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Posts Tagged Religion and Spirituality

Who is guilty of misusing science? Ken Perrott Jan 17

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I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.

What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.

But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.

Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”

I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.

The “Scientific proof” of the theologian

The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.

That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.

You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.

wonka-physics-god

That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is

The “limits of science”

As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?

Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.

The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all -  you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.

But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!

So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?

Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.

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People saying stupid things on the Internet Ken Perrott Sep 20

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I saw this young Muslim women on the TV news last night. She was demonstrating against the US over that silly video. The interview asked her _”but don’t you believe in freedom of expression.

Her answer – “Yes, but not when it comes to religion!”

My response – grow up!

That’s why I like this little skit on the current situation (thanks to YouTube video mocking Atheism greeted with global disinterest by Atheists).-  I think there are some lessons in it:


A YouTube video mocking followers of science and those who discount the probability of omnipotent deity, has resulted in complete indifference throughout the Atheist community.

Theist comments on the video claim that the video will see “atheists burning down churches the world over!” have been met with blank stares by people who consider themselves ‘atheist’.

Non-believer Simon Williams told us, “I’m not sure what reaction they were expecting, but I’m afraid people saying stupid things on the Internet doesn’t really bother me.”

“What with me being a grown adult and everything. Tantrums haven’t really been my thing since puberty.”

“Do I want to kill the people behind it? No, of course not.”

“Though I would like to give them a few science lessons that didn’t end with the conclusion ‘God must have done it’.”

“But I’m not hopeful.”

Youtube video protests

The maker of the video has gone into hiding claiming that Atheist disinterest in his film has infringed his religious freedoms.

The unnamed producer explained, “It says quite clearly in a passage of one of my holy books – a passage that is definitely open to interpretation in the way that I want – that I must take the fight to non-believers – and yet here you all are refusing to fight.”

“You are oppressing my religious freedom to claim religious oppression.”

“What will it take?! Why can’t you at least throw a rock at me or something?”

“It’s almost like you’re suppressing the evil inside each of you in order not to look like dicks.”

“I’m guessing you get the strength from the Devil himself.”

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Making sense of religion, science, and morality Ken Perrott Aug 20

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Here’s an interesting discussion. And unlike many in this area – one that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s because the participants are all non-theists so are not encumbered with ideological baggage.

Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

The discussion is between Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll, and Edward Falzon (author of the parody Being Gay Is Disgusting). There are also brief video inputs from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist: A Panel of Atheists Discuss Religion, Science, and Morality.

Science – the greatest story ever told Ken Perrott Aug 16

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Book Review: A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity by Phil Torres

Price:
Kindle Edition$5.99
Paperback: $19.95
File Size: 498 KB
Print Length: 174 pages
Publisher: Dangerous Little Books (July 18, 2012)
ASIN: B008N06VRK

The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.

As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.”  As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”

So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.

From evangelical to atheist

Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:

“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”

In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.

All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.

Singles – a new genre?

One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format.  I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.

I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.

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Rational morality Ken Perrott Nov 03

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

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

Treatise on Morality. – YouTube.

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

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

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

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

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

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You CAN be good with God! Ken Perrott Oct 18

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OK – we have become used to the slogan “You can be good without God.” Versions of it have popped up all around the world over the last few years.

Even in little old New Zealand.

It’s really only stating the obvious – being a non-theist doesn’t make you a bad person. In principle most Christians probably agree – or say they do. However it hasn’t stopped many of them from finding such slogans offensive.* Because alongside these campaigns to put up such billboards, there have been campaigns to prevent them – or remove them.

Mind you – perhaps there is poetic justice. An Ohio church happened to own the land on which a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) billboard was. The advertising firm was unaware of the ownership – they just rented the site. The Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio had the billboard removed back in June.

Billboard removed by Christ Cathedral Church from their commercial land – on which they evaded taxation by declaring it a "place of worship"

Problem (for the church) is this  bought to public notice the fact they owned the land, that they were earning an income from the land – but they were not paying tax on that income. (One wonders how much this sort of tax evasion goes on in New Zealand where religion can also earn a tax-free and local body rate free charity status – just because they are religious!)

The FFRF looked into this, found the church owned several commercial properties which they evaded taxation on by declaring them as “places of worship!” (see Columbus Church must ’render unto Caesar’).

I guess they were worshiping the almighty dollar!

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented:

“Apparently this church doesn’t heed the scriptural advice in Matthew 22:21 ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’

“Has this church, that was so offended that a grad student could be ‘good without God,’ been good with God?”

Can you be good with God?

I like that question “can you be good with God?” I guess some people might be asking that these days – there seem to be many cases of priests and religious ministers caught with the hand in the till (or in other places they shouldn’t be). So it’s natural to wonder.

However, I would like to assure Christians and other believers that there is no reason that their beliefs will necessarily stop them from being good. I say that with some confidence because over recent years there has been a lot of progress in the scientific understanding of human morality. And this overwhelmingly indicates that human morality is actually a secular activity. It’s involved with the real world, the non-”sacred” world. Just like accountancy, scientific research, plumbing, etc., it is a secular activity we can all indulge in – whatever our beliefs about a supposed “supernatural” world.

So it doesn’t matter if you believe in a god or not. These beliefs are irrelevant. You can still be an accountant, a scientific researcher, or a plumber. Just as you can sill do morality.

Because morality is a secular activity – its got nothing to do with gods or other supernatural beliefs.


*This hostility is interesting – perhaps at heart many Christians actually don’t think you can be good unless you hold the same supernatural beliefs they do. After all, their holy book says in Psalm 14.1:

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

Perhaps they think that atheists are supposed to be immoral (after all this is the “word of their god”)

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Ethicists have problems with ethics! Ken Perrott Oct 11

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I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 ”self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

’I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.’

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

Secular democracy and its critics Ken Perrott Aug 24

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“Secularism” and “secular”are very much maligned words. Partly because they are not really understood by some people. But also because some religious people feel threatened by the words.

But they shouldn’t. Despite some attempts to equate the words with atheism and oppose them to religion they really don’t mean either of these. Unfortunately, though, some people insist on using the words that way.

Consulting dictionaries is not always helpful either because they usually list several different meanings.

What does “secular” mean?

However, when we use words like “secular” and “secularism” to describe our modern society definitions equating them with atheism or opposition to religion are completely inappropriate. When applied to society the meaning is more aligned with neutrality towards religion and other beliefs. As the cartoon implies.

So proper dictionary definitions of “secular” include:

  • “Not controlled by a religious body or concerned with religious or spiritual matters;”
  • “Worldly rather than spiritual;”
  • “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body: eg secular music;”
  • “Of or relating to the worldly or temporal;”
  • “Of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly.”

And so on. You get my point.

Secularism – Monk doing monastery accounts

Not at all opposed to religion, or denying a religious participation. It just describes procedures which cannot be appropriately treated as “sacred” (whatever that means).

I have the picture of a medieval monk sitting at a desk in an old monastery. A candle by his side he is doing the monastery accounts. He is doing secular work. (I don’t think even the most convinced religious apologists would consider accountancy “sacred.”)

We are all “secularists”

All of us, no matter our beliefs, are involved in secular activities most of the time.

As a scientist I worked alongside scientists with all sorts of beliefs. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, and so on. Bloody hell, one of them was even a member of the ACT Party.

However, despite our different “world views”, we did our work, our scientific research, in basically the same way. We were all involved in collecting evidence, hypothesising, testing ideas against reality, producing effective scientific theories and validating them against reality. Our religious beliefs did not change the way we did our job.

Scientific research is secular – but done by people who hold many beliefs.

Most of you will also be doing secular jobs. If you are an accountant, a plumber, a builder, or whatever, your religious beliefs just don’t influence your work. Your job is secular. And you don’t feel any conflict with that.

Democracy secular by definition

We can look on society in much the same way. Of course opinions and beliefs inevitably do intrude into political and social activity. But while we can express religiously derived views we are actually dealing with a society which does not have uniform religious beliefs. Our society is pluralist. Religious opinions are very diverse. So while in New Zealand you can argue for an ethical or political position because your god told you it was correct or it is written in your “holy” book, such arguments are completely ineffective (outside your direct religious community).

This inevitably means that simple religious arguments cannot carry any weight politically or socially. The sensible protagonist will look for arguments which have wider appeal.

And that’s how it should be. Our political system is democratic, Our society is pluralist. No one belief can be imposed by loyalty. We have to engage in the market of ideas, putting forward our best arguments. And the best arguments are the ones that most people can respond to. Religious arguments just aren’t effective.

Consequently, in democratic, pluralist societies the political and social activity, the live discussion of ideas and decision-making about the best social or political situation, is inevitably secular. It must be to be democratic.

Our politics and social activity is secular even though the participants may hold a range of religious views.  It is secular because it is democratic.

So those religious apologists who argue that modern society somehow
“privileges” secularism over religion are making a basic category error. It’s like a political party condemning democracy, the very institution which provides them with a venue for their activity.

Unless of course, they would prefer a society which was undemocratic, but placed them in power while denying all other parties the freedom to exist.

Perhaps this is the way these religious apologists complaining of the “privileging” of secularism see it. Perhaps they would like to return to a society where there religious arguments were the only ones allowed in public discussion.

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‪Videos on morality Ken Perrott Jul 31

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I often discuss a scientific approach to morality‪ because I find this an interesting and developing field. However, morality is still sometimes linked in the public mind with religion, so it’s worth actually considering those religious arguments.

QualiaSoup is currently posting a useful YouTube video series on morality. I have posted No 2 below. It deals with the problems of religious morality, or the “divine command” concept of morality. It’s quite thorough.

Morality 2: Not-so-good books‬‏.

There is at least one more video to come in this series.

No 1, Good without God, is below.

Morality 1: Good without God‬‏.

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Designer spin Ken Perrott May 08

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The absolute gall of some of those who attack science often amazes me. I guess their attitude is that if they are in for a penny they may as well be in  for a pound. Once someone starts lying its very hard to stop. The lies just get worse.

But this headline at Uncommon Descent had me laughing -  Darwinism’s Eroding Monopoly In Academia. Especially when I saw their “evidence” – a quote from a Times Education Supplement (TES) article:

’One in 20 first-year biology students at Glasgow University don’t believe in the theory of evolution, according to new research.’

Really! Just 5% of first year students at Glasgow University admit to not believing in evolutionary science – and this is news! It’s suddenly “evidence” that “Darwinism” is losing its near universal acceptance in academia!

And, according to the TES article:

“When asked why they rejected evolution, 41 per cent [of the 5%] said they believed there was an alternative explanation for the diversity of life, while a third [of the 5%] said they simply had insufficient knowledge of evolution.”

So this means that 2% of these first year students “believed there was an alternative explanation for the diversity of life.” Those are the anti-Darwin believers who are eroding “Darwinism” in academia. Two percent! And a similar number just admitted their ignorance (always a good start).

Given that religious attitudes are still very common in Scotland and a significant proportion of Christians actually do reject evolutionary science, I am surprised that such a small proportion of these students admitted to not believing in evolutionary science.

Come on! Only Five percent (5%) of these first year students said they did not believe in evolution. Just imagine how much smaller that percentage will be on graduation!

And these intelligent design (ID) spin merchants claim this is evidence for “Darwinism’s Eroding Monopoly In Academia”!

In the same vein of dishonesty another ID spokesperson referred to the TES article quoting Alastair Noble, director of the Centre for Intelligent Design. He said intelligent design – unlike evolution, was “a non-dogmatic, non-religious position.” (see Intelligent Design on the Rise Among Scottish University Students?)

Funny how these people attempt to label science as religious and deny that their own positions are based on their own religious beliefs.  Noble is an Educational Consultant with CARE in Scotland — a Christian charity which works across a range of public policy issues. He is also a lay preacher, an elder at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, Busby.

With such silly spin in their political claims can one take these people seriously for their scientific claims?

Answer – you can’t.

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