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nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.


Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

Einstein, science and the natural world: a rabid discourse

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Einstein around 1915

Einstein around 1915

Canto: Well, we’re celebrating this month what is surely the greatest achievement by a single person in the history of science, the general theory of relativity. I thought it might be a good time to reflect on that achievement, on science generally, and on the impetus that drives us to explore and understand as fully as possible the world around us.

Jacinta: The world that made us.

Canto: Précisément.

Jacinta: Well, first can I speak of Einstein as a political animal, because that has influenced me, or rather, his political views seem to chime with mine. He’s been described as a supra-nationalist, which to me is a kind of political humanism. We’re moving very gradually towards this supra-nationalism, with the European Union, the African Union, and various intergovernmental and international organisations whose goals are largely political. Einstein also saw the intellectual venture that is science as an international community venture, science as an international language, and an international community undertaking. And with the development of nuclear weapons, which clearly troubled him very deeply, he recognised more forcefully than ever the need for us to take international responsibility for our rapidly developing and potentially world-threatening technology. In his day it was nuclear weapons. Today, they’re still a threat – you’ll never get that genie back in the bottle – but there are so many other threats posed by a whole range of technologies, and we need to recognise them, inform ourselves about them, and co-operate to reduce the harm, and where possible find less destructive but still effective alternatives.

Canto: A great little speech Jas, suitable for the UN general assembly…

Jacinta: That great sinkhole of fine and fruitless speeches. So let’s get back to general relativity, what marks it off from special relativity?

Canto: Well I’m not a physicist, and I’m certainly no mathematician, but broadly speaking, general relativity is a theory of gravity. Basically, after developing special relativity, which dealt with the concepts of space and time, in 1905, he felt that he needed a more comprehensive relativistic theory incorporating gravity.

Jacinta: But hang on, was there really anything wrong with space and time before he got his hands on them? Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

Canto: OMG, you’re taking me right back to basics, aren’t you? If I had world enough, and time…

Jacinta: Actually the special theory was essentially an attempt – monumentally successful – to square Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations with the laws of Newton, a squaring up which involved enormous consequences for our understanding of space and time, which have ever since been connected in the concept – well, more than a concept, since it has been verified to the utmost – of the fourth, spacetime, dimension.

Canto: Well done, and there were other vital implications too, as expressed in E = mc², equivalating mass and energy.

Jacinta: Is that a word?

Canto: It is now.

Jacinta: So when can we stop pretending that we understand any of this shite?

Canto: Not for a while yet. The relevance of relativity goes back to Galileo and Newton. It all has to do with frames of reference. At the turn of the century, when Einstein was starting to really focus on this stuff, there was a lot of controversy about whether ‘ether’ existed – a postulated quasi-magical invisible medium through which electromagnetic and light waves propagated. This ether was supposed to provide an absolute frame of reference, but it had some contradictory properties, and seemed designed to explain away some intractable problems of physics. In any case, some important experimental work effectively quashed the ether hypothesis, and Einstein sought to reconcile the problems by deriving special relativity from two essential postulates, constant light speed and a ‘principle of relativity’, under which physical laws are the same regardless of the inertial frame of reference.

the general theory - get it?

the general theory – get it?

Jacinta: What do you mean, ‘the initial frame of reference’?

Canto: No, I said ‘the inertial frame of reference’. That’s one that describes all parameters homogenously, in such a way that any such frame is in a constant motion with respect to other such frames. But I won’t go into the mathematics of it all here.

Jacinta: As if you could.

Canto: Okay. Okay. I won’t go any further in trying to elucidate Einstein’s work, to myself, you or anyone else. At the end of it all I wanted to celebrate the heart of Einstein’s genius, which I think represents the best and most exciting element in our civilisation.

Jacinta: Drumroll. Now, expose this heart to us.

Canto: Well we’ve barely touched on the general theory, but what Einstein’s work on gravity teaches us is that by not leaving things well alone, as you put it, we can make enormous strides. Of course it took insight, hard work, and a full and deep understanding of the issues at stake, and of the work that had already been done to resolve those issues. And I don’t think Einstein was intending to be a revolutionary. He was simply exercised by the problems posed in trying to understand, dare I say, the very nature of reality. And he rose to that challenge and transformed our understanding of reality more than any other person in human history. It’s unlikely that anything so transformative will ever come again – from the mind of a single human being.

Jacinta: Yes it’s an interesting point, and it takes a particular development of culture to allow that kind of transformative thinking. It took Europe centuries to emerge from a sort of hegemony of dogmatism and orthodoxy. During the so-called dark ages, when warfare was an everyday phenomenon, and later too, right through to the Thirty Years War and beyond, one thing that could never be disputed amongst all that disputation was that the Bible was the word of God. Nowadays, few people believe that, and that’s a positive development in the evolution of culture. It frees us to look at morality from a broader, richer, extra-Biblical perspective..

Canto: Yes we no longer have to even pretend that our morality comes from such sources.

Jacinta: Yes and I’m thinking of other parts of the world that are locked in to this submissive way of thinking. A teaching colleague, an otherwise very liberal Moslem, told me the other day that he didn’t believe in gay marriage, because the Qu-ran laid down the law on homosexuals, and the Qu-ran, because written by God, is perfect. Of course I had to call BS on that, which made me quite sad, because I get on very well with him, on a professional and personal basis. It just highlights to me the crushing nature of culture, how it blinds even the best people to the nature of reality.

Canto: Not being capable of questioning, not even being aware of that incapability, that seems to me the most horrible blight, and yet as you say, it wasn’t so long ago that our forebears weren’t capable of questioning the legitimacy of Christianity’s ‘sacred texts’, in spite of interpreting those remarkably fluid texts in myriad ways.

Jacinta: And yet out of that bound-in world, modern science had its birth. Some modern atheists might claim the likes of Galileo and Francis Bacon as one of their own, but none of our scientific pioneers were atheists in the modern sense. Yet the principles they laid down led inevitably to the questioning of sacred texts and the gods described in them.

Canto: Of course, and the phenomenal success of the tightened epistemology that has produced the scientific and technological revolution we’re enjoying now, with exoplanets abounding, and the revelations of Homo floresiensis, Homo naledi and the Denisovan hominin, and our unique microbiome, and recent work on the interoreceptive tract leading to to the anterior insular cortex, and so on and on and on, and the constant shaking up of old certainties and opening up of new pathways, all happening at a giddying accelerating rate, all of this leaves the ‘certainty of faith’ looking embarrassingly silly and feeble.

Jacinta: And you know why ‘I fucking love science’, to steal someone else’s great line? It’s not because of science itself, that’s only a means. It’s what it reveals about our world that’s amazing. It’s the world of stuff – animate and inanimate – that’s amazing. The fact that this solid table we’re sitting at is made of mostly empty space – a solidity consisting entirely of electrochemical bonds, if that’s the right term, between particles we can’t see but whose existence has been proven a zillion times over, and the fact that as we sit here on a still, springtime day, with a slight breeze tickling our faces, we’re completely oblivious of the fact that we hurtling around on the surface of this earth, making a full circle every 24 hours, at a speed of nearly 1700 kms per hour. And at the same time we’re revolving around the sun at a far greater speed, 100,000 kms per hour. And not only that, we’re in a solar system that’s spinning around in the outer regions of our galaxy at around 800,000 kilometres an hour. And not only that… well, we don’t feel an effing thing. It’s the counter-intuitive facts about the natural world that our current methods of investigation reveal – these are just mind-blowing. And if your mind doesn’t get blown by it, then you haven’t a mind worth blowing.

Canto: And we have two metres of DNA packed into each nucleus of the trillions of cells in our body. Who’d’ve thunkit?



Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2015 at 11:33 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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What Australia needs


I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 3

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Argument 7: God is the best explanation of the connection between the flourishing of the kinds of moral agents there are, and the necessary moral truths that apply to them.

Here we move more and more into the field of the preposterous, IMHO. He quotes a Christian philosopher, Gregory Ganssle, as saying:

Not only do we have beings to which necessary moral truths apply, but we have beings that are made up in such a way that doing what is right turns out to be good for them, it contributes to their flourishing rather than their languishing. Maybe only one in ten universes that are moral, in that they have the right sorts of beings that are such that moral goodness, and the flourishing of those beings involved, converge.

The last sentence is virtually meaningless, but the emphasis here on necessary moral truths is bizarre. I’m not sure what they are, but I’m certain that I haven’t the slightest interest in the concept. Vandergriff spoke earlier of the prohibition against murder as being a necessary moral truth, but many Christians are in favour of capital punishment, which is murder by the state. The murder of Bin Laden a couple of years ago raised very little moral outrage, nor does the murder of hostage-takers and other terrorists today. So these are apparently moral prohibitions that are on some occasions more ‘necessary’ than others.

I find the pretence of surprise that acting on ‘necessary moral truths’ seems coincidentally to promote human flourishing to be ridiculous and thoroughly disingenuous. The fact is that we’ve promoted human flourishing through social evolution. One of the most comprehensive explanations of how this has been achieved is presented by Steven Pinker in The better angels of our nature, a work of empiricism, not philosophy. Pinker has no more interest in ‘necessary moral truths’ than I do, he is concerned to explain how some human populations, and an increasing proportion of them, have been able to learn from the destructive errors of the past and to build better legal, economic, political, social, health and education systems, to better balance co-operation and competition, and individual and social goods. His analysis owes nothing to ‘necessity’, everything to the lessons learned through bitter and often traumatic experience. There are no perfect systems, but polities can be improved grindingly through continued analysis and experiment based on hard-won knowledge. Vandergriff and Ganssle put the cart before the horse. We flourish because the systems we put in place are designed for our flourishing. Yes, horror of horrors, our morality is all about enlightened self-interest, not ‘necessary goodness’. The horrors of the Great War drove us to attempt, for the first time in history, an organisation of international co-operation. Its dissolution was a setback rather than a complete failure. The later United Nations, with all its failings, has gradually grown in strength and will continue to be a force for peace, together with other international and intergovernmental organisations. The success of Medicins sans frontieres has spawned similar organisations ‘without borders’, and the trend is likely to continue. People get enormous satisfaction from helping others. Selfish satisfaction? Yes, but that vastly oversimplifies the matter. It is above all the satisfaction of being connected, which is so important for perhaps the most social species on the planet. And our increasing knowledge of our connections with other species is expanding our circle of sympathy, as philosopher Peter Singer has eloquently pointed out.

But as you might be able to detect, my sympathy with these arguments is starting to run out, and it gets worse.

Argument 8: God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings.

It should be pointed out that supernatural beings of any kind (let alone the mass-murdering war-god of the Old Testament) are always massively problematic ‘explanations’ because they have no empirical foundation. These are abstract objects, in spite of their variously imagined ‘histories’ in innumerable sacred texts. The development of self-awareness in many species on our planet is a contingent empirical fact.

Argument 8 and all the other ‘best explanation’ arguments given by Vandergriff, William Lane Craig and other theists are usually  accompanied by claims that ‘this situation/these events are extremely improbable under naturalism but entirely consistent/to be expected under theism’. That’s to say, they’re all ‘cart before the horse’ arguments. You define your supernatural agent as the repository of necessary truths, the generator of all value, the seat of ‘infinite consciousness’ (as Vandergriff quotes J P Moreland, another theist philosopher and theologian, as claiming), and the source of all meaning and ‘worthwhileness’ (argument 10), and then you say ‘hey look, we are value-seeking, meaning-requiring, self-aware, necessary-truth-understanding beings, so surely the whole kit-and caboodle was made by a god who made us as close to him as anything else, because he cares so much for us. Otherwise, all our amazing attributes are meaningless.’ I should point out that the amazing attributes of non-human species are constantly downplayed by theists, as they are in Vandergriff’s spiel, because they don’t contribute anything to this unique god-human relationship. They were downplayed throughout the Christian era too, of course, before it was challenged by the theory of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould has cited many cases in his essays: for example the early 19th century German embryologist Lorenz Oken wrote that

The animal kingdom is only a dismemberment of the highest animal, that is, of Man

and in an 1835 work, naturalist William Swainson reflected thus:

When we discover evident indications of a definite plan, upon which all these modifications have been regulated by a few simple and universal laws, our wonder is as much excited at the inconceivable wisdom and goodness of the SUPREME by whom these myriads of beings have been created and are now preserved, as at the mental blindness and perverted understanding of those philosophers, falsely so called, who would persuade us, that even Man, the last and best of created things, is too insignificant for the special care of Omnipotence.

We readily forgive these dated claims, partly because they don’t directly challenge us any more, bit it seems clear that many theists have learned nothing and forgotten nothing over the centuries. There are many obvious problems with this way of thinking, but the one I find most indigestible is that in order to avoid the horrors of contingency, which, certainly in the case of William Lane Craig, is the greatest and most unacceptable horror of all, theists are still forced to conclude that everything – the possibly-infinite multiverse, the big bang, quasars, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, gravity, quantum mechanics, the laws of nature, the elements and their proportions etc etc – was created by their god for us. We, containing so many of the god’s qualities, albeit in infinitesimal proportions, are the fulfilment of his purpose. We are what he created it all for. Not a geocentric universe perhaps, but an anthropocentric one for sure, with a complexity that the god gradually reveals to us as our privilege to work out.

So theism here presents us with a choice, or so it believes: total meaninglessness, or the humbling knowledge that we are central to a god’s plan, the pinnacle of his creation, created in his image, fumbling caretakers of his multiverse. As fantasies go, it’s a whopper. From an empiricist perspective however, it’s a non-starter, except in psychological terms. It has helped our forebears to get through many dark nights of history.

I’ll dispense quickly with Vandergriff’s last two arguments. Argument 10, God is the best explanation for the worthwhileness of life, is just more of the same and requires no further analysis. Argument 9, probably the most preposterous of all the arguments, is that ‘God is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth’. There are no historically established facts about Jesus of Nazareth, even of his birth, his preaching, his trial and his death, let alone of his putative miracles and resurrection. Scholars may argue to and fro about these matters, but their arguments are entirely textual and have no serious empirical value.

Okay, I’m done with this. Never again, I hope.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 2

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Feeling almost apologetic for dwelling on this for too long, with so many more important themes to tackle. Of course some out there, especially in those most heatedly devout parts of the USA, might consider that no more essential topic exists than giving proper due to the supernatural creator of the universe, but I would disagree, and I suppose here’s where I get to say why.

I was discussing Vandergriff’s third contention, that ‘Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism’. Here is his second argument for this:

God is the best explanation for why space-time and all its contents exist, rather than nothing.

Of course space-time has only existed as a familiar concept for about a century. It may well be replaced, or amended, by another concept, and I’m sure Christian theists will find their god to be the best explanation for that too. He’s amazingly flexible that way. Vandergriff here talks of a proof of supernatural causation under the presupposition that the universe is eternal but necessarily caused. It’s rather an unsurprising one drawn from a famous conundrum of quantum mechanics, that quantum indeterminacy can only be resolved through observation. The observation ‘collapses the wave function’. Vandergriff, or the person who posits this ‘proof’, then leaps from quantum states to the state of the universe. ‘What, or who, collapses its wave function?’ Vandergriff asks. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly valid leap. It seems more a desperate grab for an analogy. I’m not that boned up on my fallacies, but this might be the fallacy of the excluded middle, inter alia. I mean, ‘quantum/universal indeterminacy, therefore god’ does seem to take for granted an awful lot of in-between stuff. The supposed essential recourse to the disembodied mind again suggested here fails as Vandergriff has not presented any argument to show that this ‘disembodied mind’ is anything more than an abstract object. The play of such words as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ really get us nowhere in providing answers to the very interesting questions around the beginnings of our universe and the well-established weirdness of quantum mechanics, regardless of whether the two are related.

The third argument is taken directly from William Lane Craig:

God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

I’ve answered this claim from Craig here, though I’m amused at Vandergriff’s gloss, in that we’re still not sure that the Higgs boson has been discovered, as the data could well fit other scenarios. In any case, the main point about mathematics is clear. Mathematics seems highly abstract nowadays because over time and through painstaking human effort it has moved a long way from its beginnings. Mathematics developed as a tool to describe particular objects in general terms, that could be manipulated and developed, for example number, leading to multiplication, division, functions and the various forms of calculus. All of these, and further, developments make use of regularities, or explore regularities (some of which have as yet no known applicability). It’s hard to conceive of a physical world that has no regularity. All elements are describable, mathematically, in terms of their properties, which are regular, i.e. describable. Try to describe something that has no regularity at all. It would have no shape, no boundary between it and not-it. If this convinces you that a creator god exists, it’s likely that you were already convinced. As to a super-rational creator, which Vandergriff tries to point to, that would hardly be the brutal monster of the Old Testament who slaughters children and babies in a flood and supports the massacres of whole populations in favour of his ‘chosen people’.

Argument 4: God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe.

This is really just a repetition of the previous argument. The universe, to be physical (and therefore discoverable in terms of its properties) has to be regular. However, human development ‘at just the right time’ to discover the universe’s properties and origins  supposedly supports a fine-tuning argument, as developed by Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist who put forward this argument in the early nineties. The late Victor Stenger, among many others, has put these arguments to the sword. There’s also a problem with this and with other ‘best explanation’ arguments in that they are essentially self-refuting ‘first cause’ arguments. David Hume was one of the first to point out the deficiencies of such arguments centuries ago. Attempts to improve on them are well summarised and dealt with by the philosopher Theodore Schick here. To me, one of the best-arguments against fine-tuning relating we humans to the supernatural creator is its grotesquely overwhelming wastefulness. Why create a universe so enormously inhospitable to intelligent life throughout almost the entirety of its vast expanse in order to permit we humans to finally thrive on our small planet through a history of great suffering? A super-rational being could surely do better, and chance seems a much more coherent explanation.

Argument 5: God is the best explanation of why there are embodied morally responsible agents.

I presume Vandergriff is talking here about cetaceans. Or maybe not. In any case, the existence of such agents, he claims, is more probable under theism. Presumably his claim is based here on the idea that it would be more fun to create a universe with moral agents in it than, say, living beings who are little more than scuttling stomachs. Yet considering how enormously complex and diverse these scuttling stomachs are, it seems clear that, if Vandergriff’s god created them, he seems to have found them great fun. You can hardly argue with J B S Haldane’s remark that the guy has an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Vandergriff talks about the unique human ability for self-control and control over our environment because ‘our brains are the most complex things in the universe’. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t. This line has often been used, by Richard Dawkins amongst many other scientists, but always, as far as I’m aware, with the cautionary addendum ‘according to our current knowledge’. And our current knowledge of the universe, I and many others would argue, is minuscule, in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Vandergriff is concerned here to emphasise human specialness. He describes, without providing any names, how various physical scientists have been ‘stunned’ to discover that the universe must have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to provide for this embodied moral agency. Yet this moral agency appears to exist, to varying degrees, in a number of social species on our planet (which Vandergriff doesn’t acknowledge). In any case, I’m sure plenty of other prominent physical scientists could be found who are considerably less ‘stunned’.

Argument 6: God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths.

I don’t believe there are ‘necessary moral truths’, and I don’t find this a particularly interesting philosophical theme, though it obviously strongly exercises some philosophers.

In giving his example taken from Darwin and the behaviour of hive bees, however, Vandergriff completely misrepresents natural selection, comparing what natural selection ‘happens upon’ with the rational choices of human beings. I would strongly argue that there is more to natural selection than just ‘happening upon’ or ‘chance’ as theists like to describe it. Most theists like to think we’re rational moral agents guided by, or able to be guided by, their god; though how the god does the guiding can never be properly answered. Vandergriff cites the prohibition against rape as a necessary moral truth, but Christians have raped women throughout history, in times of warfare, just as readily as have members of other religions. Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare from nation to nation, because states have different laws, definitions, reporting methods and resources. It’s clear from even the most casual examination that cultural attitudes to rape vary widely. We don’t find a consistent or clear-cut prohibition against rape in the Bible. However in modern western countries, especially with the advent of feminism, rape has been raised to a higher level of seriousness as a crime. This hasn’t been driven by organised religion, so it just seems absurd to assert, or even to intimate, that the prohibition against rape is a necessary truth derived from a supernatural being.

Vandergriff talks about natural selection or evolution as being only conducive to our survival, and seems to find it unlikely that our ‘necessary moral truths’ or our aesthetic tastes or even such traits as benevolence or kindness could have been selected for, claiming that these qualities are unlikely under naturalism but highly likely under theism. Yet it’s abundantly clear that reducing the incidence of rape, developing better medicines, resolving conflicts by peaceful means, promoting sympathy for others, including those of other species, and exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in our personal lives is conducive, not only to our survival, but to our success and our enrichment. We’ve learned this, not through communication with spirits, but through honest examination of our own past behaviour as a species. It seems to me that it’s through these painstaking examinations that we’re learning to reduce our common misery and to promote our well-being. We’re learning from our mistakes, even if it’s a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. A thorough-going education system is essential in disseminating what we’ve learned from the past and carrying those gleanings into the future. It’s precisely because there are no necessary truths, because we could always go back to achieving our ends through brutality, dishonesty and blinkered self-promotion, that we need to maintain awareness of past errors, and of the complex needs of those around us and to whom we’re attached, including humans and non-humans.

Vandergriff has more ‘arguments’, which I’ll deal with next time, though I’m looking for ways to cut this short!