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Posts Tagged ‘monotheism

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 1

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I’m always taken in a thousand different directions by my vagabond mind, as the history of my blog shows, but philosophy has long been an interest, more recently neglected due to trying to keep up, unsuccessfully of course, with the wonders of scientific discovery and speculation. A move away from rational to empirical stuff you might say, if only it was that simple.

So I recently listened to a very wordy debate presented on the Reasonable Doubts podcast between Jeffrey Jay Lowder (atheist) and Kevin Vandergriff (theist) on whether metaphysical naturalism (essentially the scientific approach) or Christian theism yields the best understanding of the universe (or multiverse?), based on ‘the evidence’. It sounded like a good idea at the time, as it sounded like it might be as much a report on empiricism – presenting the evidence – as a philosophical debate. Not surprisingly though, I became increasingly frustrated as I listened, especially to Vandergriff’s long-winded, fast -paced exposition of way too many points (he had to get everything in within the specified time limit, and was still gushing when the end-game theme music started playing). Vandergriff has clearly been inspired by the ‘success’ of William Lane Craig’s debating tactics, even trying to outdo WLC in the number of debating points that he claims must be rebutted by Lowder in order to ‘win’. Well, if wishes were fishes the sea would be swarming.

So the bewildering number of points (though many of them tediously familiar to anyone acquainted with WLC’s arguments) and the speed of delivery naturally reminded me of the old ‘gish gallop’, and my response is to regain control by taking my own good time to pick apart the arguments, so replacing the debate approach with a more effective ‘philosophical’ one, in writing. Not that this was a public debate; it was a written-and-read audio exchange, and many of the comments, linked to above, deal pretty effectively with Vandergriff’s fails. I’m just doing this to get back in the saddle, so to speak.

I won’t be dealing so much with Lowder’s pro-naturalism argument except where it supports my own, but generally I thought that there was too much emphasis, on both sides, on the old philosophical approaches, and not enough on evidence per se.

Vandergriff starts by saying he wants to defend three claims:

1. Christian theism is not significantly less simple than specified naturalism.

(Vandergriff doesn’t explain what he means by ‘specified’ here, and seems to use it as a technical term. A google search on ‘specified naturalism’ has come up with nothing (though the creationist William Dembski likes to use the term ‘specified complexity’), so I will assume he simply means metaphysical naturalism as per the debate title.

2. If God [i.e. the god called God] exists necessarily, then the prior probability of naturalism, no matter how simple, is zero.

3. Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism.

Before listening to Vandergriff’s defence of these claims I want to make some preliminary remarks. On (1), presumably Vandergriff has the Ockham’s Razor heuristic in mind – keep your assumptions to a minimum. But obviously Christian theism involves two assumptions over and above the assumptions of naturalism (that all is natural and potentially explicable in naturalistic terms). It assumes not only that there’s a supernatural agent responsible for the multiverse, but that the said supernatural agent is the god called God, who had an earthly son who was also a god, sort of, and all the other baggage that attaches to him, or them. These are big assumptions, and, to my mind, far from simple. On (2) yes, if any supernatural agent exists necessarily, I suppose that means supernaturalism reigns supreme and naturalism is vanquished. All we need is evidence, but not only can we not find any, we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Concepts like supreme goodness and maximal power are no more real than Plato’s ideal forms. We don’t call them ideal for nothing. And on (3), it seems to me that the explanatory power of naturalism is virtually infinite, because each new explanation leads to a host of new things to be explained (e.g the DNA molecule is discovered to be the essential building block of all life, but then why is it made up of precisely these amino acids, and why this sequence and why the helical structure, and why introns and exons, etc etc). Christian theism seems to me more like an evasion of explanation, and the ‘don’t question God’s handiwork’ argument was in fact quite prevalent in the 17th century and before, and was often used effectively to limit scientific inquiry.

Vandergriff next defines his god for us, with the usual ‘ideal form’ language. The god called God is maximally powerful, intelligent and good. I’ve elsewhere described this abstraction as a boob: a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being. Do boobs really exist? I’d like to hope so, the more the merrier. But I may be confusing my concepts here, so I’ll stick with gods. The god called God, according to Vandergriff, is a transcendent, personal being who created the physical world, and who sent a set of moral messages to us via Jesus.

Vandergriff emphasises his contention that a personal being (a being with personhood, just like us?) caused the physical world (presumably the multiverse) to exist, and that this multiverse is value-generating rather than indifferent, as it is claimed to be under naturalism. He also claims that, under naturalism, the universe or multiverse is eternal and uncaused, which his theism disputes. I would’ve thought naturalism remains open to the questions of ‘eternality’, finitude or infinitude, and ultimate causation. My own recent readings on the universe/multiverse tell me that cosmologists have many positions on these matters, though all approach them from a naturalistic perspective.

Next Vandergriff returns to the 3 claims stated above. He takes issue with Lowder for presupposing an indifferent universe in some of his arguments, which he cites another philosopher, Paul Draper, as claiming ‘is roughly equal in simplicity to theism’. One wonders how these various simplicities can be weighed or measured, by Draper or anyone else. Presumably all that’s meant by this is that it’s just as straightforward to posit a naturalistic universe, with no intrinsic value, as it is to posit a supernatural-being-created universe, full of value. Vandergriff thinks that this goes a long way to prove the claim that theism is not a more complex explanation than naturalism, and this somehow bolsters theism. But it seems to me, on reflection, that the two cases are not roughly equal in simplicity, because with theism, first you have a supernatural creator, second you have value-adding, so to speak. In fact, these two elements struck me as separate when I first leaned about a supernatural creator as a child sent to Sunday School. Full of skepticism and curiosity about this new entity I was learning about, I wondered, how do we know this being is so concerned about us being good? If he created the world in the long ago, why does that automatically mean he’s still obsessed with us? If he’s so all-powerful and super-clever, why wouldn’t he want to test his powers on some new project, just as I might build a fabulous house out of lego and then abandon it for bigger and better projects? In other words, couldn’t a supernatural creator be indifferent too? Or only interested for a period before turning his attention to something else? Vandergriff would get round this objection, I suppose, by pointing to his assumptions about the supernatural being, especially the one about ‘goodness’. An all-good god would never abandon his creation but would, apparently, be eternally obsessed by it. But I’m not sure that perfect goodness (whatever that means) entails this, and anyway these are just assumptions.

Now to Vandergriff’s second claim. Again he quotes Paul Draper, who says that if the god called God necessarily exists, then naturalism is incoherent and theism has a probability of 1. That’s a long-winded way of saying if theism has to be true, it’s true, like absolutely. Of course, that’s a big if, possibly bigger than the known universe. However, at this stage, Vandergriff provides no evidence for this necessary existence (though he says he has two arguments up his sleeve).

On the third contention, Vandergriff goes straight into argument.

1.  God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.

Here, Vandergriff cites the 2003 Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem relating to an expanding universe (and, I think, other universe models), to support his argument that the universe is non-eternal, to which one commentator on the Reasonable Doubts blog replied tersely ‘Yet another William Lane Craig clone abusing the Borde Guth Velenkin theorem’. In fact I’ve dealt with this claim myself well enough in one of my responses to WLC’s typical debates. Of course the issue here is not whether the universe had a beginning, but what was the cause of that beginning, or what were the conditions at that beginning, or is it meaningful to talk of a ‘before’ the beginning. But here’s where the likes of Vandergriff and WLC make the leap into metaphysics or the supernatural with wild talk of a transcendent, miraculous cause, which, of course, allows tremendous scope for the imagination. The fact is, we’re far from clear about the origin. I’ve read one hypothesis that the big bang may have been the result of a collision or interaction between two ‘branes’, of which there are presumably many in the multiverse. I’ve also read that, as we get asymptotically close to the big bang (going backwards), the laws of nature break down in the super-intensity of it all, so who knows? The Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem, moreover, even on Vandergriff’s (and WLC’s) much-disputed interpretation of it, doesn’t disconfirm naturalism at all, because naturalism is not dependent on an eternal, uncaused universe. Says who?

But it really gets ridiculous when Vandergriff, having proved to his satisfaction that the universe must have a cause, ‘wonders’ what that cause might be, and concludes that it must be an ‘unembodied mind’ (gifted, of course, with miraculous powers). How did he come to this conclusion? Well, this mind must be miraculous because it ‘created the world with no prior materials’. How does Vandergriff know this? The obvious answer is: he doesn’t, he’s just making stuff up. And why would this ‘transcendent’ cause have to be an unembodied mind? Because, according to Vandergriff, only abstract objects and unembodied minds can transcend the universe, but since abstract objects can’t cause anything, the cause must be an unembodied mind!

But of course an unembodied mind is just another abstract object. There are no real unembodied minds that we know of (though Fred Hoyle sort of created one in The Black Cloud, but that one didn’t go around creating universes, in spite of being super-smart), and Vandergriff doesn’t even consider it a requirement to prove that such things exist. As for ‘miraculous’, that just reminds me of the old cartoon – which I’ve put on top of this post.

I’ll have a look at Vandergriff’s next argument, and so forth, in my next post, though I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It’s good mind-exercise I suppose.

For now, though, I’ll watch some FKA Twigs videos, for delightful relief.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia


This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide


But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

is belief in god irrational? – that is not the question

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forget them - read this!

forget them – read this!

Debates between theists and atheists have become commonplace over the past few years, for better or worse, and the topic has often been vague enough to allow the protagonists plenty of leeway to espouse their views. True or false, rational or irrational, these are the oppositional terms most often used. These debates are often quite arid, with both parties firing from fixed positions and very carefully concealing from observers any palpable hits they’ve received from the other side. Whether they’ve contributed to the continued rise of the nones is hard to say.

I heard another one recently, bearing the title Is belief in God irrational? It was hosted on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, one that I recommend to those interested in the claims of Christianity in particular, as these ‘doubtcasters’ know their Bible pretty well and are well up on Christian politics, particularly in the US. The debaters were Chris Hallquist (atheist) and Randal Rauser (theist), and it was pretty hard to listen to at times, with much squabbling and point-scoring over the definition of rationality, and obscure issues of epistemology. I found the theist in particular to be shrill and often quite unpleasant in his faux-contempt for the other side, but then I’m probably biased.

I found myself, as I very often do, arguing or speculating my way through the topic from a very different standpoint, and here are my always provisional thoughts.

Let me begin by more or less rejecting two of the terms of the debate, ‘God’ and ‘irrational’. I’m not particularly interested in God, that’s to say the Judeo-Christian god, and I strongly object to designating that particular amalgam of Canaanite, Ugaritic and other Semitic deities as capital G God, as if one can, through a piece of semantic legerdemain, magick away the thousands of other deities that people have worshipped and adhered to over the centuries. It’s as if the Apple company chose to name their next Ipad ‘Tablet’, thereby rendering irrelevant all the other tablets produced by competing companies. Of course we have marketing regulations that prevent that sort of manipulation, but not so in religion.

So I will refer henceforth to gods, or supernatural entities and supernatural agency, with all their various and sometimes contradictory qualities, rather than to God, as defined by Aquinas and others. It is supernatural agency of any kind that I call into question.

More important for me, though, is the question of rationality. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve certainly dipped into philosophy many times over the past 40 years or so, and I’ve even been obsessed with it at times. And rationalism has long been a major theme of philosophers, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to define it. In the context of this debate, I would prefer the term ‘reasonable’ to ‘rational’. Being reasonable has a more sociable quality to it, it lacks the hard edge of rationality. So, for my purposes I’ll re-jig the topic to – Is belief in supernatural entities reasonable?

But I want to say more about rationality, to illustrate my difficulties with the term. Hume famously or perhaps notoriously wrote that reason can never be more than the slave of the emotions. This raises the question – what are these emotions that have such primacy and why are they so dominant? I have no doubt that a modern-day Hume – and Hume was always interested in the science of his day – would write differently about the factors that dominate and guide our reason. He would write about evolved instincts as much as about emotions. Above all the survival instinct, which we appear to share with every other living creature. Let me give some examples, which might bring some of our fonder notions of rationality into question.

A large volume of psychometric data in recent years has told us that we generally have a distorted view of ourselves and our competence. In assessing our physical attractiveness, our driving ability, our generosity to others and just about everything else, we take a more flattering view of ourselves than others take of us. What’s more, this is seen as no bad thing. In terms of surviving and thriving in a competitive environment, there’s a pay-off in being over-confident about your attractiveness, as a romantic partner, a business partner, or your nation’s Prime Minister. Of course, if you’re too over-confident, if the distortion between reality and self-perception becomes too great, it will act to your detriment. But does this mean that having a clear-eyed, non-distorted view of your qualities is rational, by that very fact, or irrational, because it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis others? To put it another way, does rationality mean conformity to strict observation and logic, or is it behaviour that contributes to success in terms of well-being and thriving (within the constraints of our profoundly social existence)?

I don’t have any (rational?) answer to that conundrum, but I suppose my preference for the term ‘reasonable’ puts me in the second camp. So my answer to my own question, ‘Is it reasonable to believe in supernatural entities’ is that it depends on the circumstances.

Let’s look at belief in Santa, an eminently supernatural entity. He is, at least on Christmas Eve, endowed with omnipresence, being able to enter hundreds of millions of houses laden with gifts in an impossibly limited time-period. He’s even able to enter all these houses through the chimney in spite of the fact that 99.99% of them don’t have chimneys. What’s more, he’s omniscient, ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, according to the sacred hymn ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, ostensibly written by J F Coots and Haven Gillespie, but they were really just conduits for the Word of Santa. We consider it perfectly reasonable for three- and four-year-olds to believe in Santa, and, apart from some ultra-rationalist atheists and more than a few cultish Christians and adherents of rival deities, we generally encourage the belief. Clearly, we believe it does no harm and might even do some good. An avuncular, convivial figure with a definite fleshly representation, he’s also remote and mysterious with his supernatural powers and his distant home at the North Pole, which to a preschooler might as well be Mars, or Heaven. As an extra parent, he increases the quotient of love, security and belonging. To be watched over like Santa watches over kids might seem a bit creepy as you get older, but three-year-olds would have no such concerns, they’d accept it as their due, and would no doubt find his magical powers as well as his total jollity, knowledge and insight thoroughly inspiring as well as comforting. From a parent’s perspective, it’s all good, pretty much.

Of course, if your darling 23-year-old believes in Santa, that’s a problem. We expect our kids to grow out of this belief, and they rarely disappoint. They don’t need much encouragement. Children are bombarded with TV Santas, department store Santas, skinny Santas, bad Santas, Santas that look just like their Uncle Bill, etc, and they usually go through a period of jollying their parents along before making their big apostate announcement. Santas are human, all too human.

Santa belief is, it would seem, a harmless and perhaps positive massaging of a child’s vivid imagination, but when a child’s ready for school, she’s expected to put away childish things, little by little.

And isn’t that what many atheists say about the deities of the Big Monotheisms? Yes, but too many atheists underestimate the hurdles that need to be overcome. Most of these atheists either already live in highly secularised societies, such as here in Australia, or other English-speaking or European countries. Even the USA has many more atheists in it than the entire population of Australia, if we make the conservative assumption that 10% of its citizens are non-believers. Atheists are learning to club together but the religious have been doing it for centuries, and you’re likely to lose a lot of club benefits if you declare yourself a non-believer in a region of fervent or even routine belief. Or worse – I just read today of a Filipino lad who was murdered by his schoolmates after coming out as an atheist on a networking site. So just from a self-preservation point of view it might be reasonable to at least pretend to believe, in certain circumstances.

But there are many other situations in which it’s surely reasonable to believe – I mean really believe – in the supernatural agent or agents of your culture. The first of these is that supernatural agency explains things more satisfactorily to more people than any other available explanation. This might sound strange coming from a non-believer like myself, but it’s undoubtedly true. Bear in mind that I’m talking about satisfactory explanations, not true ones, and that I’m talking about most, not all, people.

Why was belief in supernatural agency virtually universal in the long ago? I don’t think that’s hard to understand. As human populations grew and became more successful in terms of harnessing of resources and domination of the landscape, they came to realise that they were prey to forces well beyond their control, forces that threatened them more seriously than any earthly predator. Famine, disease, earthquakes, storms, the seemingly arbitrary deaths of new-borns, sudden outbreaks of warfare between once-neighbourly tribes – all of these were unforeseen and demanded an explanation. Thoughts tended to converge on one common theme: someone, some force was out to get them, someone was angry with them, or disapproved somehow. Some unseen, perhaps unseeable agent.

Psychologists have done a lot of work on agency in recent years. They’ve found that we can create convincing agents for ourselves with the most basic computer-generated or pen-and-paper images. Give them some animation, have one chasing another, and we’re ready to attribute all sorts of motives and purposes. Recognising, or just suspecting, agency behind the movement of a bush, the flying through the air of a rock, or an unfamiliar sound in the distance, has been a useful mindset for our ancestors as they sought to survive against the hazards of life. ‘If in doubt, it’s an agent’ might have been humanity’s first slogan, though of course humanity didn’t come up with it, they got it from their own mammalian ancestors. My pet cat’s reaction to thunder and lightning clearly indicates her view that someone’s out to get her.

But what about the supernatural part of supernatural agency? That, too, is very basic to our nature, and it’s another feature of our thinking that has been brought to light by psychologists in recent times. I won’t go into the ingenious experiments they’ve conducted on children here – look up the work of Justin Barrett, Paul Harris and others – but they show conclusively that very young children assume that the adults around them, those towering, confident, competent and purposive figures, are omniscient, omnipotent and immortal, until experience tells them otherwise. As children we think more in terms of absolutes. Good and evil are palpably real to us, as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are some of the first categories we ever learn from the god-like beings, our parents, who protect us and are obsessed with us (if we’re lucky in our choice of parents), and who have created us in their image.

Given all this, we might come to understand the naturalness of religion, and its near-universality. But what about the argument, which some of these psychological findings might support, that religion is a form of childishness that we should grow out of, like belief in Santa? It’a common argument among atheists, which to some degree I share, but I also feel, along with the psychologists who have shed such light on the default thinking of children, that ‘childish’ thinking is something we need to learn from rather than dismissing it with contempt. This kind of thinking is far more ingrained in us than we often like to admit, and it’ll always be more natural to us than the kind of reasoning that produces our scientific theories and technology. Creationism is easy – a supernatural agent did it – but evolution – the theory of natural selection from random variation – is much harder. The idea that we’re the special creation of a supernatural agent who’s obsessed with our welfare is far more comforting than the idea that we’re the product of purposeless selection from variation, existing by apparent chance on one insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy amongst billions of others. In terms of appeal to our most basic needs, for protection, belonging and significance in the scheme of things, religious belief has an awful lot going for it.

So belief in a supernatural being, for whom we are special, is eminently reasonable. And yet… I don’t believe in such a being, and an increasing number of people are abandoning such a belief, especially in ‘the west’, and especially amongst the intelligentsia, which I’ll broadly define as those who make their living through their brainpower, such as scientists, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, writers and artists. New Scientist, in its fascinating recent issue on the Big Questions, features a graph of the world’s religious belief systems. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it claims 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Moslems, 900 million Hindus, and 750 million in the category ‘secular/non-religious/atheist/agnostic’. These are the top four religious categories. I find that fourth figure truly extraordinary, especially considering that it was only really recognised and counted as a category from the mid-twentieth century, or even later. In Australia, where religious belief is counted in the national census every five years, this optional question was first put in 1971. In that year the percentage of people who professed to having no religion was minuscule – about 5%. Since then, the  category of the ‘nones’ has been by far the fastest growing category, and if trends continue, the non-religious will be in the majority by mid-century.

So, while I recognise that religious belief is quite reasonable, it’s clear that, in some parts of the world, a growing number find non-belief more reasonable, and I’m not even going to explore here the reasons why. You can work those out for yourself. It’s clear though that we’re entering a new era with regard to religious belief.



meanderings – weight loss, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a befuddled reverend gentleman, and a plethora of choices

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our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

Listening to various podcasts and interviews and debates and documentaries, absorbing, absorbing, as well as reading texts about complex ideas which don’t easily mesh with each other, which spin me off in different directions and which of course I only discuss with my undemanding self, all this befuddles my brain a bit, making it hard to know what to start writing about, I’ve forced myself to sit down here, as I must do on a daily basis, and see if I can pin down an idea or two.

Montaigne-like I always feel its safest to start with myself and last night I caught the last few minutes of another Michael Mosley documentary on diet, lifestyle and health, in which he ended up being sceptical of the effort required to give yourself the best shot at living to 200, which I felt was fair enough, but I was alerted to my situation weight-wise by the observation that, as you lose weight, your metabolism slows down, which is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to keep the weight off, and a good example of that is that yesterday was my birthday so I indulged myself a little, culinarily speaking, but not really a lot, but I paid for it with my weight going up by one whole kilogram on the day before, and experience tells me that it’ll take about three days of food deprivation to get that kilo off again, so is there a way to get the metabolism to speed up, if in fact that’s the problem? We’re in the depths of winter here, though winters here are mild, but I still use it as an excuse not to go out in the cold for exercise, and poverty has prevented me from buying an exercise bike and getting my metabolism up through the HIT program, which would surely be my best option. Excuses excuses in short.

I’ve just started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, having read The Caged Virgin a few years back, and I’m still pissed off by the silly remark about her by Reza Aslan, a supposedly liberal Moslem. The use of a pared-down, low-key style when dealing with horrors is always effective. And even when not dealing with horrors. Also, the courage of this woman – even with the in-your-Moslem-face title of the book – is inspiring. She’s a proud catch-me-if-you-can infidel, whose affront to a particular religion is a challenge to our liberal secular values, a challenge we surely must meet. Also, she’s a human being who sees clearly the damage to human values, and particularly the value of the female species, wrought by many religious and cultural practices.

Interestingly I just happened to watch a debate video yesterday, filmed in 2007 between Christopher Hitchens and one Al Sharpton, a reverend gentleman of some note in the US, apparently. Hitchens was quite genial, for Hitchens, and Sharpton seemed far from sharp, so it was all a bit ho-hum. But I was delighted to find that Hirsi Ali was in the audience, and she asked the last question of the video, addressing it to Sharpton. It was a good question too, just what I would’ve asked him. Throughout the debate, Sharpton complained that Hitchens was avoiding the key point of the debate, whether ‘God is great’ or not, as per Hitchens’ book. But Sharpton was nowhere consistent, claiming in his first speaking opportunity (after Hitchens had kicked off the debate) to be annoyed that Hitchens was focusing on the putative criminal behaviour of the Christian god, and the questionable morality of the gospels, etc, but wasn’t focusing on the existence of this god, and then suddenly switching from the ontological issue to the ethical issue, by claiming that because people used the god in this or that way, or described or interpreted him thus and so, that made no difference to the god himself – as if the Bible wasn’t a written history of that god, and the proper way for that god to be known according to most theologians. In fact Sharpton’s various harpings on this issue amounted to a complete rejection of the Bible, it seemed to me, in favour of a personal relationship with this god in which believers can make of him (or her) what they will. An extraordinarily flexible theology which would seem to render a common morality, derived somehow from this being, completely impossible.

Of course Sharpton tried to make other points, including a variant of the watch/watchmaker shibboleth, all of them equally specious. The only thing going for him was that he seemed a genuinely likeable, kindly gentleman. And to be fair, Hitchens makes some specious arguments too, not about gods but about Iraq.

But to return to Hirsi Ali, her question was multi-faceted, concerning, inter alia, Sharpton’s god’s existence, and how she/he/it came into being, but the last facet was ‘Isn’t it odd that you carry a Christian title and that you refuse, even for once tonight, to defend the church, and the content of the Bible?’  My admiration for her and devotion to her shone in that moment, and of course Sharpton responded by presenting again this relativistic notion of an ahistorical, unparticularised god who is ‘the same’, but of course quite different, whether you’re a Christian, a Moslem or a follower of no organised religion. This conception, which conveniently leaves out the central figure of Jesus, seems a complete denial of the particularity of Christianity, and simply highlights the questioning of Sharpton’s Christian title. However, I really do believe that the poor befuddled gentleman just didn’t get it.

Speaking of befuddlement, while absorbing and forgetting all these ideas and positions and facts I’m reading or hearing about, I get torn about what I should focus and write on – for example if there’s anything to this system 1 and system 2 thinking and the idea that religious thinking is ‘more natural’ than scientific thinking (words must be chosen carefully here), or if it’s true that there’s an asymmetry between liberals and conservatives in their cognitive biases and motivated reasoning, or should I launch into a critique of the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, or should I try to elaborate in my own words the reason why the Copernican theory wasn’t considered heretical until Galileo came along quite a bit later? Or should I just give up and watch the Tour de France to its seemingly inevitable conclusion? Help me, oh goddess.

Written by stewart henderson

July 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Stephen Jay Gould, NOMA and a couple of popes

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I’ve been making my way through my second collection of Stephen Jay Gould essays, Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms, published in 1998, having read his 1993 collection, Eight little piggies, a couple of years ago, and I was surprised to come across ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ as number 14 in the collection. I read it today. I’d heard that he promulgated his famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective – thesis on NOMA in a book called Rocks of Ages, so I wasn’t expecting such a treat, if I can put it that way, when I turned over the page to that essay.

As it turns out, Rocks of Ages, subtitled Science and religion in the fullness of life, was published in 1999, immediately after the collection I’m reading, and it presumably constitutes an elaboration and refinement of the earlier NOMA essay. So maybe one day I’ll get to that, but meanwhile I’m itching to get my teeth into this first ‘attempt’ – reminding myself of the original meaning of the term essai, in the hands of Montaigne.

Gould begins his essay with a story of a conversation he has, in the Vatican – half his luck – with a group of Jesuit priests who also happened to be professional scientists. The Jesuits are concerned with the talk of ‘Creation Science’ coming out of the US. One of them asks Gould:

‘Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both utterly satisfying and entirely overwhelming. Have I missed something?’

Gould assures them that this development, though big in the US due to the peculiarities of evangelical protestantism there, is quite localized and without intellectual substance. He wonders, in the essay, at the weirdness of an agnostic Jew ‘trying to reassure a group of priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.’

This was the first point at which my (highly primed) sceptical sense was roused. First, the priest had been taught, or told, that no doctrinal conflict existed between Catholicism and evolution. One hardly gets the impression that he’s nutted this out for himself. What about the doctrine of the human soul? What about the absolutely central Judeo-Christian idea that humans were specially created in their god’s image? Can anybody honestly say that evolution casts no doubt upon these notions? To me, making such a claim would defy credibility. I mean, isn’t that precisely why so many Christians, of every denomination, have such difficulty with evolution? Second, Gould tells us that he was able to reassure the priests that evolution wasn’t under threat (fine, as far as it goes), and that it was ‘entirely consistent with religious belief’. Eh what? Did he show them or just tell them? Of course we get no detail on that.

Gould gives other examples of his fatherly reassurance, e.g. to Christian students, of the complete compatibility of Christian belief with evolution, which he tells us he ‘sincerely believes in’, but still without providing an argument. Finally he claims that, notwithstanding fundamentalism and biblical literalism, Christians by and large treat the Bible metaphorically. He seems to feel that this smooths away all incompatibilities. The six days of creation, ensoulment, original sin, humans in god’s image, salvation from sin through Jesus, his resurrection, his virgin birth, his miracles, etc etc, these are just stories. Is that what most Christians believe? Or just that some of them are stories, some of the time, for some believers? This question of literalism and metaphor is in fact a great can of worms that Gould doesn’t even glance into. It’s important, for isn’t literal truth also empirical truth, and doesn’t science have something to say about that?

In any case, having ‘established’, to his satisfaction, all this compatibility, Gould moves on to his central thesis:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains – for a great book tells us both that the truth can make us free, and that we will live in optimal harmony when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

This is NOMA in a nutshell, together with some unobjectionable remarks about harmony, justice, mercy and humility, all vaguely associated with religion. Yet I’ve read a lot of history, and this has made me sceptical of the role of religion in promoting such values. If you examine sermons and priestly speeches through the centuries, you’ll find them very much parroting the ethics of  their time – with a certain lag, given the inherent conservatism of most religious institutions. The Bible, that multifarious set of texts, is ideal for quote-mining for every Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung, but really we don’t need history to inform us that our ethical values don’t come from religion, a point made by many philosophers, anthropologists and cognitive psychologists. Religion is essentially about protection, hope and human specialness, all emanating from a non-worldly source, and all of these elements have been profoundly buffeted by the scientific developments of the last few centuries, precisely because the domains of scientific exploration and religious conviction overlap massively, if not completely. As Gould writes in another essay in this collection:

‘Sigmund Freud argued that scientific revolutions reach completion not when people accept the physical reconstruction of reality thus implied, but when they also own the consequences of this radically revised universe for a demoted view of human status. Freud claimed that all important scientific revolutions share the ironic property of deposing humans from one pedestal after another of previous self-assurance about our exalted cosmic status.’

Another, simpler way of putting this is that science – which after all is only the pursuit of reliable, verifiable knowledge – is perennially confronting us with our own contingency, while religions, and most particularly the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, seek desperately to keep us attached to a sense of our necessity, our centrality in God’s plan. It’s hard to imagine two activities on a more complete collision course.

Gould’s first essay on NOMA was apparently triggered by an announcement of Pope John Paul II to the effect that his Church endorsed evolutionary theory and found it compatible with Catholic dogma. This was much hyped in the media, and Gould considered it much ado about nothing, as it merely repeated, or so he thought, an earlier papal proclamation:

I knew that Pope Pius XII…. had made the primary statement in a 1950 encyclical entitled Humani Generis. I knew the main thrust of his message: Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time  of his choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this argument – for, whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.

Now, it seems to me, and to many others, that this question of a soul, possessed only by humans, is an empirical question, unless the soul is to be treated as entirely metaphorical. If empirical, all our understanding of humans and other mammals, derived from evolution but also from zoology in general, tells against the existence of such an entity. We see clearly, and can map, through neurophysiology, genetics and other disciplines, the continuity of humans with other mammals, and with earlier hominids, and there is no trace of, or place for, a Homo sapiens soul. If metaphorical, the religious implications are enormous, for if the soul, which supposedly lives on after the body’s demise, were metaphorical, wouldn’t that make heaven, hell and the afterlife also metaphorical?

This is a real problem for the believers in such an entity, and a source of some amusement for non-believers. In a debate with Richard Dawkins a while back, George Pell, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney was apparently challenged on the exclusivity of the human soul and came up with the view that souls inhabit all living things but that the human soul was ‘infinitely more complex’ than those of other organisms. So now we know that white ants do indeed have souls, as well as blue-green algae and amoebae.  This sounded like a physiological claim to me, and I wondered how well synchronised it was with official Catholic doctrine on the matter – or is that non-matter? It seemed much more likely that the good archbishop was making it up as he went along, just as Dawkins accuses such authorities of doing.

Gould, though, congratulates Pius XII, because he ‘had properly acknowledged and respected the separate domains of science and theology’. We get here a whiff of the authoritarian arrogance of Gould, which grates from time to time. He presents separate domains as virtually an established fact and ‘proper’, and so takes on the role of chiding those who don’t subscribe to it, because he himself has ‘great respect for religion’. He also claims, but without any evidence, that the majority of scientists think like him. It was a questionable claim in 1998, and is even more so in 2013.

Still, Gould recognises that there’s a problem, because, according to him, the two non-overlapping domains are not widely separated, like the USA and Australia, but share a troubled border, a la Pakistan and Afghanistan. This seems a concession, but it goes nowhere near far enough. Gould himself uncovers the problem while probing the detail of Pius’s Humani Generis, and finding that the fifties pope was rather less well-disposed towards evolution than he’d thought. What’s more, Pius seems aware of the conflict Gould is so keen to avoid, as he writes of ‘those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless connected with the truths of the Christian faith.’ Pius elaborates on these questions by castigating claims, in particular as regards evolution, that might not be in keeping with ‘divine revelation’, which naturally he regards as some kind of truth. One of these truths is that ‘souls are immediately created by God’, which contradicts the evolutionary idea that all that is human is derived, through incremental moderation, from previously existing creatures. Gould provides a gloss on this by essentially claiming that Pius is patrolling the border between science and religion, intent on preserving the integrity of religious territory. I’m not convinced.

Gould then turns to the more recent statement on evolution by John Paul II. John Paul makes the point that in the 50 years or so since Human Generis, the strength of evolution as an explanatory theory has grown to the point that it’s pretty well unassailable. So he seems to have none of the qualms of Pius, yet still he makes empirical claims about matters ‘spiritual’ while claiming them not to be empirical, something which Gould prefers to obscure with a lot of self-congratulatory language about respect for ‘that other great magisterium’. Here is a slab of John Paul’s argument:

‘With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry?  Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line.  The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.’

It’s a nice try, but the ontological difference described here is ‘just saying’.  But the ‘just saying’ has a lot of religious energy behind it, because so much of monotheistic religion is tied up with human specialness, and even necessity. We are in the creator-god’s image, we’re the ultimate end-point of the universe, and other hubristic clap-trap. What John Paul is trying to ‘say into being’ is the spiritual realm, no less. The ‘spiritual transition’, the emergence of soul-stuff, is real but beyond scientific observation. Thus it is both empirical and non-empirical, which is impossible.

There’s a good reason why Gould’s claim about NOMA is bogus. All we have to do is look at what he claims these ‘magisteria’ cover. To quote Gould:

‘The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.’

That the second sentence in this quote is false should be obvious to everyone after only a moment’s reflection. The central thesis in all monotheistic religions is surely that their one and only god exists and is real. We can’t possibly be talking in metaphorical terms here. Thus, an empirical claim lies at the very heart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and there’s just no way of arguing yourself out of this. The fact that this empirical claim appears to be unprovable doesn’t make it any less of an empirical claim. The statement ‘Unicorns exist’ is also an empirical claim that is essentially unprovable. We can be pretty certain that unicorns don’t exist on our planet, but how can we prove that a creature fitting that description has no existence in the whole universe, or the multiverse, if there is a multiverse?

What’s more, religion is much more about empiricism than it is about ‘moral meaning and value’, because what is absolutely central to the monotheisms is that moral meaning and value derive from that real and existent being, and as such are themselves real and existent. That’s certainly the point that William Lane Craig bangs on about in all his debates – the empirical reality of his god, and of the values this male being espouses and somehow bequeaths to us.

In fact, on reflection, the statement that ‘God exists’ is not quite of the same type as ‘Unicorns exist’. It’s much closer to the statement ‘Dark matter exists’.  Unicorns can only be contingent entities – they may exist in some corner of the universe, but if they suddenly went extinct on the planet Gallifrey it would make little difference. However, dark matter is necessary, as far as I’m aware, to the standard model of the universe and its mass. That’s why the search is on, big-time, to find it, to identify it, to learn more about it. To the religious, their god is also necessary, and it becomes a matter of urgency to ‘find God’, to know him, to understand him, etc. That’s why proof of their god’s existence is important, and always will be. Of course, the religious obviously believe they already have the proof, but an increasing percentage of inhabitants of our western world are unimpressed with such claims.

the trend away from religiosity, or not – various countries, part 2

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100127Italy (2)

Okay, to continue my survey of religiosity in more or less arbitrarily selected nations. Most of this data comes from Wikipedia, which has a series of entries, ‘Religion in (name your country)’, so I haven’t bothered with the time consuming process of linking to every source.


As you might expect, with the ‘Papa’ nerve-rackingly nearby, most Italians identify as Catholic Christians – with recent polls ranging from nearly 92% to 77%. The 2005 Eurobarometer poll, quoted in my summaries of other countries, found that:

  • 74% of Italian citizens responded that they believe there is a God;
  • 16% answered that they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force;
  • 6% answered that they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.

Italy’s 1947 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and under a revised accord with the Vatican in 1984, the disestablishment of the Catholic Church was made complete. However, the dominance of the Catholic church has continued to be problematic, with Protestants being persecuted even up to recent times. There have been protests against the displaying of Catholic symbols in state schools, with governments and courts evading the issue by claiming these are ‘cultural’ rather than ‘religious’ symbols. However, in an entry on freedom of religion in Italy, Wikipedia reports this:

In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights, in a case brought by an Italian mother who wanted her children to have a secular education, ruled against the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian state schools. It found that ‘The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities… restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions’ and that it restricted the ‘right of children to believe or not to believe’.[3] This ruling was in marked contrast with the position of the Italian courts that had ruled in 2005 that crucifixes were allowed to be present in polling stations and, in 2006, that display of crucifixes in state schools was allowed on the basis that the crucifix symbolised core Italian social values.

The same Wikipedia entry states that according to a 2006 poll (but no details are given), four million Italians are atheist or agnostic, a much higher number than for any other religion apart from Christianity. We should also be sceptical that those identifying as Catholic are anything other than nominal Catholics.


I’ve picked this country out at random as an Eastern European country. Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a typical Eastern European country. Bulgaria does have a religious question in its census, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a variant of eastern orthodoxy, is the prevalent and traditional religion in the country, with 59.4% of the population identifying with it in the 2011 census. No previous censuses are recorded, sadly. Some 9.3% identified as atheists, and 21.8% didn’t answer the question. 7.8% identify with Islam, a result of years of Ottoman rule, and interestingly neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics can claim even 1% of the population. The number of Jews in Bulgaria is minuscule, and anti-Semitism appears to be rife. Also, the number of practising orthodox Christians is quite low, and likely falling, though I have no figures on that.

United Kingdom

I was born in Scotland, so this region still interests me, in spite of the transcendental cosmopolitan plane that I now inhabit. The situation there is much the same as in other western European countries – predominantly Christian but with church attendance dropping sharply in the late twentieth century and still declining, and with immigration bringing an increase in other religions, but from a very low base. Anglicanism became the established religion in England thanks to the shenanigans of Henry VIII, but Scotland has remained, at least until recently, largely Presbyterian. There’s been much talk about disestablishing the Anglican church in England in recent times. I think it’s inevitable. It has already been disestablished in Wales and Ireland. Wikipedia presents census figures for England for 2001 and 2011, which shows that identification with Christianity has dropped from 71.7% to 59.4% in 10 years – a really significant drop. Various other surveys show lower figures though, indicating again that the framing of the question makes a big difference. Everything suggests that a large proportion of the population identifies with Christianity out of habit rather than conviction. This can perhaps be more accurately described as cultural religiosity, which, as I’ve reported, is a common feature of Catholicism. Finally in Britain, as elsewhere, secular law is becoming less deferential to the claims of religion. The Equality Act of 2010 is making life more uncomfortable for denominations that continue to discriminate, though it remains to be seen how the law deals with the rise of largely unenlightened religions such as Islam.

South Korea

I’ll finish where I started, with an Asian country that appears to have embraced many western values and practices, including secular democracy. Needless to say I’m not doing justice to the enormous complexity of religious tradition in any of these countries, but it seems that Koreans, like many of their Asian neighbours, have been eclectic in their religious practices over the centuries. Korean shamanism, or Muism, goes back a long way, and has been overlain with Confucianism, Buddhism and more recently Christianity, which had its heyday there from the sixties to the nineties, leaving South Korea the most Christianised Asian population apart from the Philippines and East Timor. The South Korean National Statistical Office reported these figures in 2005: 46.5% non-religious (but many of these apparently maintain shrines to traditional religions in their homes), 22.8% Buddhist, 18.3% Protestant, 10.9% Catholic. The Wikipedia entry here points out the difficulties in measuring religious practice and adherence, with Confucianism, for example, being practically impossible to measure. There is also a proliferation of smaller religions in Korea that are likely to be under-reported. The late Sun Myung Moon started up a new Christian-based religion in South Korea in the sixties, hailing himself as the new Messiah, etc. It enjoyed moderate success in his home country and in the USA in the seventies, possibly because of its strong anti-communist rhetoric. It seems that in recent years Christianity has been fading, and there has been some slight resurgence in traditional Muism, but I can’t find any figures on religious trends in general.

So that’s a few blurry snapshots of religious trends in an assortment of countries, which show I think that Christianity at least has peaked in western Europe and in some Asian countries. I’ve also heard, in the wake of the new Latino pope, that Catholicism is on the wane in Latin America, a trend that this papal election is unlikely to substantially reverse. Generally it seems that Christianity sells well in poorer countries these days, but starts to fade as the nations find their feet economically, and their inhabitants get access to a decent education. Many of the world’s poorer countries are in Africa and the Middle East – but nations like Pakistan and Afghanistan are too doctrinally Islamic to be much of a hunting ground for Christians. Rural China remains a promising area of course, but the scenario changes daily. My attitude is that we shouldn’t be too impatient, we should just keep plugging away with our fascination with this world, the only one we have.

Written by stewart henderson

April 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm