Seek And You Will Find

Bordeaux ObservatoryI have been debating on Fallen & Flawed again. This time myself and a couple of other skeptics have become engrossed in a long conversation with guest poster Rob, who has shown considerable determination to answer our questions and protests, despite moving house over the past few days. I expect he is a competent juggler too.

My most recent comment became so long that I thought it worth making an entire post out of it. It’s also a theme that I’ve heard before but never directly addressed. The quote below is Rob touching on a subject of some interest to me, that of divine concealment. (Unsurprisingly we’d deviated significantly from the topic by this point).

I personally find myself not seeking Him more than Him hiding from me. Something about if you seek you will find.

I think I understand what Rob is saying. If he believes something with certainty, it must look like laziness or stubbornness on the part of non-believers not to see what seems so obvious to him. However, I think there are some problems with the claim “seek and you will find”.

Firstly, many atheists have spent a good deal of time seeking and never finding anything more than our own feelings, fellowship of others – nothing that could fairly be called “God”. That’s why we ended up atheists. A few of us have never believed nor tried to, but most have given at least one religion a go. To the believer perhaps this means they “Weren’t truly seeking”, but to me it shows that “seek and you will find” is often false.

Secondly, this kind of justification can be used for pretty much any belief system.

Imagine you’re a Sihk who is doubting their path. Perhaps the Sikh religion is an interesting idea with some worthwhile moral lessons, but also falsehoods and irrelevancies that can put unnecessary divisions between people when they disagree on points of doctrine. Another Sikh gives this advice.

“At the end of the day, Guru, Shri Guru Granth Sahib [Sikh holy book] is the door to Waheguru [God/Wonderful Teacher].”

Muslim woman at prayerWhat if you’re a Muslim who isn’t feeling Allah’s love? Maybe Allah isn’t there at all? No, apparently you’ve just got to take the time to study harder.

Say you’ve tried Buddhism, but you’re struggling with meditation and still experiencing a life of suffering.  Perhaps Buddhism is not the answer to everything? No, apparently you’re just not doing it right. Obviously it’s because you still have an incorrect understanding of your own person and have not yet eliminated the negative actions which are affecting your Karma.

You’re not trying hard enough

The same thing seems to happen with prayer. When it doesn’t work this can’t, for some reason, be counted as evidence against the chosen deity, despite what the Bible says. No, when it doesn’t work it’s not that the god simply isn’t there. It’s because you’re doing it wrong in some way. I’ve already covered why I think intercessory prayer is a ridiculous idea, so I won’t get started on that again.

Now, I’m not saying that the near-universal, “It’s your fault” response to religious failures is necessarily wrong. If there’s anything to these world views it’s perfectly possible that people are just not getting it right.

My point is that it is definitely not the only possible explanation and to suggest otherwise indicates bias.

However, it is a very convenient explanation and, as we’ve seen above, it’s a great way to justify something whenever the evidence contradicts your claim. It’s like a Joker/Get out of jail free card that religious believers of all stripes can deploy when their claims fail.

Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. Wikipedia.org provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus “was The Christ” and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

No True Christian

I’m willing to bet that any atheist who has spent any time discussing religion online has come across the suggestion that anyone who no longer believes, never truly believed in the first place. An ex-Christian was never a “real” Christian. Commenter al expressed this opinion about myself and Lorena over on Fallen And Flawed a few weeks ago.

… because Jesus Christ has promised that [1] whoever comes to Him He will never cast out, and that [2] no one (not even ourselves) is able to pluck us from His hand, therefore:
There can be no such person as a former Christian– only those who think they were once Christians but never really were.

This idea is not dissimilar to the perseverance of the saints – “once saved, always saved” thinking of Calvinism. Leaving aside the theological geekery, the obvious first response to this is that al is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which can be expressed as:

220px-porridge“No true Scotsman would have sugar in his porridge.”
“My uncle Hamish is Scottish and he has sugar in his porridge.”
“Well, then your uncle Hamish is not a true Scotsman.”

The pertinent question here being whether the first speaker is trying to make a generalisation about true Scotsmen, or to define what a true Scotsman is – that is, someone who does not have sugar in his porridge. As most people already have a reasonable definition of what a Scotsman is, to redefine it here without saying so explicitly is misleading. If this is what the first speaker had intended it would be better phrased as, “The definition of a true Scotsman is someone who does not have sugar in his porridge” and perhaps some other criteria such as country of birth or parentage.

In al’s case, the assertion comes from the bible, which he interprets as “There can be no such person as a former Christian”. To a biblical literalist it seems, any conclusion – no matter how much of a stretch it is – is better than the bible being wrong. And yet there are plenty of people who changed their mind about Christianity. So, when faced with atheists who claim that they genuinely believed as Christians before changing their minds, apologists are left with few choices.

One is to say that these former believers are lying and only pretending not to believe because they hate God or want to live as they please.

Slightly more charitably, they can claim the ex-Christian was mistaken and didn’t have a genuine relationship with Jesus in the first place. This is what al does.

You both have obviously tried something– church, a belief system, the counsel of others, I don’t know what– but something that represents itself as Christ. But it was not Him, and you have discarded the baby with the bathwater.

Note the subtle shift here. We’re no longer talking about people “being Christians” as most of the world understands it, but the relationship with an invisible, intangible muslim-woman-at-prayer240Christ. Christians may complain that it is the same thing, but there’s a difference. The world at large does not define people as belonging to a particular religion on the basis of some invisible supernatural relationship. How could they? Nor do people look inside the heads of professed believers and see all their beliefs – they can only see the way people act and trust what they say they believe. If for example someone says they’re a Muslim, if they attend to Muslim prayers and regularly visit the mosque as other professed Muslims do, then it’s quite reasonable to call them a Muslim. The statistics which show there are around 2 billion Christians in the world are not based on observing whether they each have a genuine relationship with Christ. They’re probably based on what which box they tick on census or identification forms.

However, al says, with an air of authority, “But it was not Him”. I doubt he would claim any special insight into our former religious beliefs. He is inferring that our Christian belief was not a genuine relationship with his god by the simple fact that we no longer believe it. It seems he is making a new definition of what a true Christian is – that is, someone who does not lose their faith or change their mind about Christianity.

However, there are some interesting implications of this viewpoint. If this is not the only way to identify a true Christian, then there is potential for a contradiction. If for example professional ministry or daily prayer were considered proof of genuine Christianity, then there are already many examples of “real” Christians who have become atheists.

On the other hand, if there are no other certain indications of true Christianity that rather throws doubt on everyone. The effect is that there’s no certainty whether anyone, however enthusiastic they might be about Jesus, is a true Christian by al’s definition.

So, if we run with his definition, al can’t be certain that there are any true Christians. I’m sure his relationship seems pretty real to him, but even he could change his mind at a later date.

In one sense I’d agree – I was never in a genuine relationship with Jesus because, as far as I can tell, no such person exists. However, at the time, my belief was entirely genuine, as I would assume al’s still is.

Being A Curious Skeptic

836929_talk_to_me1

The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.

Curiosity

However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

Hell: What am I going to do about it?

Over on Christ-Centred Blogging recently I have been arguing about the injustice of hell. Assuming for the sake of argument that hell exists and that Christians are right about how to avoid it, my point is that the doctrine is unreasonable given that the majority of the world’s population does not have the knowledge required to avoid it. In effect ignorance is a crime against God. Commenter Demian Farnworth asked:

Eshu: I think the important question now is: You know about the possibility of hell. What are you going to do about it?

Which is a fair question. I suspect Demian’s next point was going to be that I have not (yet) taken heed of the warnings or hell, so it doesn’t matter that not everyone is aware of the choice Christianity presents. Many people have heard it and ignore it.

Ignorance, however, is only part of the problem. We’re no doubt all aware of a variety of religious ideas, mythical stories and superstitious warnings. We don’t and can’t heed them all. It doesn’t matter how scary they sound or how comforting the alternatives they offer might be. We need to know whether or not they’re real. A point often overlooked, it seems.

Consider the following analogy for example.

Let’s say I’m wandering down the street and a man accosts me on the street and says that if I don’t hand over my cash, then his friends will drop a nuke on my house.

A pretty scary (albeit unlikely) scenario. So what am I going to do about it?

Many people would just ignore him, but I’m a curious skeptic and while it seems far fetched I’d like to find out what’s going on. Does he really have powerful friends who could render my house even more untidy than usual? Who are they? Are they really at his beck and call?

It sounds like he’s crazy or making it up. Then again, you might think that in the circumstances it would be simpler to just give him the ten pounds I have in my pocket and not take the risk. But even then I don’t know where it will lead. He might demand more money from me. Other people might start issuing similar threats. Unable to pay them all I’d have to guess at which one (if any) actually had the ability to turn my home into a radioactive pile of rubble.

First I’m going to make some assessment of whether it’s likely. If he’s just making this up I ought to at least report him to the Police and put a stop to this intimidation. On the other hand if it’s true that this guy has nuclear capabilities and isn’t afraid to use them, then I should probably negotiate with him to see if we can work things out without any nukes getting dropped.

Before I can do any of that I need to decide whether it’s true or not. As far as I can tell, Christianity and the doctrine of hell is nonsensical, self-contradictory and therefore untrue. Until anyone can iron out those howling inconsistencies, I can only ignore it.

Probably An Atheist Bus

I am rather late in covering this, so by now I imagine everyone is familiar with the Atheist Bus Campaign, which has probably generated more publicity than the eventual bus adverts ever could. It started when Ariane Sherine (pictured) wrote an piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section complaining about one-sided religious advertising:

“Yesterday I walked to work and saw not one, but two London buses with the question: “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.”

The website featured on the advert contained dire warnings about hell fire and damnation, which is really not what you need on a Monday morning when you’re late for work. Ariane did some homework and suggested that with moderate support a similar advert could be bought by atheists – one with a more tolerant, uplifting message. She suggested:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

The atheist bus campaign caught on well and has so far raised over 117,000 pounds – enough for several bus adverts. However, the proposed wording of the advert has caused dissatisfaction amongst some atheists. The “probably” is described as a cop-out, too weak, too uncertain. A friend of mine expressed her disappointment by saying, “It’s more of an Agnostic Bus Campaign really isn’t it?”.

There are two things I want to discuss. Firstly, the philosophy geek’s question of whether the slogan is Atheistic, Agnostic or something else? Secondly, is it a good message to slap on the side of a bus?

An Agnostic Atheist Slogan?

Here’s a quick summary of the non-believing spectrum as I see it:

Strong Atheist – “I believe there is definitely no god and I have no doubt about this.”
Weak Atheist – “I believe there is no god but I do not have absolute certainty about this.”
Agnostic – “I do not know if there is a god.” (literally ‘without knowledge’)

Naturally these are not hard either-or distinctions and many people are somewhere between the above positions. There are also several other non-religious positions some of which I covered previously.

In practice the vast majority of those who speak of themselves as atheists are of the “weak” variety (aka “Agnostic atheists”). The reason is that it’s notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything, whether it’s gods, unicorns or a teapot orbiting the sun. The problem with trying to find any of those is when to stop searching. OK, so we’ve searched the world’s mountain ranges and the plains, but what if these mythical beasts exist in the Arctic, or the deepest oceans, or on the moon?

In science and philosophy no knowledge is beyond doubt. If it were, then we might still be believing that the Sun goes around the Earth or that light travels in a luminiferous ether. So strictly speaking a non-believer in unicorns should say, “There are probably no unicorns”. For simplicity this usually comes out as “There are no unicorns”. Not a strict provable statement, but simple enough for everyday language which gets the idea across.

You can however often disprove specific religious claims – for example geocentrism or an omnipotent deity who doesn’t allow lightning.

I said it was a philosophy geek’s question.

Probably the best bus in the world

So does the word “Probably” trammel the proposed advertisement’s intention? Can it still make people stop and think?

I know some believers have responded to the uncertainty of the slogan with ridicule, apparently amused that those noisy atheists aren’t so sure of what they believe after all. Others may think it cowardly.

Many religious people are comforted by the absolute certainty with which their beliefs are claimed. Uncertainty and dilemmas can be unsettling. For people who feel that way, believing something is “probably the case”, never mind contributing to an advert to tell people it is “probably the case”, is laughable.

But I think expressing doubt is a good thing. I’m certainly not the first person to say that, for example Bertrand Russell:

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

Furthermore, I’m all too aware that believers regularly accuse atheists of being every bit as irrational as the religious. Some have even written books claiming they don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. In the case of strong atheism (or strong unicorn-disbelief), I think that accusation would be justified. What evidence could provide absolute certainty that there were no unicorns (or gods)? To have absolute certainty that gods or unicorns did not exist would require faith.

The “probably” has certainly caused surprise amongst some religious believers. American Evangelical minister, Clark Bunch reacted on his blog as follows:

What surprises me is that Dawkins would settle for such a weak position.  “There’s probably no God” is not spoken with nearly the certainty with which Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed.  I’ve never sung a hymn nor heard a street preacher shout “There probably is a God.”  The slogan even allows the possibility the God may exist.  If all atheists were this soft, I probably wouldn’t give them such a hard time.

Which is where the massive misconception comes in.

Most atheists wouldn’t say they have absolute certainty about their beliefs. Despite all the hype and accusations of atheist fundamentalism, Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim absolute certainty of his beliefs. If someone says, “I don’t believe in god”, they’re not necessarily claiming that their belief is beyond doubt. If I said, “I don’t believe it will rain tomorrow” would it be taken as read that I’m so sure about it I’d be willing to bet my life on it? Would I be called a fundamentalist meteorologist? Of course not. But for many believers, ordinary non-belief in deities is taken as a statement of absolute certainty requiring irrational faith. Perhaps this is a kind of psychological projection of their own attitudes to belief?

The slightly dull reality is that the inclusion of the word “probably” was at the insistence of the bus company selling the advertising space, who don’t want to offend religious believers.

Nevertheless, I like the phrasing of the slogan. Atheists know only too well how irritating it is to have other people’s unquestionable certainties shoved in their faces and should be slower to commit the same effrontery. The advert makes a point, without having to make the bold claims of absolute certainty usually used by those lacking good evidence.

Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.

[BPSDB]

Faith schools and Accord

Faith schools are an issue that feature regularly in the British news. About a third of the schools in this country are faith schools, of which the majority are Church of England. We’re sometimes complacent in the UK to think that the established religion in this country is benign, but faith schools give us a reminder that this is not always the case.

Firstly, faith schools are allowed to discriminate, both in their admissions and employment policies. For example, they can prefer children whose parents are regular church attendees. Predictably, in areas where the best school happens to be a religious one, desperate parents attend church for the requisite number of weeks to get their child into the school, before leaving again. Quite apart from the absurdity of this, discriminating on the grounds of religious belief contravenes the Human Rights Act, 1998, Article 9 “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Denying entrance to a school – especially a publicly-funded one – is a clear example of discrimination.

In many cases, faith schools are exempt from having to comply with discrimination legislation:

Schools cannot discriminate against gay or lesbian pupils or their parents during the admissions process or in lessons. But guidance accompanying the legislation makes it clear that faith schools will not face prosecution for teaching in strict accordance with their religious views.

Some Christians, such as Melanie-Mcdonagh, have commented that discrimination is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to run a religious school.

But it’s precisely the fact that they are discriminatory that makes them Catholic, or Anglican, or Jewish, or Muslim.

I’ve heard as much from Catholic colleagues planning to send their children to the local faith school. Worse, there are plans for more faith schools on the horizon.

Thankfully, there are other Christians who have their heads screwed on properly regarding faith-school discrimination. Simon Barrow of Ekklesia writes:

If church schools are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer, as they are, then the public as a whole has a reason to expect that they will be run for all by all.

Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a Christian think-tank which regularly comes up with progressive and humanistic suggestions. Together with organisations such as the BHA and The Association of Teachers and Lecturers they have formed a coalition aimed at ensuring inclusive education for all. The organisation is called Accord and includes amongst its supporters people from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds. I’ve already made a small donation to them and I’d encourage those who agree with Accord’s aims to do likewise.

So why are some religious people so keen on faith schools? I think part of it is the popular misconception that people of their own religion are inherently better people, more moral and no doubt they’d like their children to grow up being good people. But another aspect is about the argument from religious confusion.

The argument from religious confusion points out the vast differences in religious beliefs and perceptions of a god or gods across the world. It suggests that this is more consistent with people inventing diverse imaginary gods, rather than with a genuine deity influencing the world and communicating with humanity. There is a plethora of religions out there, each with numerous sects and variations, so what makes any one of them so special? As Ebonmuse puts it,

“The religions on this planet cannot all be right – but they could all be wrong!”.

The great thing about this argument is that it’s so simple, there’s no sophisticated philosophical concepts required. At the age of ten years old, my wife stumbled on the argument from religious confusion while looking at an Atlas. Until then she’d be taught in a convent school with a predictably narrow religious focus. The human statistics she saw showed her that a large number of people in the world weren’t Christian. She still cites this as the first doubt she had about religion.

Faith schools, by separating children from those who believe differently, can keep the argument from religious confusion hidden under the carpet for longer. If everyone you know is a Christian, it’s harder to see the other options as valid. Stereotypes about other faiths can be maintained more easily, their beliefs kept in mysterious shadows, not in the real world, seeming more like fiction than anything which “real” people believe.

I think it’s important that children are taught about religion (aka “Comparative religion”), where lessons are phrased something like, “Some people believe…” rather than “The Truth is…”.

Furthermore, as the religious atheist observes, religious segregation very often means de facto racial segregation too.

The new Hindu Krishna-Avanti school has all Asian pupils. In the same education authority, I suspect that St John Fisher RC School has almost no Asian pupils, nor the Moriah Jewish Day School.

I can’t think of a single instance where social segregation has been a good thing. I don’t expect faith schools to be an exception.

Preaching the gospel to animals

A post on Clark Bunch’s blog recently included Biblical quote indicating that the gospel is to be preached to “every creature“. Naturally, this conjured some amusing images of Christians talking to rabbits, so I could hardly resist commenting.

lonelypilgrim replied to me, explaining that the interpretation was not reasonable, because early Christians apparently did not preach to animals.

Of course this isn’t the only strange or ambiguous passage in the Bible. For a few examples, see Ebonmuse’s article on Biblical absurdities, in which it becomes apparent that God is also “against pillows”. I’m sure that many Christians are aware of some of these oddities, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. In cases where more than one Biblical interpretation is possible, they simply assume the one which fits with their opinions must be correct. They don’t all agree, either; for instance, some Christians think there is a literal hell, others don’t.  In cases where one interpretation would be completely impractical, nonsensical or doesn’t fit with the way they see their religion, they simply ignore that interpretation.

To be fair to lonelypilgrim, he’s done a bit more than that. He’s also considering the actions of early Christians. Because there is apparently no evidence of early Christians preaching to animals, he argues that the author must’ve meant something different. On the face of it, this might be a reasonable way to understand an ancient text. The earliest readers of scripture would probably have read something closer to the original author’s words, with fewer hops, skips and jumps in the form of copying and translation. So their understanding might well be better than ours. This still leaves a few problems, however.

Firstly, can we be sure of what early Christians understood about the Bible – if some of them did believe they should preach to animals would we necessarily know about it now? Accounts of their lives must have been translated and copied with at least as much chance of error as the translation and copying of the Bible.

Secondly, if modern Christians must rely on historical evidence to interpret the Bible, that makes the Bible no better than any other historical text. In any case, most people reading the Bible don’t consider the opinions of early Christians – except when asked facetious-sounding questions on the Internet.

Thirdly – although I haven’t researched this thoroughly – let’s assume that early Christians didn’t preach the gospel to animals – even if it is a great image. I don’t think that would solve the problem entirely for Christians. As I responded to lonelypilgrim,

“…If we do have evidence that “creatures” meant “only humans”, then presumably the fact that we ended up with this English wording is the result of naive translation – by people not aware of this evidence. In this case, as you pointed out, it’s fairly obvious which interpretation makes most sense, so the error introduced at some point has no effect (at least I doubt anyone has tried to preach to animals as a result of this). But if errors or misunderstandings like this can creep into the text through the copying or translation process it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the text. In other areas such changes might not be so obvious…”

It seems that they’re working from the assumption that the Bible makes sense and contains sensible advice relevant to modern readers. This could be seen as an appeal to consequences. If something in the Bible is nonsensical, that would make Christian beliefs seem flawed and Christians would no doubt consider that a bad thing. Therefore the whole Bible must make sense.

On the other hand it could be a form of the argument from incredulity. Christians find it impossible to imagine that any part of the Bible might be nonsense. The word of God, the holy book of the one true religion contains things which sound completely ridiculous? Unbelievable. There must be some other explanation.

They’re not just putting their faith in the Bible being accurate, but that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones. I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.