A new bit of writing from me you might like

www.dexterityunlimited.com pinged me in an article on “Atheism Becoming the New Religion”—a warning piece to Christians from christianpost.com

Since I haven’t posted in a while, I thought those of you still subscribed to either the RSS feed or my twitter account, might be interested in reading my reply to both articles, originally posted here.

The archived article comments on my blog, mentioned above, are a treasure trove of opinion and feedback from every kind of evangelical, most of which are on this very topic.

From the “I believe every word of it” biblical literalists to “yes, it’s written by an ancient folk but I like it anyway” progressive liberals, the one thing they all share in common is a complete lack of understanding for what atheism is and what atheists are.

We do ourselves no favours in this regard because, in reality, there is no “we” and so there are no one set of governing principals which define what an atheist is. When you set that against a range of opinions derived from a fixed ideal (or at least the suggestion of one) atheism can appear disparate or incoherent.

To the outsider looking in, we’re all paid-up members of the Richard Dawkins fan club who have confused scientific principles with ethical ones. To the religious, the blogging atheist, is a well meaning, if confused individual, who just needs to ‘open up their heart to God’.

I have made one or two in-roads with individual Christians, who take the time to read, listen and converse sensibly, on the true scale of the condescending tone this attitude pervades. I’ve also been condemned to hell for the sin of thinking clearly, presumably with the brain He mistakenly gave me. But, for the most part, the common denominator with many religious, is that they find it very hard to disassociate their beliefs from the contrary facts. In their world, evidence is an elusive word, interchangeable with opinion.

They’re particularly reluctant to concede that any one argument against the existence of God is as strong as the other. Their impression of atheism, is that it needs to use all of the arguments against each individual religious truth-claims at once, rather than compete note for note on scripture, miracles and theology as separate entities. It’s as if they’re perfectly willing to admit that, individually, the various atheistic tracts make interesting chewing gum, but don’t convince them at all when they’re bundled together into a whole; that atheism may well make an interesting philosophical pursuit, but that it is ultimately a pseudo-intellectual comfort for the lost and lonely, and offers no kind of realistic challenge to the deistic argument.

You can even test this assertion by asking incredibly basic questions. For example, questions such as “why don’t you believe in Allah?”, or “where is the archaeological evidence of The Exodus?” are brushed aside as if it is “we” who do not want to understand the true implication of such a demand—when in reality that is exactly why we posited the question.

What they will miss entirely, in the ensuing debate, is the very part of the question which relates to why they believe what they believe, or the dots which join the dots. Every other part of the conversation will sink-in as clearly as day. You can bounce back and forth ad-nauseam on the fraudulent gospels, or the missing years between the wedding feast at Cana and Hosanna in the highest. But reminding them that the point they missed from the original question was actually the most important part, isn’t so easy a topic to get into as we would like to believe.

I assert that this is for a few very understandable reasons.

Firstly, refusing to accept you’ve spent your entire life believing in things which are almost certainly not true, is a perfectly normal reaction to evidence which contradicts your existing opinion. I believe, for example, Jimi Hendrix was a space alien. I believe it with all my being. That doesn’t make it true. Nor does how much I want it to be true, make it true.

Secondly, most religious people are good people. They simply don’t equate their version of Jesus with the version used by Donald Rumsfeld, Pat Robertson, the fucking Pope or any other charlatan liar who knows less about the true history of the bible than Simon Cowell knows about Pre-Raphaelite conceptualism.

Their Jesus doesn’t bomb countries they can’t point to on a map, anymore than he holds anti-homosexual protest placards at a soldier’s funeral. Their real problem with “us” isn’t that “we don’t get it”. Their problem is that we do. Loud and clear. We fully accept that Jesus is the archetypal humanist. What we also make perfectly clear, is that this has nothing whatsoever to do with the veracity of the truth-claim, that he was therefore the creator of the universe in human form.

Indeed, the very fact that we all share the belief’s of Jesus, regardless of our religion or otherwise, is itself proof positive that he was no more a God than are any of us. We don’t share those beliefs because he was magic, we share them because he was a human animal.

99.9% of people who consider themselves Christian, have no idea what they’re subscribed to—and so conceding this fact is of no consequence to them. They think Christianity is about striving to achieve what we all want—global peace, love and understanding.

When you remind them of the fact that the Jesus story upon which their church is founded, is merely an echo of many different tales of hero warrior gods throughout history, who have also sought this ideal, they almost seem indifferent to the fact that this fact alone falsifies multiple-layers of their other religiously founded assumptions.

They simply fail, perhaps out of self-defence, to make the connection between this fact and the giant question mark which it places above everything else. Hence, arguing with them over this is ultimately pointless. I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean it in a way which intentionally makes a concession to the best of their arguments, which are simple admissions of our shared values.

The question is, do you want to live this life as a cause of turmoil and unrest, or do you want to walk the rice paper? The non-religious and religious alike would all do well from a deal, based on this question, to live and let live. Where we rub up against each other isn’t a choice placed in our hands. It is a political football purposefully crafted by those who seek to divide and conquer, for the same reasons humans have always sought such pointless an aim. How we speak up louder than them is the task at hand.

We can either strive for this or abandon it. It’s as black and white as that. Because the only other alternative, is we just wait until the 21st of this month, to see which of us shoots up into the clouds, leaving non-republicans to live their lives as they see fit—or to put it another way, for the rapture to leave behind everyone who seeks nothing more than to do unto others as they would have done to them.

Predating the sermon on the mount, as it does, by some 500 years, I see nothing wrong with this simple Confucian mantra, as a basis for moving beyond theism and other kinds of denial. The only question is how many will follow, when such a commitment would require abandoning what they mistake for received ethics, but which are in-fact intrinsic.

This speaks to the organised attack on scientific principals, in which many religious groups are active. They’re not attacking what they understand, they’re attacking what they don’t want to understand. Creationism is explained in this way. So too are the various invocations of Quantum Mechanics which take place at the “I’m not religious, but..” end of the spectrum.

The God of the gaps is praised by far more people than The Church would like to admit. Unfortunately His silence on such matters, gives an air of authority to those who shout at the top of their lungs in His stead. All we have to do is prove again and again that there are no gods. We will do this with the same tools we have always done it with—not simply to convince or cajole those who have not reasoned themselves into their religious views, but to make sure future generations know neither of us fell asleep on the really important questions. It’s just that some of us happen to be rather more interested in the answers than others.


The Dunning–Kruger effect

I recently had a long and “interesting” exchange with an individual on a Reddit.com story about the Yes / No on 1 vote in the American State of Maine.

You can read the entire debate here:

..and my particular conversation thread here:

Needless to say I wasn’t very happy about the result of the vote, whereas my main opponent took the opposite stance. But I was reminded in the course of our conversation about cognitive framing biases—as is so often the case in matters where one side blindly argues X is a valid reason for turning reason Y on its head—such as arguing night is day, black is white or that old favourite, which is in-fact a corruption of something Bertrand Russell once said about mathematical axioms, 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2. Because these kinds of mental gymnastics are the only way a deeply misinformed opinion might begin to make some kind of sense, in the mind of the person who holds onto it, they are very easy to spot in someone else, but very difficult to identify in oneself.

Then, thanks to the power of the internets, this little gem came to my attention and things started to become a little bit clearer…

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than actuality; by contrast the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than relatively more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

On former atheists

I commented on an article over at scitascienda.wordpress.com and ended up expanding the whole thing into a rather longer piece than I’d anticipated. I thought I’d include it here by way of informing everyone that the infamous Todd’s comments on the whole thing have resulted in him being banned again, this time for good.

C.L. Dyck’s original article is interesting and you might like to read it first and then give feedback on it either over there or on my reply to it here.

Happy Humanist.JPGAn atheist is not an atheist because she doesn’t understand Christianity, or for that matter any other religion. Not understanding something, perhaps even to the point of refusing to find out, is the exact opposite of a mind content with reality–the key characteristic of free thinking secular humanism.

So when I hear of “former atheists” becoming Christians, I am often compelled to enquire of the neophyte, if it might be that, in fact, they were once merely a confused agnostic. This is descriptive of a great many people in the modern world, who if asked would, perhaps, use the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves above ‘agnostic’, because of an almost cult-like definition these words have accrued in recent years. Unfortunately this brand of so-called “new atheism” has little in common with the philosophy of positive atheism espoused by Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Voltaire and so on. It should be noted that these prominent thinkers and commentators on the subject of religious faith, did so at a time when free speech was constrained by heavily enforced blasphemy laws and when to make a point in defence of rationalism required some considerable riposte.

An indicator as to the level of commitment the convert once showed to their apparently now lost atheism, resides in a few very important differences between questions an agnostic might ask and that which is of interest to a positive atheist. For example, an agnostic, in her inquisitiveness, might become concerned with the truth-claims of a particular religion, let’s say Christianity. This leads her to ask what Jesus is said to have said about such and such, or what St. Paul is said to have written in his letters to the Corinthians and so on–and without any concern for what prominent figures in other religions might have said along similar lines on similar subjects, which in fact contradict Christian teaching. This is a very important point to note, as the ultimate claim of many religions is that they are the one true faith, while other religions are more or less false.

This may seem a harsh comparison, but one only needs to look at the recent bloody history in Northern Ireland, where Catholics only differ from Protestants in their belief that in the sacrament of communion, the unleavened bread literally becomes the body of Christ, whereas religions not based upon the 11th century edict of transubstantiation make no such claim.

Atheists, on the other hand, are not concerned with the in’s and out’s of any one particular religion, as much as they are concerned with what can be proven to be true through an observance of reality, where the least assumptions are made about the nature of a given phenomena the better. This immediately poses a problem in the case of Christianity, because the very fact that the bible itself contains the kind of contradictions so blatantly the result of poor translation, which can not be resolved from a folkloristic point of view, let alone from empirical data sets, that it immediately discredits itself as a historical reference point, because it is the very article which must be verified for any of Christianity’s other truth-claims to withstand rational criticism. It should be noted, that this does not stop the vast majority of Christians contenting themselves with the notion that the bible is nevertheless the inerrant, perfect word of God, precisely because it says so in the bible. In the military this is known as scenario completion syndrome. In psychology and cognitive science, it is known as confirmation bias.

A common claim that many “former atheists” make to validate their conversion, is that they were touched by something beyond their comprehension. This should be treated with an additional degree of incredulity, if chief among their reasons for this new found belief, the convert describes the soul as distinct from the mind. The externalisation of the ego which the mind is responsible for, when religionists project catch-all, arbitrary meanings upon words like “God” and “Spirituality”, produces exactly the kind of bias confirmation we should expect to see in someone as agnostic towards the importance cognitive framing plays in forming our views, as they are the existence or otherwise of Russell’s teapot.

It should be noted that varying degrees of cognitive dissonance, when it comes to truth-claims made, despite no reasonable basis upon which to make those assertions, for example, often underpin a world-view based upon scientific naturalism–which is, to a certain extent, similarly reliant upon mathematical axioms, or arithmetic equations at the heart of scientific theories. That which is assumed to be correct as participial to a theorem is done so for purposes of efficiency, rather than because it has not been or can not be correctly calculated.

This is not, however, a perfect analogy, and you’d have to be pretty stubborn (bordering on pedantic) to cite mathematical axioms as the central basis of an argument which might attempt to equate their use in scientific naturalism with religious faith in Christian apologetics, but there is an element of trust inherent to very exacting orders of logical axioms, nevertheless. However, this is an entirely different level of assumption based thinking, because it is one which operates within margins of error. It is therefore not the sum total which collapses without an individual mathematician having faith in calculus, for example; merely that the degree to which the equation can be said to be absolutely accurate depends upon yet to be deduced factors which may later influence the outcome, but which at the time of operand are unknown.

In Christian apologetics, however, the margin of error analogy is an order of magnitude more wide-reaching than the common or garden variety of Alpha course Christianity might admit to, or even be aware of. Most believers in belief are not wilfully dishonest with themselves or anyone else about the gulf between their extraordinary beliefs and a lack of extraordinary evidence upon which to assert their claims. But this is precisely why it is such a pressing problem for “former atheists” to expand upon this paradox, since so many of the underlying principals of their apparently new-found allegiances reside in a fundamental miscomprehension of that which they claim to have once maintained a firm grasp.

The disagreements even within different tracts of Christian apologetics, as to how much emphasis is to be placed upon which interpretation of which book of which chapter in which codex is troubling enough. Let alone to what degree theology as a whole should be informed by scientifically obtained postulates which in many cases lead to full blown falsifiable theories, that completely discredit early philosophical attempts at describing the very natural phenomena upon which so much theology is based–such as the Adam and Eve or Genesis creation myths, for example.

If someone who once claimed to be an atheist now looks to these myths not as parables, but as literal descriptions of “how God did it”, she has immediately made a whole slew of assumptions from which no degree of an appeal to reason can dissuade her; or as is commonly accredited to Ben Goldacre, “You can not reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into”. This is not a commentary on someone’s faith, it is a commentary on their commitment to failed cognition–and that is anathema to the truth journey all religions are ostensibly charged with mapping, but few orienteer.

For identifying this paradigm, while in many ways displaying qualities of it, atheism is often described by those who understand it the least, as a religion without a deity. This and because a certain kind of highly motivated atheist will accrue a great deal of knowledge about both material reality and meta-physical ontology, while facing a great frustration at being accused of ignorance about the poetry in Psalms, for example, ironically means that, oftentimes, a well-read atheist will have a much greater appreciation for biblical narratives than those who claim to live their lives by them, while exhibiting much behaviour to the contrary.

There is no doubting the bible’s historical worth in human history. It is the assertions of those who claim to know it so intimately, while describing it as the absolute arbiter of morality, which anyone who has actually read Leviticus and Deuteronomy should quickly find insulting and false. This crucial difference between faith and free thinking, being the first of the reasons why atheism is so unlike a religion, should perhaps make a compelling enough reason to doubt the clarity with which “former atheists” are operating, quite obvious–although some will no-doubt still insist upon more compelling reasons to question someone’s beliefs than merely the semantic perception of doubt residing on the negative side of where faith rests on the positive.

What should be certainly very clear, is that an emotional commitment to theistic truth-claims is not proof that those claims are true. Many Christians, who insist that their subjective experiences do, in fact, constitute evidence of a spiritual aspect, beyond observable reality, are immediately faced with the question of why this realm is unavailable to those who refuse to suspend their critical faculties in order to tap into that which they may already be in possession of, without necessarily ascribing it to the supernatural.

For example, musicians often cite moments of bliss, within an ensemble, during improvisation; where a communication between the players and the audience transcends anything which could be pre-arranged, but which is nevertheless sympathetic to the overall arrangement. While a mathematical analysis into why in a given key, a certain range of notes in the scale are available, might technically describe why a given chordal passage is harmonious and melodic, it tells us nothing about why the emotional reaction of an audience might range from mild pleasure to floods of uncontrollable weeping and mania on a grand scale. This speaks to the emotional investment listeners to that band of musicians have in a form of non-verbal communication far in advance of anything found in other forms of artistic expression. Aficionados of Gauguin do not spend 24 hours queuing for tickets to a muddy field, where they will stand miles away from the revealed canvases, with a topless girl on their shoulders, enthusiastically yelling, “The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch!”

However, in both kitchen table apologetics and in the full-blown glossolalia of an evangelical rally, this is exactly what is happening. It is true to say that this entirely normal capacity for humans to profoundly influence each other’s emotions through unspoken and seemingly instinctive, if exaggerated and impulsive behaviour, remains such an easily exploited facet of prescribed faith, to confuse confusion with revelation, that in feeling as if they have been touched by something profound, the believer would rather assign an artificially inflated meaning upon that experience, than explore an honest description of the phenomena to which they have actually succumb.

Readers might be interested to know that I forwarded a copy of the above to this blog’s favourite saved and therefore righteous Todd, who regularly regurgitates hate theology in the comments. It elicited the following response, for which he was permanently banned…

“I take back any reference to my being a former atheist, as there’s no such thing (or confused agnostics, for that matter), only those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness. That was me…then God turned the Jesus light switch on, thankfully. It sure wasn’t my doing.

You’re an evil man, Jim – serving Beelzebub like a good obedient minion. God’s been trying to get your attention and save you from the king of this world, but you refuse to respond. Your Satan-induced-narcissism today is going to yield huge dividends in your eternal afterlife unless you repent of your sins and respond to God’s grace through faith in His Son Jesus.

Otherwise, your eternal suffering is going to be well-earned and, dare I submit, “of the worst kind possbible.” When I think of what’s possible from God, I absolutely shudder for you.”

Non-fiction science book “inspired” brainwashed Christian conservative to kill himself

god-delusion-728768It’s all over the internets and you wouldn’t love me anymore if I didn’t give my two cents on the whole thing.

The parents of a man who killed himself after being picked on in school for being a conservative, republican Christian who was “doing well” in Biology class, despite following the cult of Intelligent Design, have blamed Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’ for his death. [More]

A particular chapter in the book is receiving the strongest criticism—albeit most vocally from the worldnetdaily.com—not exactly known for their journalistic integrity when it comes to matters of scientific truth, versus religious fiction.

The chapter in question deals with what Richard Feynman often called the inconceivable nature of nature—the ordinary chemicals and enzymes which, when left to rankle for a couple of hundred million years, on our planet at least, evolved into me and you, the trees, the birds—everything!

A copy of the best selling book owned by the deceased was bookmarked on a section towards the end, which challenges the arrogant certainties of fundamentalist Christians using objective, unfalsifiable, deductive logic (widely mistaken by creationists as merely the author’s subjective opinion) to explain how, while we might like to think of ourselves as capable of knowing all that can be known, we are in fact only capable of understanding a very small part of the total system, before mathematical reasoning is the only way to distinguish between what we would like to be the truth and what is actually, provably true.

What more evidence could you wish for that religious extremism of any kind is child abuse by any other name to say that, far from the following passage being inspirational, it is actually the cause of a very vulnerable young man’s death? What kind of deluded fool do you have to have allowed yourself to have become, to actively preach against logic and reason?

How—I simply ask you, my sexually attractive readers—could ANYONE read the following passage of text, taken from Dawkins’ book, and not be inspired to live the rest of their all-too-short, precariously improbably lives, happily free of the tyranny of religious non-thinking, with its false promises and evil lies?

In the preface to The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins states that he wrote the book to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.

In the preface to another of his books, Dawkins states that he wrote the book to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, 'solve the mystery of our existence.'

There is another fatty acid, capric acid, which is just like the other two except that it has yet two more carbon atoms in its main chain. A dog that had never met capric acid would perhaps have no more trouble imagining its smell than we would have trouble imagining a trumpet playing one note higher than we have heard a trumpet play before. It seems to me entirely reasonable to guess that a dog, or a rhinoceros, might treat mixtures of smells as harmonious chords. Perhaps there are discords. Probably not melodies, for melodies are built up of notes that start or stopabruptly with accurate timing, unlike smells. Or perhaps dogs and rhinos smell in colour. The argument would be the same as for the bats.

Once again, the perceptions that we call colours are tools used by our brains to label important distinctions in the outside world. Perceived hues – what philosophers call qualia – have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths. They are internal labels that are available to the brain, when it constructs its model of external reality, to make distinctions that are especially salient to the animal concerned. In our case, or that of a bird, that means light of different wavelengths. In a bat’s case, I have speculated, it light be surfaces of different echoic properties or textures, perhaps red for shiny, blue for velvety, green for abrasive. And in a dog’s or a rhino’s case, why should it not be smells? The power to imagine the alien world of a bat or a rhino, a pond skater or a mole, a bacterium or a bark beetle, is one of the privileges science grants us when it tugs at the black cloth of our burka and shows us the wider range of what is out there for our delight.

The metaphor of Middle World – of the intermediate range of phenomena that the narrow slit in our burka permits us to see – applies to yet other scales or ‘spectrums’. We can construct a scale of improbabilities, with a similarly narrow window through which our intuition and imagination are capable of going. At one extreme of the spectrum of improbabilities are those would-be events that we call impossible. Miracles are events that are extremely improbable. A statue of a madonna could wave its hand at us. The atoms that make up its crystalline structure are all vibrating back and forth. Because there are so many of them, and because there is no agreed preference in their direction of motion, the hand, as we see it in Middle World, stays rock steady. But the jiggling atoms in the hand could all just happen to move in the same direction at the same time. And again. And again . . . In this case the hand would move, and we’d see it waving at us. It could happen, but the odds against are so great that, if you had set out writing the number at the origin of the universe, you still would not have written enough zeroes to this day. The power to calculate such odds – the power to
quantify the near-impossible rather than just throw up our hands in despair – is another example of the liberating benefactions of science to the human spirit.

Evolution in Middle World has ill equipped us to handle very improbable events. But in the vastness of astronomical space, or geological time, events that seem impossible in Middle World turn out to be inevitable. Science flings open the narrow window through which we are accustomed to viewing the spectrum of possibilities. We are liberated by calculation and reason to visit regions of possibility that had once seemed out of bounds or inhabited by dragons. We have already made use of this widening of the window in Chapter 4, where we considered the improbability of the origin of life and how even a near-impossible chemical event must come to pass given enough planet years to play with; and where we considered the spectrum of possible universes, each with its own set of laws and constants, and the anthropic necessity of finding ourselves in one of the minority of friendly places.

How should we interpret Haldane’s ‘queerer than we can suppose’? Queerer than can, in principle, be supposed? Or just queerer than we can suppose, given the limitation of our brains’ evolutionary apprenticeship in Middle World? Could we, by training and practice, emancipate ourselves from Middle World, tear off our black burka, and achieve some sort of intuitive – as well as just mathematical – understanding of the very small, the very large, and the very fast? I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.

[Thanks to ryansound.blogspot.com]

Christian fundamentalists in British Politics

Remember that program I was telling you about? Well I recorded it and ripped it to Google video. Brace yourselves, we’re all lying, thieving adulterers with shit on our penises… ..apparently.

Direct link: https://howgoodisthat.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/in-gods-name-channel-4-dispatches/