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Morality and the ’worship’ of reason Ken Perrott Apr 16

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I have so far read about one-third of  Jonathan Haidt‘s new book – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I still highly recommend it – but I think some of his claims need strong criticism.

The first part of his book provides a really useful and fascinating (for the lay person anyway) summary  of what he calls his “first principle of moral psychology” – intuitions come first, reasoning second.  We rely on institutions for our moral reactions in most situations, but then, if asked, we will use reason to rationalise those actions. Sometimes we can’t actually provide very good justifications.

I think this aspect of human psychology in important – and relevant to lots of areas apart from human morality. But the fact that we do this should not be used to denigrate reason.

Intelligence is like sex

Human intelligence and reason may well have evolved naturally to handle situations our ancestors faced. And there was never an evolutionary requirement for an organism to know the “truth” about reality, purely to handle the situations it faced. However, like sex which humans use for other purposes than simple procreation, intelligence and our ability to reason enables us to investigate and come to understandings about reality – a reality which our ancestors never had to deal with let alone comprehend.

I think this is important to how we should consider reason. True, the individual more often uses reason like a lawyer, rather than a scientist. To justify one’s actions or support one’s predetermined beliefs, rather than get at the truth. But we can also use it to get at the truth – and I think that is valuable. So I agree – using reason like a lawyer may not be exactly noble (even though we all do it) but I certainly don’t put the discovery of truth into that class.

Delusional reasoning

After describing this modern synthesis on moral psychology Haidt asserts – “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.” I will leave aside his emotional use of the word “worship” for the moment and just point out that Haidt has put himself in a bind – how is he going to determine truth without reason?

This impossible situation seems to scream out from his next sentence – “We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” How does he imagine taking this “cold hard look” without using reason?

Of course his problem is that he is using “reason” almost in a pejorative sense – “motivated reasoning” – the reason of a lawyer, not a scientist.

Elsewhere Haidt does clarify “I’m not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. . . .Rather, what I am saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason.” We are all partisan and prone to confirmation bias but we overcome this, especially in scientific endeavours, by reasoning socially – in groups where “some individuals can use their reasoning powers to discomfirm the claims of others.”

Now , that’s better. Reasoning is a good thing, even though it is often motivated.  But why denigrate those who support reason by calling that “worship”? He goes further - “As an intuitionist. I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of on of the most long-lived delusions in western history: the rationalist delusion.”

The caricature of “new atheism”

Perhaps his motive is revealed by that word “delusion.”  He adds that some people see reason as bringing “us beyond the ‘delusion’ of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).” Perhaps he is really having a bash at these so-called ‘new atheists” who he has a hang-up about. (I referred to his preoccupation in that area in my recent post Conservatives, liberals and purity.) Haidt even refers to Richard Dawkins’ “childrearing advice” (“utopian program for raising more rational children”) in The God Delusion.

Haidt’s presentation of “new atheism” is a sad caricature. It is silly to characterise as a “utopian progam” the raising of one’s children to ask the question “How do you know that?”, to look for the evidence supporting ideas and claims, and to try to apply reasoning to questions they face.  After all, I can imagine discussing with my grandchildren the ideas of moral psychology Haidt describes in his book. Explaining  how humans very often reason like a lawyer rather than a scientist. And the importance of having input from a range of perspectives.  Is Haidt going to describe that as a “utopian program,” a “rationalist delusion” and the “worship” of reason? Come off it Jonathan.

Ethics education?

However, even worse than this Dawkins’ bashing” is Haidt’s apparent rejection of ethics education. He says:

“if our goal is to produce good behaviour, not just good thinking, then it’s even more important to reject rationalism and embrace intuitionism. Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom.”

I think that is not only naive – it is just plain wrong. And it is denigrating what could be an effective contribution to the ethical education of children. Especially as he offers no real alternative.

And this is, I think, one of the weaknesses in Haidt’s analysis – a mechanical tendency to see intuition and reason as opposite and ignoring their interaction. Sure our moral actions are intuitive, not immediately based on reason. However, out intutions are not static – they can actually be altered by reason. This happens in learning, when a new action or idea needs to be consciously rehearsed at the start but in time becomes incorporated into our unconscious and becomes automatic. It becomes intuitive. Haidt concedes this may sometimes occur when an individual with a different idea comments on one’s actions. But he ignores the very important role of society, at a number of levels, in helping form and change our moral intuitions.

Personally, I think ethics classes where children get to discuss and suggest solutions to common moral issues could play a valuable role in the moral upbringing of our children. Sure, no student walks out of a class and immediately applies all they have learned in a lesson (in mathematics as well as ethics). But surely Haidt can see that education, especially that supplemented by the inevitable relevant real day-to-day activities does lead to intuitional changes.

While reading this book I can’t help thinking from time to time that the book itself is an example of motivated reasoning, of Haidt’s own partisanship and prejudices. Perhaps that’s how it should be and how the reader should see any book.  And Haidt even admits the possibility of his own bias:

“I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof. Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me. Eventually, if the scientific community works as it is supposed to, the truth will emerge as a large number of flawed and limited minds battle it out”

Now that would be putting the best of Haidt’s scientific ideas into practice.

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Atheists aren’t shrill — just disgusting? Ken Perrott Sep 14

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Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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Debates in the philosophy of science Ken Perrott Jul 06

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Jerry Coyne, over at his Why Evolution is True blog does get into some important issues of the philosophy of science. Usually in debates with others. PZ Myers at Pharyngula often participates, some times agreeing, sometimes disagreeing withy Jerry.

Currently both Jerry and PZ are critiquing an article by Andrew Brown at his Guardian Blog (see Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd). Andrews article itself is a criticism of a comment by Nobel prize winner Harry Kroto in a recent talk:

’Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.’

Jerry Coyne’s response is in Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth. PZ Myers’ response is in There’s something obvious missing from this argument….

It’s an important and interesting discussion – worth following.

Another interesting recent post of Jerry’s is Why am I reading theology?

Apparently he has undertaken a study of theology! That seems really strange to me – a complete waste of time. Perhaps he has lost a bet. or maybe he is taking those theist critics of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion to heart. You know – the charge that Dawkins had no right to produce that book because he has not studied theology!

Jerry claims to have so far learned only three things:

1: “I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time.  I could be reading books about real things instead.” He must have lost a bet!

2: “Theologians can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate . . .”. That’s one of the overwhelming impressions I have obtained from the little theological writings I have encountered.

3: “There seems to be no ’knowledge’ behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything–not even any clever philosophy.  One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.” That’s another overwhelming impression of mine – and as Jerry says this helps explain point 2.

These discussions are worth following.

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Protecting yourself against bullshit Ken Perrott Jun 20

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Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!’ and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!’
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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Is atheism bad for science? Ken Perrott Mar 21

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Since publication of books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the mid 2000′s some reviewers and commentators have argued that the “new atheists” and  vocal “atheist scientists” are “bad for science.” That they are turning people, especially students, away from science. Even that a hostile public will endanger future funding science funding.

Some of these naysayers have an obvious motive. The militant religionists who just wish the people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers would STFU.  Their concept of a pluralist society does not extend to allowing a public voice to people who disagree with god beliefs. They are “offended” by such voices.

But there have also been the non-religious who disagree with what is being said. Or, agree but don’t think the way it is said is polite or quiet enough. Possibly these people are more honest in their concern that scientists who are up-front about their atheism could be endangering public acceptance of science and its future funding. I don’t think that is a principled position -  surely in a democratic society atheists have as much freedom to being “vocal” as believers have. But should they be concerned about public opinion?

Another myth

I suggested in my last post, Myths within a myth, that perhaps this impression of public attitudes is mistaken. Perhaps it is just another myth. Well, I have been continuing to check out data indicating public attitudes towards scientists. The US Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 has some relevant data taken from Harris Polls (Harris Interactive 2008b). These have asked questions about public attitude to professions in the USA. The relevant question was: “tell me if you feel it is an occupation of:

  • very great prestige,
  • considerable prestige,
  • some prestige, or
  • hardly any prestige at all?”

The data in the figure below show responses of ’very great prestige.’ As the complaint about “atheist scientists” and “new atheists” causing a decline in support for science have come from religiously motivated people I thought I would also include the data for religious professions.

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

It seem to me that since the 70′s, attitudes to scientists has been fairly constant in the range 50 – 60%, with a mean of 55%, of the US public considering the science profession has “very great prestige.”

Contrast this with the public’s opinion of the religious professions. The mean numbers supporting “very great prestige” have been about 40% – with a minimum of 32% in 2004.

Now, I wouldn’t make too much of these sort of statistics. But they certainly don’t support the thesis that “atheist scientists” or “new atheists” are responsible for turning the US public off science. Remember – the “new atheist” phenomena that theological commenters complain about started in the early to mid 2000s. Books like “The God Delusion” and the new willingness of scientists to be open about their atheism, especially after September 2001, do not seem to have led to the feared loss in  prestige for the profession among the US public.

“New Christians” too strident?

Maybe the “new atheists,” “atheist scientists” and their books have turned the public off the religious professions? Or more likely, the decline in the mid 2000′s could have resulted from the attack on the US by religious terrorists in September 2001.

But what about the religious attacks on evolutionary science and promotion of creationism and “intelligent design” alternatives? Perhaps publicity around the Dover trial and the legislation being promoted by creationists in various State legislatures have influenced public opinion. Even the proliferation of books attacking “new atheism” – after all there have been many more of these than “new atheist’ books themselves.

Perhaps these religious militants should be told by their more liberal brethren to STFU. Perhaps the more thoughtful believers in our society should turn their attention and concern away from “atheist scientists” and “new atheists.” Maybe they should be warning their own militants to stop being so “strident” and militant”. That their brash behaviour is endangering the public’s acceptance of religion in our societies. Maybe even threatening future funding for religion.

Just imagine of the public got so pissed off they agreed to do away with the privileged position religions have with tax exemption?

 

The Grand Design — neither God nor 42 Ken Perrott Sep 06

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It seems that God, or more correctly disbelief in God, sells books. In recent years anyway. Perhaps since the religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York nine years ago this week.

So one can hardly blame the publishers for jumping on to the advertising bandwagon with Stephen Hawking‘s latest book The Grand Design (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow).  And I am sure that is what has lead to headlines like Stephen Hawking: God NOT Needed For Creation, Stephen Hawking: God didn’t create universe, Hawking Says God Not Needed to Kick-Start Big Bang; World Freaks Out. Even Somebody’s Going To Hell! Stephen Hawking: “God Not Necessary For Universe To Exist”.

Inevitable advertising hype.

Theological response boosts sales

But perhaps we can blame the inevitable theological response. Or at least point out that they are cutting off their collective noses to spite their faces. The emotional theological campaign against Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion published in 2006 helped boost it up the best seller list. And also assisted the flow-on effect of increasing sales of his other books like The Selfish Gene.

So the apparently inevitable theological response to Stephen Hawking and  Leonard Mlodinow looks set to make their new book a runaway best seller. Who was it that said – those who don’t learn from history are set to repeat their mistakes?

Already we have headlines like Archbishop of Canterbury hits back after Stephen Hawking insists God did NOT create the Universe. The Archbishop boldly declared: “Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.” (It will be interesting to compare his ‘evidence’ for this claim with the evidence for Hawking and Mlodinow’s claim in their book).

Britian’s Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks asserted: “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation… The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.” And Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, added: “I would totally endorse what the Chief Rabbi said so eloquently about the relationship between religion and science.” One wonders why they then get so upset becuase science sets about to explain things like this? Surely they should get busy with their “interpretation” rather than object to the explanation.

To complete the lineup Ibrahim Mogra, an imam and committee chairman at the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “If we look at the universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror.” He (I am assuming not she) is clearly not going to be worried about the evidence.

The book is being released this week and I can already hear the cash registers ringing.

I am the last person to support or attack a book without reading it. And I am not going to join the inevitable ranks of reviewers who are going to post critical reviews based only on the reading of the books tile or headlines and news reports. However, the extracts that have been included in press reports suggest the degree of “poetic license” being used by the publishers, and the hypersensitivity of the theological critics. The relevant quote (from the London Times) was:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” Hawking writes.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Rather tame, isn’t it? Surely there is nothing new in that.

My impression is that the book describes how we can develop theories for the formation of our universe, and the authors give their preference to “M-theory.” (He does make clear that “Unlike the answer given in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘,” they are not supporting “42.”) This will not be to every physicists liking but it does demonstrate that one does not need to bring in theology to explain such things.

Philosophy is dead

A few reviewers have read pre-publication versions of the book have some interesting comments at the Amazon site. One comments that the book made a convincing argument that old-time philosophy had become irrelevant in such areas. Memoiai says:

“philosophy is dead in the sense of answering the most mysterious of life’s questions. It is up to science, and scientific theory, to provide clues to the true answers, as philosophy in its most ancient forms has taken a back seat, but modern philosophy, that of scientific philosophy, has taken root.”

So it looks like The Grand Design gets into the relationship between philosophy and science as well as modern physical theories.

Should be worth reading.

Cosmologist Shean Carroll provides brief outline of Hawking’s approach in this video (thanks to Why Evolution is True: Carroll explains Hawking).

Stephen Hawking and the Existence of God.

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The Dawkins Delusions Ken Perrott May 10

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Actually, some people call them the “Dawkins Tantrums.”

There’s no doubt about it though – there is a controversy around Richard Dawkins. Just mention his name in the blogosphere and you get all sorts of extreme reactions. Almost always negative.

Sure, you will get some, usually milder and more reasonable, positive reactions. After all, he is a bit of a scientific rock star. His recent lectures in New Zealand and Australia were sold out. Many had to be shifted to larger venues. And his books certainly sell well.

I myself waited in a queue for 2 hours to get my copy of “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” signed by the author. As one wit said, this queue seemed to go right back to the “”Big Bang.” But I was in good company and enjoyed the conversations while waiting.

Personally I am always wary of personality cults. Elevate a person to sainthood and you will inevitably find they have feet of clay. I certainly don’t think it has come to this with Dawkins, despite the high regard many people have for him.

And he is a humble person. I heard a story of him seeing some young person wearing a “Dawkins is God” T-shirt. His rather embarrassed comment was “Does this mean I don’t exist?”

Dawkins doesn’t exist

And that’s another slogan, isn’t it? “Dawkins doesn’t exist.” A theist parody on Dawkins’ belief that gods don’t exist – any more than fairies.

I actually think this last slogan encompasses a common reaction to, and misrepresentation of, Dawkins by many religious apologists. Dawkins is their “voodoo doll”. An entity to which they ascribe all their horrible beliefs about atheists. An entity they can quote (or misquote), to satisfy their arguments. And one they can abuse to work off their frustrations.  A very useful entity – but one that doesn’t actually exist. So they had to invent him. Just like a god (or in Dawkins’ case, a devil).

Long before Dawkins’ recent notoriety I had often thought about this phenomenon. Our human trick of creating entities to which we could use as a receptacle for all our own desires, wishes and values. Something we could point to as our great utopian example. Something to aspire to and to use as an example.

So we get the attitude ’what would Jesus do?’ Jesus being this entity we have idealised to represent all that is good. Whether Jesus actually existed as a real person, anw hat his personality was like if he did exist, is beside the point. We had our own utopian ideal – and anyone who criticises it is hurting the very core of our being.

Dogmatic socialism

I saw this with left-wing socialists from early on. Some of them were Russophiles — they had an ideal picture of the USSR and attributed all the things they imagined for their own vision of socialism to the existing socialism in the USSR — irrespective of the facts.

Then the NZ Communist Party became Maoist and Sinophiles. China embodied the new “ideal socialism.”

Then a falling out and it became Albania.

Some splinter groups went for Cuba or one of the central American revolutionary states.

Similarly some people must have a receptacle for all they consider evil — whether it exists or not. Dogmatic socialists had their version of the USA – it embodied everything they saw as bad and hated.

Being close-minded about open mindedness

One does not have to look very far to find examples of “Dawkins tantrums.” Matt, at MandM provides one in his article Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness.

Actually, Matt is one of these religious apologists who can be relied on to respond to any mention of Dawkins with a “Dawkins tantrum.” He just can’t help himself as he has a Pavlovian response to the name. He usually responds along the lines of that old chestnut that Dawkins can pontificate all he likes about biology but as he is not a theologian he should shut up about gods. This particular version of the tantrum was made popular by Terry Eagleton in his review of The God Delusion.

( Matt’s title for this particular “tantrum” is a bit ironic as he justifies his own belief as a “properly-basic belief” – a theological term to justify a belief without any need for evidence! Doesn’t seem very open-minded to me.)

Matt’s article got similar knee jerk reactions in comments from fellow apologists. Dawkins ideas were described as “just more of the same old arrogant garbage you find from posturing intellectuals”

And here’s some other similar comments:

“I read Dawkins’ God Delusion and thought it terrible. If every error he made was refuted it would take an encyclopaedia. I thought that some pages could have contained 10 errors per page.”

“Dawkins struggles to realize that nobody with any amount of theological/philosophical knowledge actually believes in these gods he is attacking.”

“Fortunately though, Dawkins realizes the moral bankruptcy in his worldview and continues to live and state that he lives as a ’cultural Christian.’ You would think such a move would cause a serious amount of cognitive dissonance since he lives by principles that no more exist on his account than the god he vehemently rejects…but I guess not. I’m afraid many of his followers will pick up on the illusion of objective morality in atheism though and fall into the ills of moral relativism.”

“Dawkins ’opens minds’? That actually made me laugh out loud. It is made even funnier because those who uttered it are apparently sincere! For those who haven’t read his polemic, it would only take reading a review or two to get the flavour of the book. There is nothing about the book geared towards opening minds.”

“Dawkins is not a man of intelligence but a Bum! He’s a the poster child of our age!…an age of stupidity in high places. A Fool who says in his heart there is no God. If I may be so humble to suggest! Attack his home base!Attack Evolution! Auckland University is a Socialist State Indoctrination Camp! Of course they endorse Dawkins! Get the State out of Education I say, then at least we wont be funding Anti Christ Socialist atheism!”

Discrediting science with Dawkins

OK, Matt’s post was on his own theological turf. But he and others sometimes launch into misrepresentations of science. And who do they quote as their authority? Well it is often the Dawkins’ voodoo doll.

You want to attack “scientism?” – Well attribute it to Dawkins. Arrogance – Dawkins again. Usually no one bothers to find a quote (after all how many of them have actually read any of Dawkins’ books). But you don’t need to quote in the apologetics ghetto. Everybody nods their heads in agreement, anyway!

I sometimes wonder if religious apologists spend more time studying and thinking about their Dawkins voodoo doll than they do about their gods. He actually gets studied in apologist courses. Lectures are presented about Dawkins’ fallacies. Books are written. And of course, as is usually the case with imaginary  gods and devils a lot of strawmannery is involved.

Well, they say that no news is bad news. Perhaps all this apologetics concentration on Dawkins and attempts to discredit him has its own reward. Perhaps this obsession has created a reaction. Helped sell Dawkins’ book. Attracting people to his lectures. Encouraging purchase of his videos. And bringing financial support to his Foundation for Science and Reason and charities he supports, like Non-believers Giving Aid and  Foundation Beyond Belief.

Many Australians and New Zealanders have recently had a chance to see and hear Dawkins in person. They have learned he is nothing like the rligious apologists’ voodoo doll. That in fact their “Dawkins” doesn’t actually exist.

And their anti-science arguments are just as illusory.

Credit: Images for t-shirts Dawkins T-shirts and Red Molotov.com

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RIP Antony Flew Ken Perrott Apr 16

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If only!

Several Christian apologetics blogs have commented on Antony Flew’s recent death (see Antony Flew 1923-2010, Antony Flew dies at 87, Theology Geek, and Professor Antony Flew — Obituary…).

The unfortunate aspect of these blogs is that they indulge in a little bit of “body snatching.” Not that this didn’t happen before Flew’s death.

Here is a post I wrote on in February last year (The Antony Flew controversy).


I had not heard of Antony Flew before last year’s  controversy around his book There Is a God.

The headlines gave the message — Flew was an atheist who had changed his view and now believed in a deist god. And New Zealand Christian blogs picked this up (e.g.,  Christian News NZ; TBR.cc; Fruitful Faith). My reaction was  — ’So what?’ People change their beliefs all the time.

But a few articles in  the New York Times (I’m a Believer and  The Turning of an Atheist) indicated that the controversy was not about Flew’s ’conversion’ but about the authority of the book’s authorship. The conclusion seems to be that Flew, being somewhat disadvantaged by his advanced age, had been ‘taken advantage off’ by his evangelical co-authors. A similar controversy erupted about Flew’s authorship of a critical review of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion promoted by the Christian apologist site BeThinking.org.

I found the controversy frustrating because there were no authoritative comments by Flew himself. This might be explained by his well known technophobia and therefore unwillingness to communicate electronically. It could also have resulted from his new evangelical friends controlling his access to the media.

Antony Flew, N.T. Wright, and Gary Habermas

Now I have had a chance to make my own assessment and draw my own conclusions. The Christian apologist Gary Habermas recently posted videos of a discussion involving himself, Antony Flew and N. T. Wright. Held at Westminster Capel last March, the discussion centred around Flew’s conversion and his attitude towards evolution and Richard Dawkins.

I think the videos do illustrate the probable situation Flew is in and the degree to which his book and statements have been manipulated.

I won’t give you my own conclusion but urge you to view these videos before making up your own mind.

The videos are in the Windows Media file format (mwv):

PART I (6 MB)     PART II (5 MB)     PART III (8 MB).

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Richard Dawkins — wrong again! Ken Perrott Mar 02

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And once again, he admits his mistake and apologises! Have a look at  ‘An Apology’ by Richard Dawkins.

I admire people who can acknowledge their mistakes. People who won’t, but will go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify a mistake, are really behaving like children. Their egos are overriding their logic.

This time Richard is apologising for the way he and his team handled the reorganisation going on at the RichardDawkins.net website. The changes being made to the forum on this site have upset some participants, some rather emotional and outrageous statements were made and staff reacted defensively. Richard himself responded to these attacks in what he himself describes as “insensitive ‘Outrage‘ post, which was written in the heat of the moment.” He is apologising for the tone of his post, as well as mistakes made in handling the changes. He has also introduced some changes to the reorganisation of the forums to accommodate some of the concerns expressed.

I am really not interested in the details of this incident. The internet is a bit like driving a car – it seems to bring out the worst in people. Forums and blog discussions are notorious for bad, childish and rude behaviour. I really should try and keep away from them. But I think Richard’s apology and his attempts to accommodate valid concerns reflect one of the characteristics of this man that many people admire.

I used to be very critical of Dawkins (see Putting Dawkins in his place) and avoided reading his books. Shame on me, I know. I was behaving a bit like those very vocal critics of Dawkins who attack him for his book The God Delusion but refuse to read the book!

Once I did start reading Dawkins I was impressed, both by his writing and his honesty. Perhaps it was worth waiting 30 years to read the celebratory edition of his The Selfish Gene. It sets a great example. Dawkins notes mistakes and errors in his first edition and corrects them, together with some back story, in the notes of the later edition.

It was a great example to me of the scientific ethos of honesty.

Now just imagine of some of our local climate change deniers acknowledged their “mistakes” when they are caught cherry-picking data, distorting information or outright lying. And imagine if those deniers responsible for the current attacks on NIWA scientists publicly acknowledged their attacks were based on huge errors on their part. And then apologised for their behaviour.

I guess that’s like asking pigs to fly.

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Belief and social identity Ken Perrott Feb 22

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Glenn, at “Say Hello to my Little Friend” has a very useful post on a Christian perspective of open-mindedness (Scepticism, Open Mindedness and Mistrust). I think this perspecitve is not just a Chrsitian one. It is one that I recognise also in those advancing dogmatic secular ideologies. For my generation his analysis applies equally well to Maoists, to the Red Guards of China’s so-called “Cultural Revolution.”

Here’s how Glenn justifies a closed mind to non-Christian viewpoints:

“So it is when a Christian is asked to consider atheism. It’s not true that the Christian should be as open minded to the possibility of atheism as he would like people to be to the possibility of Christianity, any more than I should be as open to the possibility of my wife’s unfaithfulness as I would like people to be to the possibility of her faithfulness. A person who is a Christian has what he or she takes to be a relationship of trust. They have a prior commitment (and in fact the relationship between Christ and the church is likeness, in the Bible, to a marriage e.g. Ephesians 5:31-33). When I talk about a prior commitment here, I do not just mean a prior belief, something that they affirmed before and don’t want to give up. I mean not a commitment to a proposition but to a person — to a relationship, call it what you will. It is a relationship of trust, and more than that, of worship.”

So, this religious conviction is not about primary beliefs. It’s about a “relationship of trust,” “a prior commitment,” even a relationship “of worship.”

Maoism as a religion

This describes very accurately the attitude of Maoists and “red guards” during the 1960s and early 1970s. For them it was not about the real ideas of Mao Zedong which could be accessed through his writings. Or even about the barstardised representation of them in “the Little Red Book” they used to wave high. It was about their “prior commitment” to Mao (and his opposition to the Chinese Communist Party or “capitalist roaders”). It was about a “relationship of trust” with Mao. Even a relationship “of worship” of Mao.

I imagine these prior commitments and relationships of trust (and worship) were also characteristic of earlier dogmatic secular ideologies (I almost said “religions” here) like Stalinism and Hitlerism.

The philosopher Adèle Mercier describes this dogmatic attitude in her article Religious Belief and Self Deception (in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists). This attitude is more about “belief in belief” and identification with that rather than the beliefs themselves. “Most people who claim to have relgious beliefs have scarcely ever analysed the contents of their belief, and indeed are reluctant to do so even when prompted.” That was so true of the Maoists.

Religion and social identity

And “there is a good reason why most people refuse to examine the details of the religious propositions they profess. Let’s face it, most first-order religious beliefs are daft.” Well, perhaps politcal dogmatists like the Maoists had more credible primary beliefs but, as with relgionists, they very rarely examined the details.

No, the strength of a dogma (religious or otherwise) is not in commitment “to their first-order beliefs, but to their second-order beliefs about them (a point well made by Dennett). Religion is in more ways than the obvious like a country club: it is deeply about social identity, not one’s golf game.” Again this could be said of those committed to secular ideological and political dogmas.

If religion and other dogmas were just about primary beliefs these could be openly and dispassionately discussed. But that doesn’t happen. Because the secondary belief is a matter of social identity religious people (and Maoists) take “disproportionate offense” when their beliefs are questioned. As Mercier says “doubt the truth of any first order belief and you question only the veracity of its claim; doubt a religious belief and it’s the entire believer who feels called into question. Call any 50-year old Canaanite with sexual designs on an 9-year-old a lecherous pedophile, and from those who disagree with your assessment you’ll get a disagreement; say the same about Mahommed and you’ll get a death warrant.”

Dogma as a virus

This “belief in belief, ” “relationship of trust,” “prior commitment” and a relationship “of worship” provides a powerful mechanism for protecting and propagating dogma. Darrel Ray describes how this works in his book “The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture” (see Ideological infections). When people develop such relationship with a dogma it is as if they have been infected with a virus. This virus then works, not in the interests of the host,  but it the interests of its own survival and infection of others. “Anti-bodies” are developed to prevent the host properly inspecting the primary beliefs, or being open to other competing dogmas and idea (other virus). Hence Christians feel justified in being non-sceptical about their own religion and being closed minded about competing ideas like atheism. When you have dogma there is a sort of intellectual ghetto formed to protect the dogma (see The ghetto of apologetics ’science’).

Glenn himself provided a beautiful example of this in his article by commenting:Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, that well known, aggressive (and often lampooned as philosophically poorly constructed) case against religious belief.” A common reaction by religionists who have never read the book – and certainly have no intention of doing so.

So, thanks Glenn. Not only a great description of the real attraction of religion and other dogmas to the  “true believers.” But also a practical example of how this works to protect the host against other ideas.

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