"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, August 29, 2008

Yeshua the annointed one

There's a detailed discussion on the existence of Jesus over at Stephen Law's blog, which visitors here (assuming there still are any) might want to take a look at.

Personally, I've never found the arguments for the divinity of Jesus convincing. All history is a matter of probability, and the probability of Jesus being able to perform miracles because he's an aspect of a divine being given flesh is always going to be much lower than the probability of more mundane explanations*.

(*Assuming you've had no prior contact with said divine being, which would - if itself valid - alter the probability considerably.)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Atheism, Theology and Creationism

"God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same Iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimalus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weakness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself."
Watching 'The Genius of Darwin' on Channel 4, I was struck by just how futile the evolution vs creationism debate often seems to be. Dawkins (who presented the documentary) and others like him appear convinced that human beings are essentially rational beings who can be won round to a particular viewpoint because the facts support it. But the show presented plenty of evidence that this simply isn't the case.

While its true that the creationists featured in the documentary certainly displayed a fundamental ignorance of evolutionary theory, it quickly became obvious that clearing up their misconceptions had no real impact on their beliefs. As one of the pupils at the school Dawkins visits in part 1 so concisely explained: It wasn't that he didn't understand evolutionary theory, it was just that his religion told him it was wrong. Through (I assume) a combination of bribes, threats and social pressure, his religious beliefs had managed to shut down a large part of his capacity for critical thought.

This is – what I'd call - “Regressive Theology”. It teaches that the Truth has already been revealed, and all knowledge which challenges it must be rejected. Failure to do so often results in the most extreme punishment conceivable: An eternity of agony and torment. (Not to mention the more immediate ostracism by friends and family).

Due to its nature, regressive theology is (once it's taken hold) generally immune to counter-argument. To doubt is to risk everything. While better education can help prevent regressive theology taking hold of an individual (by aiding the capacity to doubt before it's suppressed), it's next to useless against those already in its influence.

The irony (and hopefully Achilles heel) of such a theology however is that it's actually at war with itself – by rejecting and fighting scientific knowledge, regressive theology is in a position of worshipping the creator while rejecting and fighting the creation. It is in conflict with the very world it claims is divine.

At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps offering the greatest challenge to is counterpart, is “Progressive Theology”. This religious view of the world is built around the idea that understand of (the) God(s) is incomplete and one of the best ways of advancing it is through increasing our knowledge and understanding of “Creation”. In its engagement with the world it welcomes and absorbs breakthroughs in science as shedding further light on the world around us and consequently its creator.

"Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation."
(Tom Paine, The Age of Reason)

For atheists such as myself, progressive theology offers not just the best hope of challenging its regressive form, but also of bringing about an erosion of religious belief – as if theology is built upon the nature of the universe, and the universe is atheistic, then atheism will surely follow, to some degree or other. (Of course, if the universe is theistic, then we can at least look forward to more convincing arguments for theism).

Presenting theology and science as diametrically opposed, as Dawkins often seems to do, risks undermining the progressive strains of the former and thereby strengthening the regressive ones. An unnuanced approach to theology may well be an own goal.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Moral Dilemma



The Joker has wired two ferries up with explosives (that cannot be defused). He announces that in twenty minutes' time both will blow up - unless either of the ferries uses the supplied detonator to blow up the other, in which case the remaining ferry will be allowed to go free.

One ferry is full of civilians (including children). The other full of convicted criminals. They have no way of contacting each other or anyone else.

If anyone attempts to leave the ferry - both will be blown up immediately.

You're on the civilian ferry...

What do you do?

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Friday, August 01, 2008

A-T-H-E-I-S-M... find out what it means to them

(Look at that - you wait ages for a post and then three come along at once. They're like buses.)

There's been a bit of a debate (kicked off by the recent "Questions for atheists" meme) around the blogworld over what the term "atheist" actually denotes. John S. Wilkins of 'Evolving Thoughts' has a thought-provoking post outlining his own views on the matter - which manages to capture the distinction between positive and negative atheism (which seems to split people) quite well.

In summary, he states that:

I think there's a bit of a conundrum here for atheists. Either they have to make a positive claim and exclude agnostics and soi disant deists, or they have to accept they are defined by the religion du jour.

John thinks that atheists should go for the former - positively stating that there are no gods, as opposed to the more agnostic position of simply not accepting religious claims. I can't agree though: The absolutist claim he seems to be arguing for (as an agnostic himself) seems to me to be unsupportable - without some form of absolute knowledge it's impossible to dismiss deistic or more nebulous theistic claims about the nature of the universe. It may be that the evidence for the existence of a creator is incredibly weak, but that doesn't mean we can rule out the possibility altogether, merely that we have to pronounce it extremely unlikely - which seems to bring us closer to the second position.

And it's this position I find myself quite comfortable in: When I say that I'm an atheist, I don't intend to say anything more than that I've found religious arguments so far unconvincing (I am "non-theistic"). It is not so much a claim about the universe as a claim about how the universe appears to me now. I see no way (or need) to deny the possibility that at some point I'll encounter evidence that will change my mind.

Nor in my reading of people such as Dawkins or Hitchens do I see them as advancing much more than a similar position - neither completely rule out that possibility of God (in some form), they simply make the case that all arguments for God so far have been flawed.

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