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Mixing values and Jesus in secular education Ken Perrott Jun 05

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Daniel Dennett calls it the “last big fib.*” The claim that religion and human morality are intimately entwined – that you can’t be good without god. That does seem to be a widely held misconception, or should I say widely promoted.

The New Zealand educational curriculum provides for values education. And in public schools by law the education must be secular. But these  (the teaching of values and secular education) are threatened by the legal provision which allows religious (Christian) groups to come into public schools and provide religious instruction. The “trick” is that schools are legally “closed” during that time – and parents can “opt-out” their children (if they know what is going on).

I think that is bad enough but some groups, and schools, pull another trick. They tie in values and religion so that the intruding religious group provides the curriculum requirement for values education – or justifies their intrusion this way.

On the one hand children are taught a very biased form of values and in practice these groups are more interest in converts and talking about “Jesus” than they are in values). On the other, those children who are opted out miss even that form of values education.

Very unsatisfactory!

A newly formed New Zealand group, the Secular Education Network, is attempting to publicise and change this situation. If the issue interests you or you wish to participate in this work go and have a look at their website at http://reason.org.nz/.

Here’s an excellent, and short, video highlighting the problem in Auckland.

Religious recruiting in our schools.

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*Have a look at this excellent video of a recent discussion between Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins where Dennett uses this term:

Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett. Oxford, 9 May 2012

Is God incredible — or what? Ken Perrott Apr 08

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Michael Wilson

You may have heard of Michael Wilson – he’s very active on Twitter. Well, turns out he is a photographer/videographer and has, in the past few days, launched a new film projectGod is Incredible – the Movie.”

He describes it this way:

I have been told that everyone needs to believe in something so I am heading out on a road trip. I will be test driving religions around my country of New Zealand (sometimes referred to as Godzone). I am planning to visit many groups who think theirs is the one true religion and everyone will get the chance to pitch their god or gods.

I will also be talking to experts in religion including professors who have had their lives threatened and even faced trial for heresy.

It is going to be a interesting ride and I’ll be taking you with me when I set up a an ask a atheist tent at the biggest Christian event in New Zealand or knock on the Door of Opus Dei. I’ll talk to the vicar who ran the billboard with the Virgin Mary with a pregnancy test & a picture of Jesus on the cross being “liked” on Judas’ Facebook page.

Add to this confirmed interviews with young earthers, ark fanciers, tongue speakers, spiritual healers and a mosque with jihadists on their wall of fame

The movie will hopefully culminate with interviews with New Zealand’s two most famous religious figures.

Point is, he needs finance for this project and is raising it through an appeal on Indiegogo (see God Is Incredible — Indiegogo). His target is $10,00 over the next few months. After a few days it has already reached over $3,000 so it looks like he has the support.

Donors are likely to get benefits above and beyond that ” warm glow of knowing you helped make this movie become a reality.” Like a free digital download of the movie or mention in the final credits. That persuaded me – I have made my small contribution.

The project does look interesting and I am sure many people would be interested in a movie providing an overview of religion in New Zealand.

Thanks to: @GodlessAtheist and

Reasonable truth? Ken Perrott Mar 25

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The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason -  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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Co-opting ’Truth’ Ken Perrott Feb 21

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Local blogger Glenn Peoples can be relied on to illustrate the necessity of things he claims unnecessary (see Reason Rally 2012).

This time he is ripping in to The Reason Rally planned for Washington DC on March 24. This rally is aimed at combating “negative stereotypes about non-religious Americans.”

Now, many New Zealanders may not understand why such a rally is important. But have a look at this short video. The bigotry* expressed at the beginning is actually quite widespread in the US. Such ideas need to be countered by education – and this rally is obviously one step in the consciousness-raising process. Hopefully it will show that the people demonised by such bigots are actually normal, healthy, interesting people – which a recent American Religious Identification Survey found to be roughly 16% of the US population.

And as if to underline the necessity of this Rally one of Glenn’s commenters  continued the demonisation with his/her suggestion that well-known scientist Richard “Dawkins  should be considered as a comedian”

What Do You Think About Atheists? – YouTube.

Oh, and the book  A Better Life looks interesting too.

Co-opting words

Glenn does have a point about how ideologically driven people tend to co-opt words for their “side.” “Reason” could be such a word as in fact humans are not reasoning creatures – our reasoning is very much linked to emotion. But, I really can’t see what is so wrong with using the word “reason” here as it is used to contrast with “faith.” Religious people are fond of using faith to justify political attitudes and policies – why can’t the non-religious contrast themselves with that?

I would be more concerned with the loose way words like “secularism” and “secular” are used in advertising for the rally. A current obsession of mine – having just been telling  the recent “Interfaith Forum” that secularism is inclusive. It refers to social arrangement, not an ideology. That religious as well as non-religious can, and do, support secularism.

But surely Glenn’s counter to the Reason Rally, a little group calling itself “True Reason,” is blatantly cynical. What is it with these theological types – they think they can declare their beliefs and ideas true – just by declaring it so. And capitalising “Truth.”


*Atheists are “evil,” “wicked,” “immoral,” “stupid and should be killed” and “can’t be trusted.”

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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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Christmas gift ideas: Kids — it’s OK to be different! Ken Perrott Dec 05

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Are you having problems of finding meaningful Christmas presents for family and friends?

Well books are ideal. 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.

The first few are ideal for children


Book Review: Why Don’t We Go to Church? by Gail Miller (Author), Rosalind Eagle (Author), Angela Seear (Illustrator).

Price: US$8.99; International US$10.99
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 51 pages
Publisher: Art Bookbindery; First edition (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0986587605
ISBN-13: 978-0986587603

Book website: Why Don’t We Go To Church?

Adults, even parents, are probably unaware of most of the issues children face in their day-to-day interactions with their social groups. Often school children confront moral issues, social pressures and hostility which they don’t discuss with their parents. Even those lucky children who have open, non-judgemental parents may not share their worries because of shame or perceived social disapproval.

I think this is common for children from families where parents are known for being “different.” Their political, religious or social views may not accord with those common in society and the kids can take some flack for that. In today’s pluralist society many children must have to face these sort of dilemmas because they interact with children who very likely have different religious or cultural backgrounds.

Problems of children with atheist parents

Despite the relatively large proportion of non-religious families today the children of atheist parents probably have to confront this problem of being “different” more often than most. And they probably get less assistance in dealing with this because their families are less likely to belong to a community which can reinforce the respectability of atheist views.

So I see a valuable role for books like “Why Don’t We Go to Church.” It’s written for the 9 to 12 year old which I think must be the age group where this sort of problem is most common. It’s also an age where children are open to learning from books. And one thing I have learned about atheists is that they love books and encourage the same love in their children.

In this story Dan loves dinosaurs. This interest leads to him thinking of a great idea for his school science project – “The Primeval Soup.” At the same time he is developing a friendship with Alex, one of his “cool” classmates. So when Alex disapproves of his project because he believes “God started life on Earth with Adam and Eve,” Dan worries that he may lose his new friend.

He goes to Alex’s home for games and a meal. This is an uncomfortable experience for Dan because they pray before their meal and have a bible lesson afterward. Alex’s parents question Dan about his family’s religion and the fact that he doesn’t attend a church. They offer to take him.

All this leaves Dan feeling angry towards his family for being different. Fortunately Mum and Dad are open and understanding. They explain how people can come to different beliefs about gods, and encourage Dan to make up his own mind about such things. As Dad puts it: “Children often believe what they are told but they need to keep an open mind and make their own decisions when they get older. It’s good to be able to read but you need to questions what you are reading or being told.”

They reassure him about his science project. Evolution is a scientific fact even though some people don’t like it. And they are happy for Dan to go to church with Alex’s family so he can learn for himself.

So Dan goes to church with Alex and his family. The experience was “strange” in parts, and interesting in others. However he is probably not interested enough to go again.

Her completes his Primeval Soup science project and wins third place in his class. Despite his apprehension the other kids enjoy his presentation (and the lollies that came with it). And although Alex still disagrees he is happy to be Dan’s friend.

So a happy ending for Dan. But the young reader learns to be non-judgmental, and to accept that others won’t always agree even about facts like evolution. It’s OK to be different and to make up your own mind.

Important lessons and a very nice book for children of atheist parents.

See also: One for the kids

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Rational morality Ken Perrott Nov 03

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Here’s a great video. It’s not short (31 mins) but its well worth watching right through – or downloading and watching later. Even watching several times, the speaker is so eloquent and precise with his language.

In it Scott Clifton gives a thorough critique of the Christian apologetics understanding of morality. He also gives a good outline of secular morality – a rational, objectively-based morality.

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

Clifton stress morality is important because it determines how we behave and how we interact with others. In the video he sets out to answer four questions:

  1. What do we specifically mean by words like “right,” “wrong,” “moral,” “immoral,” etc.?
  2. Why our definitions are useful and applicable and why they represent how the vast majority of people see these words, whether they realise it or not?
  3. How can we objectively determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” without appealing to personal taste or subjective opinion?
  4. Why we ought to do right and ought not to do wrong?

He answers the first question by defining “right” as that which promotes the health, happiness and well-being of humans. Or minimises unnecessary human pain or suffering. And “wrong” of course is the converse.

Immediately I know many readers will reject his definitions. But if you do, you should hear him out. Watch the video. Listen to his arguments.

I suspect you might find that you do in the end agree. I do.

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New Zealand happy — some preachers upset! Ken Perrott Oct 26

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I reckon the “Rapture” may have come in New Zealand on Sunday Night.

However, it proved to be another failure for Harold Camping who had predicted the end of the world by then. He said last September:

“The end is going to come very, very quietly probably within the next month. It will happen, that is, by October 21.”

Since then Camping has kept well clear of the press – although I get the impression that after three failed attempts at prediction there were very few reporters hanging around outside his door.

However, there is now a report that he has retired from this whole business. According to the Chrsitian News (see Harold Camping Exclusive: Family Radio Founder Retires; Doomsday ‘Prophet’ No Longer Able to Work):

“Harold Camping, who predicted Oct. 21 to be the day Christians would be caught up to heaven and that God would judge the world, said on Oct. 16 that he is no longer able to lead Family Radio Stations, Inc. or his ministry, and his wife has confirmed that the 90-year-old radio evangelist has retired, a documentarian close to Camping told The Christian Post in an exclusive interview.”

But what about this?

Apparently some preachers were upset that the world didn’t end last weeked. The newspaper reports “they were all disappointed that Christ did not come”

With friends like this!


Approaching morality scientifically Ken Perrott Oct 12

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Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

1: Good without, or without knowing?

Basically Matt argues that Coyne is completely wrong with his assertion Clearly you can be good without God.”

Matt counters that “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” (Isn’t it cute the way theologians use words like “fact”?). Without a god to issue commands there can be no human morality. However, one does not have to believe in a god to accept those obligations. Effectively, without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.

OK – I guess many Christians think they are cutting us godless heathens some slack when they stress this distinction. Why is it that such declarations often appear false. Perhaps its because empirical evidence suggests many Christians actually do think we godless are immoral - precisely because we don’t believe in their god!

Maybe many Christians do take their bible readings to heart – like Psalm 14 which reads:

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.

They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD.

There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.”

Yes – usually only the first sentence is quoted, but what comes after is often what is meant. And this is hardly surprising because one of the things introduced by Christianity is that belief in their god was the central moral issue. Belief, and not doing good, was required to enter the pearly gates. For Christianity the “them vs us” boundary was no longer between one ethnic group and another, or between the good and the bad, but between the believers and non-believers.

Here lies the origins of much of the Christian hostility to atheism.

2: Morality as a scientific issue?

It’s amusing that Matt effectively concedes ethics as a legitimate subject for scientific investigation when he draws the parallel with water. He uses this parallel a lot and it always irks me as I never see water simply in terms of its composition H2O. And he seems to create more confusion with the explanation than is necessary.

His point appears to be that:

1: Humans have used water for yonks without any understanding of its composition. Similarly we have existed as a moral species without any understanding of the sources and nature of morality.

2: Now we understand that water can be represented as H2O. (Actually – as a chemist I think that is a very naive understanding, but let’s press on). Water can still be used by people ignorant of that understanding.

OK, this illustrates Matt’s point “without a god there can be no morality, but one can be moral without believing in or knowing that god.” But notice the elephant in the room. Our discovery of the composition of water, its molecular structure and the electronic properties of its component atoms is a result of scientific investigation. It required many centuries of investigation, thinking, logic and empirical evidence. Investigation which proved most powerful when it was validated against reality. Science, not theology.

God of the gaps

Without his realising it, Matt’s use of the H2O parallel has raised the issue of proper investigation of natural phenomena. Yet what explanation does he provide for human morality – his god! And this is all! A god of the gaps!

Can’t he see the parallel – just imagine where humanity would be in its understanding of the nature of water if we had declared  some sort of story (oh, “water are the tears of our god”) and left it at that? If we had left understanding to the theologians?

Matt and his mates advocating “divine command” ethics are doing exactly that. They are declaring “moral obligations are, in fact, commands issued by God.” No evidence, no testing against reality, and faulty logic.** And now they want to leave it at that! They want to warn scientists not to encroach on “their area.”

Well, humanity being the inquisitive and imaginative species we are won’t leave it at that. We are not going to be satisfied with another tired old “god of the gaps” “explanation.” We will investigate this further – and we are.

There is a whole new literature on the scientific understanding of morality. And it’s fascinating.


*Jerry Coyne is the author of “Why Evolution Is True and writes the popular blog Why Evolution is True. He is a very clear and provocative writer and his blog and op-ed articles deal with interesting and important issues. I recommend you follow his blog.

** An example of this logic is Matt’s rejection of Coyne’s point that a simple declaration that what the Christian imagines as a “command” from her god must be good is actually an acknowledgement that our concepts of right and wrong are man-made, not god-made. After all a god could be commanding us to do evil things (doesn’t the evidence suggest that this god, if she exists, likes doing evil things?).

Matt thinks he has squirmed out of that trap by declaring that his god is “a loving and just god.” Therefore it is impossible for her to command evil things.

Problem is how does he know his god is “loving and just?” Oh, he has attributed properties of love and justice to his personal god when he imagined her. He knows he should do this because he is human and is using a human morality.

A circular argument. But that’s theology for you.

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William Lane Craig’s ’logic’ Ken Perrott Sep 21

1 Comment

I don’t know how long this video will survive on YouTube. It’s a takeoff of William Lane Craig and his “logic.” Apparently Craig has made several attempts to remove it.

Personally, I think there is room for many more of these videos – Craig’s debates could be mined for multiple examples of faulty logic.

William Lane Craig Is Not A Meatloaf – YouTube.

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