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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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Ideology and violence Ken Perrott Jun 08

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Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

’With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.’

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article ’It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.’ Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

’With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.’

Bait and switch?

So, returning to Matt’s post. One of the straw men he demolishes is the assertion:

“that if people who hold a belief commit atrocities then that belief is either false or should be avoided by liberal-minded people.”

I really don’t think that is common. After all we condemn fascism for its fundamental opposition to human rights – not just because of examples of atrocities. Nevertheless Matt launches his attack on this straw man with a strange dig at science:

“The belief that the atom could be split is one that has been used to kill thousands of people yet that belief is true and it is an important scientific discovery.”

Leaving aside Matt’s confusion between belief and scientific knowledge (which is important) this argument is a naive bait and switch. Of course a “belief” in, or the “knowledge” of nuclear reactions is not responsible for the deaths in Hiroshima or Nagasaki any more than our chemical knowledge was responsible for the greater number of deaths through carpet bombing of civilian populations in Japan and Europe during World War II (and Indochina in the 1960′s and 70′s) The responsibilities were clearly political and ideological. Human knowledge just made it possible to put into effect these political and ideological aims through such atrocities.

Similarly, simple belief or non-belief in a god (or similar supernatural manifestations) is not responsible in itself for atrocities. However, such beliefs can be used in religious, nationalistic, political and ideological mobilisation to encourage people to commit atrocities. They can be used to mobilise the dark side of human nature, the “them vs us” intuition we are so susceptible to.

History is of course crammed with examples of situations where ideological, political, national or religious beliefs have fueled atrocities. But I don’t know of one example involving a scientific “beliefs.” After all, we have ways of resolving differences between scientists over the nature of subatomic particles. These involve research and investment in devices such as the large hadron collider. Interaction with reality.

Rewriting history

Religious apologists are famed for their rewriting of history. I referred to the specific example of the history of science in my posts  Confronting accomodationism, The Galileo myths and others. So I am not surprised at Matt’s historical revisionism on this subject.

He pontificates on:

“research having discredited the portrayal of the early Middle Ages as ’the Dark Ages’ brought about by Christianity. Similarly, research into Inquisition archives reveal that while such tribunals did exist, many popular beliefs are based on embellishment, exaggeration and propaganda rather than a sober assessment of facts. The picture of the Inquisition that emerges from these studies is significantly more benign than has popularly been thought. . . . The evidence suggests that much of what people believe today about religious history is based on discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes and consequent cultural prejudice.”

And:

“many atrocities cited by religious critics were not committed for religious reasons but for secular ones.”

Personally I think that blaming “discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes” is another current example of religious apologist myth making.  Often John William Draper’s book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science is quoted as evidence. But having read that book I can see how selective apologetics quote mining has is.

Historical honesty respects the victims

However, downplaying religious motivated atrocities is almost always accompanied by exaggeration of the atrocities committed by others, or attributing these to atheist beliefs. At least here Matt doesn’t resort to the silliness of calling Hitler an atheist. But he does claim:

“Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious – the very thing people who press the historical atrocities argument are trying to contend. Richard Wurmbrand, a victim of communist persecution in Romania, stated that ’communist torturers often said there is no God, no hereafter, no life after death, we can do what we wish.’ The fact that atheism was not the motivation for these actions seems to be news to those who actually witnessed them. . . . So, many atrocities were committed on the basis of atheism.”

Matt and others who attribute the atrocities of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin (even Hitler) to atheism do an immense disservice to those who died or suffered in those atrocities. We owe it the victims to be honest about the causes of these evil activities, to understand why humanity does do such things and work to prevent their re-occurrence.  Matt should not be allowed to get away with the distortion that “Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious. “

A bit of historical research will show that perhaps the largest group of victims of the Stalin Terror were the Communists. The fact that some of these may have been believers had nothing to do with their deaths and imprisonments. A simple figure – more than half the membership of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated in the middle of the 1930s! Did any religious groups suffer such a culling? Surely this makes clear that the motives for these atrocities were more political and psychological (the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts) than anything to do with religious beliefs.

True, the Church’s relationship with the Soviet State and Communist Party was strained. Hardly surprising – this is not the only situation where the church has sided with the old order in situations of social change. But in a situation where every other political group which could have opposed Soviet power were made illegal the regime still allowed the legal existence and activity of the church.

I will go so far as to suggest that many religious believers were members of the Soviet Communist Party. This seems obvious as that Party was the only mechanism of serious social and political involvement at the time.  Perhaps the feared KGB and its predecessors also contained Christian believers. After all Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister who these days wears a Christian cross, was a KGB member.

Matt may be shocked at the idea that there could have been Christian KGB torturers. But many Russian Communists where also shocked when they realised there were Communist torturers. Welcome to the real world. Life isn’t simple.

A fundamental problem wuith religion

Matt is more balanced in his conclusion:

“So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, seems often based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular — sometimes both. When people care deeply about something, sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is not an exception.”

But this still ignores a fundamental flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity. This is the concept of “divinity,” “sacred” and “holy.” These concepts are foreign to atheism and science. it is no accident that the traditional motivations for war and atrocity – “God, King and Country” – have these similar characters.

These “sacred” concepts enable justification of almost anything on the grounds of faith and emotion. Evidence and reason can easily be ignored on distorted towards the divine ends.

This is clearly illustrated by a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this’ ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

“God knows, but you may not” can be used to justify the worst sort of atrocity.

(This quote is from Paul Cliteur’s book The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. I reviewed this in Secularism is important.)

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Confronting accomodationism Ken Perrott May 25

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Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

How we make decisions

Chris stressed that humans are not rational. Our decision-making involves a lot of emotion. Consequently clearly held convictions are not easily changed. In fact the may become even more recalcitrant when exposed to rational discussion, evidence or criticism.

I agree with this – and it isn’t new. It’s an important consideration for the presentation of arguments and participation in discussion. However, Chris uses this to justify his opposition to  any “confrontational” opposition to religion. Even to the independent presentation of atheist world views.

Influence of a public atheist presence.

Chris made a concession on this point, referring to recently published research indicating that there is less opposition to atheists in environments where they already have a public presence. So he was effectively conceding that the public consciousness raising undertaken by “new atheists” and their encouragements to atheists to be public about their ideas, is having a positive effect.

This was obvious to most people even before the research results were published. But it does expose the accomodationist request to atheists to STFU as basically counter productive. I can understand it from religious apologists hostile to atheism – but not from atheists themselves.

The US population is turned off science by atheists?

Chris is convinced this is happening in the US, but acknowledged he doesn’t have data to back up his conviction. He suggests than it would be very difficult and expensive to get that data.

However, I discussed this in my articles Myths within a myth and Is atheism bad for science? where I commented on Elaine Howard Ecklands use of polling data to support a similar assertion. But in fact the data does not support this argument (See figure below from Is atheism bad for science?). If anything the vocal presence of “gnus” since the mid 2000′s seems to have undermined respect for religious leaders! With no obvious effect on the respect for science! Certainly no negative effect.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

Tactics should fit situations

I think Chris is confusing the different tactics which are suitable for different situations.

I agree that confrontation is a bad tactic when used at the personal level. In the one-to-one or small group situations ideas are advanced better if their presentation does not anger the receiver. In such situations one should seek the common ground and use it to advance one’s ideas. Of course this does not mean dishonesty or denying one’s own world views. Not at all.

But this is not the situation Mooney is criticising. He attacks the talks, articles and public appearances of Richard Dawkins. He criticises the blog articles of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. These are not one-to-one or small group situations. These are communications with the public at large.

They are part of public discourse. Contributions to the overall market of ideas.

Responsibilty to provide information

Atheists have a responsibility to communicate their ideas. Just as do theists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc. It’s part of contributing to the overall market of ideas and human thought we find so interesting. The fact that some people don’t like some ideas in that market is not a reason to prevent contributions.

From a presentation on "new atheism" by Victor Stenger

For example, I find the biblical Psalm 14:1 offensive:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.’

That cannot justify any request to remove that Psalm from the bible, or to deny theists using it in their articles or lectures. It is part of the market of ideas and thought and just as open to being advance or critiqued as any other idea or though

Similarly scientists have a responsibility to communicate their findings, and to be honest about them. Research results should not be hidden because they conflict with the beliefs of some people. Historians should not deny the truth about the Galileo affair just because it offends some religious sensibilities.  And philosophers should not hide or confuse the fundamental epistemological difference between science and religion just to protect the sensitivities of religious fundamentalists.

Misinformation

It’s important for non-theists and scientists to contribute their ideas to the general market because many theist activists promote misinformation about these, consciously or unconsciously. For example the vilification and misrepresentation of non-theists like Richard Dawkins. This might be intentional or it might just  be an emotional response to his criticisms. But the concept of Dawkins being a “militant,” “strident”, “fundamentalist” atheist is promoted. And it gets picked up by people who should know better. By some non-theists, even those in academia. (Although the latter might just be examples of a common professional jealousy).

And, such ideas can easily be assumed by those who have no other source of information. How often have I heard Dawkin’s books denounced by people who have never read them.

Accomodationists commonly vilify Dawkins, Hitchens, and other “gnu” authors – often simply repeating the complaints of religious apologists. Of course this must be challenged. However, the more people who are familiar with the writings of people like Dawkins, or view them on internet videos, or hear them in person, the less believable such vilification and misrepresentation is.

However, there is a more serious way that theistic idealogues will spread misinformation about atheism and science.  Currently religious apologists question the epistemological basis of science – complaining that it does not permit supernatural explanations. This only has a small influence among accomodationist non-theists, but even so it can lead to a slightly post-modernist questioning of scientific epistemology among some academics.

This also occurs with the history of science. It always amazes me how many theologians and religious philosophers pontificate in this area.  And of course their pontifications are revisionist in the sense they attempt to rewrite history to express a Christian chauvinistic viewpoint.

Origins of modern science

There is the common apologist claim that the modern scientific revolution is based on Christian society, even Christian philosophy and theology. I wrote about this myth in Christianity gave birth to science — a myth? There I called it offensive:

“It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.”

And I quoted Noah J. Efron on this:

’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  .”

Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The Galileo affair

In recent years religious apologists have tried to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair to present religion in a better light. Or they may claim that scientists and atheists are misrepresenting that history. For instance they will claim that atheists are actively promoting a myth that Galileo was tortured and imprisoned. He wasn’t. although he was apparently threatened with torture and his sentence of imprisonment was changed to house arrest for life.

But check it out. There are plenty of unreferenced instances of this claim being made by apologists – bit I certainly can’t find anything substantive to support the claim. Its a myth about a myth.

The “conflict thesis”

Similarly apologists claim that a so-called “conflict thesis” is being promoted. Atheists are claiming that science and religion are inevitably and always have been in conflict. Of course no-one is saying that. There are inevitable and irreconcilable difference in epistemology, but historically the history of the relationship between science and religion has never been that simple.

Apologists will rely on cherry picked quotes from old books like John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science published in 1878. But this is disingenuous because it is easy to find other quotes in this book giving examples of the positive role that some religions have sometimes played in science.

Is the US a special case?

Sure there are sensitivities in situations where atheists are a small minority like the US. But this is not the same issue in Europe or New Zealand. In fact these examples indicate the real nature of the problem.

In New Zealand the vocal opposition to “new atheists”  really only comes from the committed anti-atheist. The religious apologists. Those are the very few people who are strident or militant in their criticism of atheist adverts, or the appearance of Richard Dawkins on TV, or Dawkins lecture tour. (Boy, do they have an obsession with Dawkins and the “gnus”). While I am sure that some people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse do exist in New Zealand they really don’t comment much here. The accomodationist/confrontationist debate is very rare.

Then again, perhaps there should be such a debate here. Perhaps atheists in New Zealand are not “confrontational” enough. Perhaps they should be doing more to counter situations like non-consential prayer, promotion of creationism, religion in schools, etc.

After all, these are all issues non-theists have important views on and they should make sure that these ideas are part of our society’s appreciation and knowledge.

Maybe our atheists are not living up to their responsibilities?

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A non-theist feast down under! Ken Perrott May 15

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This just in from the organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention —‘A Celebration of Reason’

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens have been announced as speakers. (And have a look at the last sentence – a breakthrough!).


The Atheist Foundation of Australia is excited to announce that the next Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will feature headline speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Global Atheist Convention will be held once again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from13 – 15 April 2012.

’This is the first time that the Four Horsemen have spoken together publicly in five years,’ said Atheist Foundation President David Nicholls. ’Their best-selling books on atheism earned the group the moniker ‘The Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse’, and fittingly so as they have been instrumental in bringing forth a new enlightenment in the face of growing irrationality, fundamentalism and superstitious thinking around the world.’

The 2010 Global Atheist Convention gave local, interstate and international attendees the opportunity to hear first-rate speakers from a range of fields including science, philosophy, politics, education, stand-up comedy and more.

’Atheism has provided the perfect foundation in which people can come together to celebrate science, reason and secular values in today’s society. With the planet in a state of organised chaos and the menace of religious extremism threatening everyone’s quality of life, this 2012 world-class event will once again provide rational discussion and debate about what can be done to address the issues facing the globe,’ said Nicholls.

’The 2012 Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will also send an important message to Australia’s political institutions that freethinking Australians are a growing force to be reckoned with.’

The entire line-up for the convention will be released gradually via official social media streams in the lead-up to   tickets going on sale later in the year. The last convention sold out well in advance, leaving many people disappointed to have missed out. The Atheist Foundation of Australia expects this event will also sell out very quickly and encourages prospective attendees to purchase their tickets as soon as they go on sale.

The Atheist Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government for the convention.

See also: Government comes to atheist party

What’s special about religious ’knowledge?’ Ken Perrott May 06

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Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, has repeated a challenge (see Once again: does religion produce knowledge?). He does this after renewing once again his argument that religion as a “way of knowing” is an illusion. This was in response to an article by Patrick MacNamara objecting to his Coyne’s claim in a guardian article:

“And although science and religion are said to be ’different ways of knowing’, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything — it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.”

Jerry finishes his piece with:

Christopher Hitchens has offered his challenge to the faithful, and I have offered mine:  tell me exactly what ’knowledge’ religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.  Like Hitchens, I still have not received an answer.”

I know how Jerry feels. I bet he get lots of claims but do any of them stand up?

See also: Jerry’s book Why Evolution Is True.

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The Hitchens — Dembski debate Ken Perrott Nov 24

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I am not a fan of debates. They are more a sport than a mode of informing. And of course each side in a debate has its own fans who are more concerned with “who won” than what they learned.

But a recommend this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Bill Dembski, although I have yet to watch it to the end. I make this exception basically for two reasons.

1: Like many people I admire Hitchens. He is a skilled debater which means he may produce more heat than light. It also means he is a bit of a “street fighter.” I don’t think he is necessarily reliable on scientific questions. But his literary skills are impressive. So he can be enjoyable to lsiten to for his turn of phrase alone.

But I also think he is courageous. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier this year and has been undergoing treatment, particularly chemotherapy. He is also very conscious and candid about what this means for his future prospects.

A close member of my family experienced a similar situation this year so I am very conscious of the debilitating effect of chemotherapy as well as the natural response to what the illness means for life prospects. It takes a lot of courage for such a patient to continue struggling with the ordinary mundane frustrations of life, let alone to accept the sort of challenges Hitchens is doing.

2: In my recent review So you want a conversation? (of  the book Against All Gods by Phillip Johnson and John Mark Reynolds) I suggested that the “militant” theists and intelligent design proponents who wanted to debate scientists and “new atheists” should take the initiative and organise their own.  They have been vocal with demands for their inclusion in scientific and academic forums. At the same time they conveyed a one-sided, pro-theist, version of science and atheism to their own people. So, I suggested:

“Why don’t these ‘militant’ theists get some of these new atheists along to their own meetings and begin the real discussion. It’s just possible the members of those churches and departments will learn something form the ’horses mouth’ the seminars and theological courses devoted to new atheist strawmannery don’t convey.”

So this debate, organised by the Prestonwood Christian Academy, in Texas, was a step in that direction.The invitation was not exactly completely open (have a look at the 44 page discussion guide for the debate). This was aimed at students of the academy, their parents and members of the church, hoping to provide some sort of immunity to what Hitchens might say. Prominent on page 1 was the biblical advise:

The fool says in his heart, ’There is no god.’ Psalm 14:1

Now, I wonder of the Bible Colleges, Churches, and religious groups in New Zealand who regularly study their particular “new atheist” straw man, or creation science script would be p[prepared to make a similar invitation to a speaker for atheism or scientific reason?

The You Tube videos of the debate, which was entitled “Does A Good God Exist?”, are given below. Be aware that the first 9 minutes, being part of the immunisation process, can be ignored.


Part I of the Hitchens-Dembski debate held at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX on 18 Nov 2010.

Hitchens-Dembski Debate Nov 2010 (1 of 10), posted with vodpod

Part II of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:


Hitchens-Dembski Debate Nov 2010 (2 of 10), posted with vodpod

Part III of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:


Hitchens-Dembski Debate Nov 2010 (3 of 10), posted with vodpod

Part IV of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:


Hitchens-Dembski Debate Nov 2010 (4 of 10), posted with vodpod

Part V of the Hitchens-Dembski debate :


Hitchens-Dembski Debate Nov 2010 (5 of 10), posted with vodpod

Part VI of the Hitchens-Dembski debate :

Part VII of the Hitchens-Dembski debate :

 

Part VIII of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:

Part IX of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:

 

Part X, the conclusion, of the Hitchens-Dembski debate:

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Promoting confusion Ken Perrott Nov 02

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A great feature of the scientific endeavour is that our ideas, hypotheses and theories are usually tested against reality. In fact we get very worried when we can’t do this. Consequently there has been some philosophical discussion and concern around speculative ideas or hypotheses like string theory (really hypotheses not theories) and the multiple universe ideas.

But, in some areas of philosophy and theology reality can safely be ignored. And here all sorts of weird and wonderful preconceived ideas can get justified  using a logic which basically boils down to mental gymnastics. I have always found debate with post modernists and theologians is a bit like jelly wrestling. Without reality to fall back on anything goes.

The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett gave an interesting talk, “The evolution of Confusion,” on theological justification at the Atheist Alliance International convention last month. Its based on his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore. Atheist clergymen are probably far more common than we might think. And all clergymen have problems in their profession which require theological arguments to resolve, or at least to patch up for the moment. This leads to a weird style of logic and argument – hence my feeling of jelly wrestling.

This is a fascinating talk. I understand the research will be published soon. Hopefully it will also be available in a popular format like a book.

Dan Dennett is the author of many excellent books, including “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea“. He is also featured in the video “The Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

‘The Evolution of Confusion’ by Dan Dennett, AAI 2009.
From RichardDawkins.net: ‘Dan Dennett talks about purposely-confusing theology and how it’s used. He also describes his new project interviewing clergyman who secretly don’t believe anymore, and introduces a new term: “Deepity.”‘

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_9w8JougLQ

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Defending science and reason Ken Perrott Oct 28

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Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The ’New Atheism’ hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the ’New Atheists.’ Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the ’New Atheism movement’ (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the ’New Atheism’ and the arguments employed by those attacking ’New Atheism.’ Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the ’New Christians.’ In some cases he reveals the way many of the ’New Atheist’ positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments — particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

The nature of New Atheism

Most of the New Atheists recognise the 2001 religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York helped spur them to action. I suspect they were also reacting against the religious bullying characteristic of the time. Islamic threats to authors like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Christian Right attacks on abortion rights, gender rights, stem cell research and teaching evolutionary science.

I am somewhat cynical about the term ’New Atheism’ — as if we had suddenly discovered the subject. And the label has probably come from the critics, anyway. But there are some specific characteristics to the current wave of atheist revival worthy mentioning.

Stenger points out the well-known New Atheists are mostly science based. Sam Harris (The End of Faith – 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation – 2006) has a degree in philosophy and is working on a Ph D in neuroscience. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion – 2006) is a well-known biologist with years of research and science popularisation behind him. Victor J. Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis – 2007) has a long research career in physics and astronomy and has written several books popularising and defending science. Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon – 2006) is a philosopher of science who has written extensively on scientific subjects. And while Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great – 2007) is not a scientist he does defend and use science in his debates.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel – 2006) is sometimes included as a New Atheist. While her professional qualifications are in humanities rather than science she identifies strongly with many of the positions taken by the others.

New Atheist issues

These include:

God is a scientific question: After all science studies reality, statements of fact. This is implicitly conceded by many religious apologists who use science-based reasoning such as the ’fine-tuning’ and ’big bang’ arguments for the existence of their gods. Most theologians, however, strongly oppose this, preferring to keep their god safe from scientific investigation.

Religious claims should not be protected by false respect: They call for such claims to be discussed, debated and submitted to rational inquiry in the same way we do with scientific, political and sporting claims. Religion should not be allowed to make claims about reality but deny rational investigation of such claims. Faith should not be given a free pass.

This assertiveness is a characteristic feature of the ’New Atheists’ — one which has annoyed some other atheists as well as believers. Even some atheists accept the argument that religion has a special place and its claims should be protected against rational inquiry and normal human discussion.

Faith itself is a problem: Even when held by moderates. Promotion, even glorification, of faith is dangerous as it provides a base for extremists to justify antihuman actions. To some extent even the moderate believers must bear responsibility for supporting extremism if they promote faith against reason.

Proud defence of science and reason: They will assert these principles and oppose any attempt to make a place for those who wish to undermine science or claim territory for religion that it doesn’t deserve. This has helped disperse the idea that science and religion should be placed in separate compartments, ’non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA)’ (see Morals, values and the limits of science).

Stenger describes the position of many scientists and their organisations that science has nothing to say about gods and the supernatural as disingenuous. This is important today when religious apologists try to distort and misrepresent science to provide ’evidence’ for their gods.

Consciousness-raising: They have all been active in the consciousness-raising of people for atheism and reason. Their books, appearances, videos, lectures, etc., attract huge attention and have helped atheists to ’come out’ and publicly acknowledge their beliefs.

Human and democratic rights: The ’New Atheists’ have all spoken in defence of human and democratic rights. They have been assertive on these issues when many liberals have preferred to acquiesce against Islamic and other religious threats and customs in the belief they were advancing multiculturalism

The hostile response

The richarddawkins.net web site estimates publication of about 40 books attacking the ’New Atheists,’ mainly in response to Dawkins ’The God Delusion.’ Study of ’New Atheism’ and ’The God Delusion’ have even been incorporated into some theological education programmes.

Stenger discusses some of the reaction by authors like John Haught (God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – 2008), Dinesh D’Souza (What’s So Great about Christianity – 2007) and Alister McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine — 2007). Many of their arguments and claims are of course straw men and easily disposed of. However, Stenger does devote several chapters to subjects like the problem of evil, supernatural claims, the nature of science, faith and evidence, compatibility of religious and scientific views, human consciousness, morality and ’being good without a god.’

This makes the book useful as a summary of the whole subject providing the arguments of both sides on all the important areas.

Some scientific issues

I was personally pleased that Stenger provides authoritative and informed rejection of some of the religious apologetics attacks on, and misrepresentation of, science used by these ’New Christians.’ He demolishes the arguments for a god based on formation of the universe (the ’big bang’ and ’the singularity’) and ’fine-tuning’ of physical constants. I discussed the first issue (the cosmological argument) in Godless cosmology.

Stenger argues far more believers accept the cosmological design agenda behind the ’fine-tuning’ argument than biological intelligent design (ID). Theologians who won’t have a bar of ID will use ’fine-tunign’ arguments. However, he shows that is wishful thinking, that many of the claimed examples of ’fine-tuning’ just are not true (see Fiddling with ’fine-tuning’) and the argument usually assumes that physical constants can be varied independently.

I also like the way he rejects the claim made by apologists, and some defenders of science, that science cannot study the ’supernatural.’ That the scientific paradigm restricts itself to only natural phenomena.  ’Is this supposed to mean that scientists would ignore a miracle if they saw one?’ I would add of course not! They would rush to investigate it with thoughts of Nobel Prizes in mind. After all — what are miracles but phenomena that appear to defy natural logic because we don’t yet understand them? And investigation and understanding are what scientists specialise in.

Critics of the New Atheists often accuse them of ’scientism’ — the idea ’that science is the only means that can be used to learn about the world and humanity’. I have been accused of that myself. So am pleased Stenger disposes of this charge with the assertion these critics ’cannot quote a single new atheist who has said that. We fully recognise the value of and participate in other realm of thought and activity such as art, music, literature, poetry, and moral philosophy. At the same time, where observed phenomena are at issue, we insist that scientific method has a proper role. This includes questions of the supernatural and the existence of any god who actively engages in the affairs of the universe.’

Another chauvinistic Christian assertion Stenger denies is that Christianity was somehow responsible for the rise of modern science. ’Maybe, as many Christian apologists claim, Western religions helped science develop by their own looking outward for God. However, I am not ready to give religion too much credit since science goes back centuries before Jesus to the axial age in Greece.’

Eastern religion

Stenger supports suggestions from Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore that atheists should appreciate some of the insights of Buddhism and others spiritualists and mystics of the east. They believe these can help us in understanding of our own minds and in developing a calm attitude towards life. Practises such as meditation can be stripped of their dogma and supernatural explanations and help encourag mental health.

There is little to fault with this book. Stenger writes in his usual style. A style that is readable, economical and clear. One rather parochial criticism — he is wrong in his claim that atheists form a majority in New Zealand. The 2006 census showed 32% of the population claiming no religion. Statistics on belief are always difficult to obtain and interpret and unfortunately he does not provide a reference for his assertion.

So, take that with a grain of salt. But if the subject interests you, whatever, your personal religious belief, this is a book you should read.

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See also: Quantum Gods my review of Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness.

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