning skill in pupils. As he says: ’theology promotes an acceptance of avoiding, minimising, or otherwise refashioning philosophical analysis, inductive reasoning, and deductive logic, while dishonestly brandishing them as the legitimate tools of its trade.’ It is ’difficult to avoid circular reasoning within a teleological framework.’ And ’it is this inescapable aspect that neatly cleaves off theology from the rest of philosophy.’

Well worth reading.

Meaning, Purpose and morality

I am pleased to see several articles confronting the issues of ethics, morality, meaning and spirituality. Areas where religion claims special skills and tries to deny to unbelievers. Dr Robin Craig’s article ’Good without God’ develops an argument for secular ethics. It rejects the religious monopoly and argues that secular morality does not conflict with the old ’is-ought’ problem which by critics of secular ethics often trot out

Professor Peter Woolcock argues for meaning and purpose in the lives of non-believers in his article ’Atheism and the Meaning of Life.’ And the President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Ian Robinson, talks about spirituality in ’Atheism as a Spiritual Path.’ This pleased me as I think spirituality is a word we sometimes avoid because one of its meanings relates to supernatural ideas. In doing so I think we often enable our critics to extend the meaning and argue that we cannot appreciate the higher things in life, art, music, culture and even nature.

Another section that interested me was that on ’Religion and the Brian.’ This includes two articles ’The Neurobiology of Religious Experience’ by Dr Adam Hamlin, and ’Neuroscience, Religious Experience, and Sensory Deception’ by Dr Rosemary Lyndall Wemm. Necessarily brief these give a taste for some of the current research literature in this field.


Last March I attended the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. So I recognise some of the authors in this collection who also spoke at that convention. Sometimes their articles summarise those talks. Both that convention, and this book, has helped me understand the huge depth of atheist thinking in Australia. In this collection the authors have widely diverse backgrounds. There are historians, politicians, writers, lawyers, broadcasters, social workers, doctors, musicians, comedians, teachers, engineers, philosophers, scientists, bloggers, social scientists, anthropologists and psychologists. And then there are a few who hold positions in Australian atheist, humanist and sceptics organisations.

Warren Bonett, the editor, seems ideally placed as editor. He owns a bookshop, Embiggen Books, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which specialises in scientific and sceptical books. This generalist approach must explain his ability to contact such a wide and representative sample of authors.

I recommend this book to anyone at all interested in atheism down under. Even if your interest is limited to a narrow aspect like law, philosophy or education, rather than the movement as a whole. You will find something of interest and relevance here.

*A useful appendix in this book (’The Cost of Advancing Religion’) includes a table itemising the ’Cost of Religious Exemptions and Subsidies to Taxpayers.’ The estimated total for Australia is $31.1 billion!

See also: Warren Bonett – Down Under Reason. A point of inquiry interview where Bonett discusses this book.

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Christmas gift ideas: The human mind — a history Ken Perrott Dec 14

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

This book is sweeping in its coverage, but easily read.

Book Review: The Evolution of the Human Mind: From Supernaturalism to Naturalism – An Anthropological Perspective by Robert L Carneiro

Price: US$95.00, (paperback US$39.95); NZ$172.00

Hardcover: 506 pages
Publisher: Eliot Werner Publications (July 23, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0979773113
ISBN-13: 978-0979773112

With a subtitle ’From Supernaturalism to Naturalism’ this book obviously covers a breathtaking view of the human mind’s evolution. It’s well over 400 pages long and has 35 pages of references. It could be intimidating but it is not. Far from it.

This is not a dry academic tome. The writing style is economical but clear. Also, each of the 26 chapters is broken into brief sections rarely more than a few page long. The reader has no time to get bored or distracted from the content.

Carneiro’s description of the early stages of human thought must be, to some extent, speculative. However, as an anthropologist he can draw on the studies of existing and recent primitive cultures.

The spirit world

Carneiro suggests that supernaturalism was inevitable to early humans. ’Very little goes unexplained by the pre-scientific but ever-curious mind. It is uncomfortable not to know something and the imagination is always ready to fill in the gaps in true knowledge with supernatural interpretations. Explanation always consists of casting the unfamiliar into terms of the familiar, and of course there is nothing more familiar to people than themselves.’

The existence of the mental world, and dreams, lead to the human soul. This lead on to the idea of spirits, firstly inhabiting animate bodies and eventually incorporated into the inanimate. The idea of ’bush spirits.’

’The spirit world — devised to satisfy man’s craving to know —became, over countless millennia, a progressively more embroidered tapestry. With the human soul as the germ and the prototype, all manner of spiritual beings were conjured up, mythical creatures who engaged in a variety of activities — more often than not, evil ones. From the strictly scientific point of view, these spirit beings were, of course, illusory. But the native’s own belief in their existence was implicit and unquestioning. And in a certain sense they were correct. As the anthropologist Leslie White used to say in class at the University of Michigan, ‘The spirits are real, all right. The question is, is the locus of their reality in the mind or the external world?’’

Primitive peoples believed in various spirits and while these were important they were not yet gods. ’It is safe to say that in the history of religion, gods started out as spiritual beings of a lesser order. And gradually — and only in some places — did they evolve into fully-fledged deities.’

’The Evolution of the Human Mind’ describes this evolution of god ideas – from bush spirits of limited scope and power, to ’culture heroes’ with responsibilities for natural phenomena like thunder and lightning, to fully fledged gods. From polytheistic ideas to monotheism. With their increase in power and prestige the gods attracted, even demanded, greater veneration. They had to be placated. This lead to worship, reverence, prayers or entreaties, sacrifice (even human sacrifice) and submission. And a religious bureaucracy. ’A high god — as he becomes more grandiose and essential to human welfare — becomes more difficult to reach and influence . . — a body of religious specialists (priests) conveniently emerges to carry out this very function. Ostensibly they do this for the benefit of the entire society; in practice they benefit greatly from it themselves.’

The rise of scientific thinking

Eventually scientific thinking also developed in the human mind. There was an unavoidable conflict with supernatural thinking. And the transition from supernaturalism to a modern scientific naturalism was by no means simple or linear. Often it was a story of one step forward followed by two steps back. This would describe the reversal into the Christian mysticism of the European middle ages after the progress made by the ancient Greeks.

Carneiro briefly discusses the science and philosophy of the ancient Greeks but spends more time on the renewal and rise of scientific thinking with the scientific revolution of the 16th Century. Here there was an obvious contradiction between the urge to see reality as rational and adherence to religious dogma of the time. To some extent this was the only safe way of challenging mystical dogma (and even then there were famous casualties), but it also represented the thinking of those early scientists. On the one hand they could sincerely claim their discoveries for their god, as somehow revealing the logic of their god. On the other hand these discoveries reduced the need for such gods.

The progress of science inevitably loosened the power of supernatural thinking. But again this progress was not uniform. The book considers many of the philosophers and scientists involved in the scientific revolution and the subsequent period. People like Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Berkeley, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel, Kant and others. He shows how even within the individuals there was a struggle between the new materialist thinking of science and the supernaturalism or idealism of their philosophy and cultural background.

This continued to the present day where theist scientists will sometimes claim support for the god beliefs from their science. The book quotes philosopher Susan Stebbing on this: ’Every scientist turned philosopher tends to find support in his special studies for the metaphysical theory which on other grounds he finds attractive.’

The book has a chapter on ’The Twin Specters of Atheism and Materialism’ which I think is useful. It shows the connection between atheism and scientific thinking. And it covers the various attitudes to, and presentations of, philosophical materialism and how this has changed over time. Starting with the ancient Greeks it takes us through French materialism and atheism, British attitudes and German materialism.

The science-religion conflict

Of course the struggle between supernaturalism and naturalism still goes on today and the book brings us right up to current times. It discusses Gould’s idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria where defining a separate space for science and religion removes the conflict between them (see Morals, values and the limits of science). But the book shows how this essentially fails as science and religion inevitably encroach on each other’s ’territories.’ Surely the lessons of history displayed in this book convincingly show the religion-science conflict is unavoidable — purely because of the diametrical opposition of the worldviews of supernaturalism and naturalism.

And this is not a simple either/or choice. No longer can theologians deny or ignore the findings of science. ’Today clerics and theologians alike must come to terms with science as best they can — or suffer the consequences. . . And of course the other side of the debate, science feels no need — to say nothing of an obligation — to trim its sails to conform to any religious doctrine.’

However, ’Religion remains to this day a powerful voice in the debates about how the universe began, what attributes it manifests, and how it continues to run.’ Perhaps not surprising. ’If our survey of the development of human thought has revealed anything at all, it is that advances in science — incontestable and irresistible as they may be — have been met grudgingly and with resistance. When such advances have challenged some strongly held religious belief or seemed to threaten religious institutions, they have been vigorously opposed.’

Such a wide-ranging book inevitably must cover some areas superficially. But it is well referenced for those who wish to pursue particular aspects in depth. From my perspective the only obvious deficiency was its portrayal of quantum indeterminacy purely as resulting from the effect of the photon needed for observation on the momentum and position of the observed particle. I felt this avoided the more basic underlying indeterminacy at the quantum level.

I am sure some philosophers and theologians will criticise the book because Carneiro has no standing in their fields. The old hubris that only philosophers and theologians are entitled to study, let alone pontificate on, the supernatural and religious ideas.

However, Carneiro argues ’the deepest understanding of why people believe in God or in other representatives of the supernatural comes not from the astronomer, nor from the biologist (for that matter), both of whom are far removed from the repository of supernatural lore. It comes instead from the dedicated student of those individuals whose ancestors invented supernatural beings in the first place. It comes from the anthropologist.’

This comment is also true for philosopher and theologian critics. ’Anthropologists regard religion — as something to be studied and explained, rather than believed. For anthropologists, then, religious beliefs constitute phenomena — ’phenomena’ being simply things and events viewed as the subject of science.’


I think the book is excellent. Easy to read — both because of its writing style and the layout in relatively brief sections. This makes it a pleasure to read — and the subject is so exhilarating! It’s obviously aimed at the layperson, but may still be of use to the student or specialist who wishes to get a broad view of the evolution of the human mind in which to place their specialist studies.

A book to read and then keep for reference.

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Christmas gift ideas: Evolution of gods, morals and violence Ken Perrott Dec 13

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Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in a scientific understanding of morality and religion and their evolution.

Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, ’this view of human nature — the very idea that there might be a human nature — smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.’

However, the time is right. ’It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.’ One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

Outline of evolutionary origins of morality and religion

Science sees the mind as a product of natural selection. And reproductive success involves more than biological causes. It also is dependent on a complex of other, social, skills and morality involves many of these.

The book begins with an excellent summary of current knowledge of moral evolution. It describes the origin of altruism and its development into reciprocal altruism and indirect altruism. The evolutionary origins and development of moral emotions and moral grammar are described.

With development of larger societies our evolved moral sympathies extended to cover large groups besides kin, clan and tribe. This involved an extended idea of the ’in-group’ to involve individuals who were previously in the ’out-group.’ There was also a need to identify those who were part of the new ’out-group. Religions provided ways of doing this by encoding moral ’laws’ and requirements. And by redefining the larger in-group using beliefs, traditions, taboos and ceremony. These also provided mechanisms for individuals to display their adherence to the in-group and so their trustworthiness for social interaction with other members of the group.

Origin of god-beliefs

Part of this approach to studying religion recognises the existence of gods. But in the minds of humans, not (necessarily) as objective entities. These concepts arose as part of our evolved strategy to over-interpret, and under-determine, stimuli. ’The human mind is designed to naturally, and automatically, interpret the world in terms of agents — that is, beings acting with intention.’

’Supernatural’ agents, gods, spirits, ghost, ancestors, etc., were a natural development. Some agents were defined to have special, counter-intuitive, powers, invisibility, access to one’s mind and thoughts, etc. (I like this description of ’supernatural’ — always a difficult word to define — as being ’counter-intuitive.’)

However, gods were anthropomorphised. Even today most believers adhere to belief in a largely anthropomorphic god. Hence the lack of support for theological and philosophical accounts of gods. ’The more that reflective beliefs about God move away from cognitively intuitive conceptions, the less influential those beliefs become.’ Gods that are radically different to people are incomprehensible and irrelevant to the ordinary believer. Teehan describes these popular or relevant gods as minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) agents.

So this scientific description portrays religion and gods as ways of solving the problem of extension of our evolved moral intuitions. To enable organisation and operation of societies larger than kin, clan and tribe. And for defining the boundaries between this larger in-group and the still existing out-groups.

Gods as full access strategic agents, knowing our inner thoughts and providing judgment and punishment became important to enforcement of order and social cohesion.

Judaism and Christianity

After describing this evolutionary model for development of morality, religion and culture Teehan sets out to analyse two historical religions. He chooses Judaism and Christianity as his examples, but argues the same analysis can be applied to other religions as well. In fact he does make a brief mention of Islam.

His analysis of Judaism relies largely on describing the Jewish concept of God (Yahweh) and moral law as outline in the Old Testament of the bible. Yahweh does satisfy the criteria for god beliefs generated from evolved cognitive channels. It is a minimally counter-intuitive full access strategic agent. One that judges, provides legitimacy to laws and customs, and punishes. Boy, does it punish!

And his analysis of the Ten Commandments shows how they arose from the needs of the contemporary society and the relationship of the Jewish people to surrounding tribes and people. They provided a code for social relations covering interactions with the larger in-group and the different interactions with those in the out-groups. Customs and taboos provided means for members of the in-group to display their adherence and therefore trustworthiness.

His analysis of Christianity is different and the universalism of the acceptable in-group and concentration on values rather than clan or race offers a challenge at first sight. However, Christianity quickly developed its boundary conditions as the religion moved from values to belief — to acceptance of Christ. This, with co-option of intuitions like purity both reinforced in-group social compliance and the demonization and hostility to the out-group.

Religious violence — the other side of moral coin.

In-group — out-group boundaries and their importance to religion provides an explanation for religious violence. This is the other side of the coin. The negative to the positive of social harmony and religious morality.

Teehan devotes a chapter to religious violence, its evolutionary origins and its importance and the problem it presents to the modern world. He sees this as a major justification for the scientific study of religion. Whatever our own individual beliefs, religions still exert powerful control throughout the world and we all suffer when this results in violence.

Solutions to the problems presented by religion

The book gets into a more speculative style when discussing possible solutions to the problems religion presents to today’s world. On the one hand he considers ways of reducing religious violence. But I am pleased he, on the other hand, also considers ways of dealing with the negative aspects of religious morality. It would have been so easy just to see religious morality as only positive. This is important because dogma and enforcement of ancient religious laws and customs means religious morality is often conservative and just not suitable for today’s societies.

Despite importance of our evolutionary history we are not trapped with the irrational intuitions. As an intelligent species we also have the ability to reason. Teehan does see solutions to these problems in rational thought. Despite recognising how flimsy this is in humans. Too often ’rational thought’ is just rearranging our prejudices. However, recent history does show moral progress despite religious conservatism. We no longer justify racism and slavery. We condemn controls on women and denial of their rights. Homosexuality is no longer considered evil. Our empathetic concerns often extend to other non-human animals.

So we can advance a more rational morality much more suitable for modern society than those conservative morals inherited from religion.

I see this as not just a rational, reflective approach to morality. Social education does lead to a change in our consciousness and like all learning this becomes incorporated into our subconscious. Just like riding a bike. Our intuitions for guilt, fairness and purity which we once co-opted to justify inhuman practices like racism and slavery, we now co-opt to support a more humane morality.

Teehan also that education of children is important. He sees education in comparative religion will do a lot to break down the in-group/out-group boundaries. If children can appreciate different cultures, different approaches to life, different moral codes, before reaching the age of accepting their own religious moral code as absolute this will do a lot to overcome religious hostility.

What about the non-religious

This is a book about origins and nature of religion and religious morality. I am pleased it goes further and briefly talks about prospects which involve the non-religious. But I would like to see the evolutionary analysis extend to cover other aspects of society, including non-religious movements and institutions.

Clearly today religion no longer plays the same role it did in the past to unite social groups, promote social cohesion and enforce the required social behaviour. We get along well in this in our post religious societies. But our evolutionary history still exerts an effect through our intuitions and cognitive psychology. Some of these will still be negative — we don’t have to hold religious beliefs to display in-group/out-group behaviour and violence.

On the other hand, we don’t need religious beliefs to enforce social cohesion and individual morality. And this is not just a matter of a wider acceptance of reason in modern society. I believe we still have something akin to the religious minimum counter-intuitive entity. We have a conscience and in many ways we experience it as almost an external minimally counter-intuitive full access agent. Almost anthropomorphic and aware of our innermost thoughts and feelings. We will sometimes even portray our conscience as an external being, perhaps sitting on our shoulder.

Perhaps many believers who feel their god is real and personal are thinking of their conscience. And perhaps non-believers who deny the existence of gods have an almost divine respect for their own conscience.

Austin Dacey develops this idea in his book The Secular Conscience. But I would have loved to see Teehan’s analysis extended to cover this idea.


In summary, this is an excellent book. It gives a good summary of current scientific understanding of evolution of morality and religion. It discusses religious violence as the other side of the moral coin. And there is a useful discussion of the problem of religion in modern society and ways we can overcome the negative aspects of our evolved moral and cognitive systems.

The evolutionary study of religion and morality is a new science, but already a fruitful one. This book provides the ideal introduction.


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