A Celebration of Ignorance and Curiosity

I’ve written a guest post for a site called macrospective.net. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the better expressions of what I’m getting at came from no less auspicious a source than Lt. Commander Data. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Where Silence Has Lease”, Data put it this way: “The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom is ‘I do not know’.” My argument is not that the groups that have been on the receiving end of my more critical barbs should abandon their explanations and put their trust blindly in science or expert opinion. Rather, they should endeavor to learn about the process of scientific discovery and to uncover the reasons why it is reasonable to put stock in certain claims but not in others. Before I would encourage people to put their trust in science, I would encourage them to recognize the gaps in their knowledge. That is—for example—accepting that they don’t have the tools to say one way or the other whether evolution is the proper account of the origins and diversity of life.

Read more here: “A Celebration of Ignorance and Curiosity”. 

Stephen Fry on God, the Capricious Tyrant

Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to god, as a humanistic atheist, if he were to meet him/her/it. His answer was stupendous and I couldn’t agree more. It is probably worth clarifying that he is not giving reasons for not believing in a deity. Rather, he is giving reasons for believing that any agent that created the world is not the benevolent architect some religions chose to paint him/her/it as. By any ethical standard, that being is culpable for a staggering amount of brutality and suffering. It is a malevolent and petty despot: nothing more and nothing less. Arguments to the contrary are naive, disingenuous, and altogether nonsensical. That doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist – the reasons for doubt relate more to the stubborn lack of corroborating evidence and the ultimate superfluity of the concept as an explanatory mechanism. What it does mean is this: if the universe has  a creator, said being is a massive dick.

Anyway, watch the clip. It’s fantastic.

 

John Loftus’s recent book on the Outsider Test for Faith

I’d never heard of the Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) before today, though components of the idea had occurred to me in my numerous reflections on theology (e.g. that any individual’s particular religious belief is an accident of parentage and geography, that religious people often hold the peculiar position different religions are less credible than their own). Indeed, I suspect the same is true of most people who take a critical stance on religious belief. Anyway, Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the idea, as expressed by John W. Loftus in his book The Outsider Test of Faith. It is an extraordinarily simple idea, but also extremely powerful as an analytical tool for scrutinizing religious faith and subsequently reducing it to balanced skepticism (if equitably applied – admittedly a rather precarious stipulation, considering the disposition of many religious people).

Why Evolution Is True

I’ve finally finished reading theology, though I suspect I’ll dip into it now and again when my stomach feels strong enough. Now I can cleanse my brain by reading some heathen literature, and have just finished John Loftus’s book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is Really True (Prometheus, published March, 2013).  I recommend it to readers, particularly those who haven’t followed John’s scattered writings about this idea:

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I’ve written about the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) before, and you can read an early version of John’s idea here. It’s a simple idea, but one that nobody had formally proposed as a way to gauge whether one’s religious beliefs are “correct.” In this book, John present the theory in extenso and discusses (and rebuts) some of the criticisms offered by religionists like Alvin Plantinga.

As Thomas Henry Huxley remarked when hearing about Darwin’s On the Origin of…

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Religious Moderation vs. Religious Fanatisicm vs. Science

sistine-chapel-creation-of-adam

Over at io9, Mark Strauss has written a nice piece cataloging the brouhaha underway at Bryan College, a Christian school in Dayton, Tennessee. The dispute revolves around a change to the wording of the college charter. The previous version was plenty nonsensical, but apparently the board of trustees wanted to make their pro-hokum position a little more rigid. Consequently, a charter that once read:

“that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death;”

now carries the adendum:

“We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

Both phrases mean approximately the same thing, but the addition of the clarification concerning the historical veracity of Adam and Eve strikes a stricter bearing, eliminating all room for “Bible as metaphor” apologetics. As Strauss points out, the altered wording gets right to the heart of one of the primary hurdles preventing Christian fundamentalists from accepting biological evolution: if Adam and Eve are not the literal progenitors of all mankind, then there is no “original sin”, and – here is the critical point – if there is no original sin, there is no reason for God to send his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to learn carpentry and die for our sins. Of course, even in the absence of empirical contradictions, this story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s not the point. To hardcore believers, the Biblical creation story is a literal recounting of actual events. For them, the story of Adam and Eve is the linchpin their religious beliefs.

Strauss’ take on the whole affair is thoughtful and lucidly written. According to Strauss, the change in wording and subsequent schism can be partially traced to the rise of genomics. New tools have increased the resolution and fidelity of genetic research, allowing researchers to both ask and answer important questions about human ancestry. Unsurprisingly, the resulting accumulation of evidence argues strongly for a human ancestry that is ancient and shared. More to the point, it argues strongly against a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. A recent study(published last year) conservatively estimated the minimum population size needed to account for the genetic diversity of modern humans is 2,250. Consequently, a hypothetical two person gene pool would fail to account for modern human genetic diversity by several orders of magnitude.

Despite the historical depth and philosophical breadth of Strauss’ analysis, he does eventually stumble. Everything you’ve read thus far is more or less a recapitulation of his take on a microcosm of the modern struggle between the forces of religious moderation and religious fanaticism. Now we get to the meat of things – what I really wanted to address. About two thirds of the way through his piece, Strauss tries to make a point by juxtaposing the opinion of David Coppedge, a former NASA JPL employee and paragon of cognitive dissonance, and Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and general advocate for reason. Coppedge is cast in the role of the raving religious fanatic, Coyne in that of the strident and dismissive scientific purist. Strauss writes:

Coyne is several magnitudes more rational than Coppedge. Yet, the underlying sentiment of both these statements bother me, in that they suggest a false dichotomy between faith and science—the idea that you can believe in the Bible or you can believe in evolution, but you can’t believe in both.

I think otherwise. Ever since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species, many theologians have reconciled evolution and scripture in ways that are not only elegant but that, in my view, have inspired new ways of thinking that enhance the tenets of existing belief systems for the better.

This is a nice sentiment. Unfortunately, as far as biological evolution is concerned, faith and science are fundamentally irreconcilable. This is true no matter how loosely one chooses to interpret the Bible. The problem is deeper than any question about whether or not a growing mountain of evidence renders a literal interpretation of the Bible untenable. This is because the Bible indisputably paints humanity as the ultimate object of God’s design. Consequently, even the most diplomatic form of theistic evolution construes biological change as a more or less teleological, goal-oriented process. Here, a liberal interpretation of the Bible allows room for evolution, with the caveat that evolution occurs for the express purpose of creating man.

That is simply not how evolution works.

Evolution is a blind process. It has no endgame in mind. In fact, it has no mind. It is a process of extreme contingency, unfolding according to the aggregate effects of the day-to-day exigences of the struggle to survive and reproduce. A person who thinks that belief in the Bible can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution has, somewhere along the line, stumbled into a profound misunderstanding about the meaning of the former or the consequences of the latter.

Humans are not the pinnacle of creation or the end point of the evolutionary process. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the Bible teaches, irrespective of how one chooses to spin it. Certainly one can believe in the Bible, on one hand, and evolution on the other. But the two views are not amenable to philosophical reconciliation. To espouse both the Bible and evolution is to simultaneous hold explicitly contradictory viewpoints. People can (and frequently do) have conflicting views. Which is perplexing, but fine. Far better that one accepts reality with a sprinkling of superfluous superstition that rejects reality altogether.  That said, to argue that scripture can be reconciled with the science of evolution (or geology, physics, astronomy, cosmology, archaeology, and so forth) is to adopt a extremely fragile conciliatory stance. It might sound smart to the ears of polite and sophisticated society – it certainly appeals to the lowest common denominator – but wait until the real wind blows.

In the end, the Bryan College story can be boiled down to a themes relating of ideological conflict – the stubborn traditionalists railing against the forces of progress and discovery. On the surface, it is about the conflict that results from the sort of ideological intransigence that leads one to reject science in favor of ancient superstition. However, there is also something deeper here, and that is the conflict implicit in the attempt to build institutions of higher learning where education is bound by the dictates of religious dogma. Bertrand Russell once wrote that…

“It may be said that an academic institution fulfills its proper function to the extent that it fosters independent habits of mind and a spirit of inquiry free from the bias and prejudices of the moments. In so far as a university fails in this task it sinks to the level of indoctrination.”

Wisdom of the West, 1959

How can a school like Bryan College possibly succeed in this regard? At a school like Bryan, the bounds of inquiry are strictly set. By purportedly divine fiat, there are places one cannot go, things one cannot think. This is made clear in the university charter: think like us or go elsewhere. Better still, the very doctrine of Christianity (as espoused by fundamentalists) can be roughly translated into “agree with us or burn in hell”. Such a philosophy is inimical to the very purpose of higher education. It is nothing short of crude indoctrination – the work of intensely insular minds grasping for company. In that sense, the Bryan College affair isn’t about whether it is best to interpret the Bible literally or metaphorically in light of scientific evidence. It is about an endeavor that is, by its very nature, doomed to fail: building an edifice of higher learning with built in limits on what is okay to learn.


edit: Billy Bryan pointed out that the Adam and Eve language is not replacing the previous passage. Having confirmed this, I’ve edited the blog to reflect that.

A.C. Grayling on Humanism

Philosopher A.C. Grayling recently gave a talk on Humanism at The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies 2014 Convention. I noticed the video while perusing the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and thought it worth passing along. The talk is eloquent and the message both uplifting and enlightening.

 

Grayling addresses the question – frequently posed by theists – of how humans are to live fulfilling, ethical lives if there is no religion to tell them how to do so. The notion underlying this idea seems to be that religion is the means by which order has been imposed on anarchy. This line of thinking is common among the adherents of the various modern branches of ancient Levantine monotheism – namely fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Broadly summarized, Grayling’s answer is that there is no single way of behaving living a good and ethical life. To the extent that religion has anything to say about moral behavior, it does not have a monopoly on the topic.

Do we need god to be good?

For many people this is a subject that produces considerable consternation. God is the epicentre of most people’s moral philosophy. Priests and bishops are colloquially thought of as paragons o  righteousness. The notion that individuals can, through careful introspection and critical reflection, sculpt personalized systems of value is anathema. This type of thinking is a product of the vicissitudes of history and the nature of institutionalized power. Western society has been under the spell of Christian hegemony for centuries, including stretches during which religious authority dominated political discourse and actively silenced dissent. But the fact of the matter is that humans were living successful lives for thousands of years prior to the advent of modern religion. Of course, pinning down exactly when our hominid ancestors became more or less human is something of a mystery, and pinning down the moment of speciation in the parade of gradual change captured by any organism’s phylogeny is an arbitrary affair. Some argue that art is the harbinger of modern humanity. Under that rather conservative and capricious definition, humans have been around for 30,000 years or so. If that is so, then we have a stretch of at least 27,500 years during which our species not only survived, but actively flourished, in the absence of the moral dictates of Abrahamic scripture. Anatomically modern humans, however, have been around for around 200,000 years, during which time everyone seemed to get along just fine (in a very general sense) without Yahweh telling them what to do.

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Image of horse from Lascaux caves in France. Painted around 17,300 years ago.

Now, there is a compelling argument that says religion may have played a role in enforcing large-scale socio-political cooperation1,2. Rooted in the principles of evolutionary game theory, the basic notion is that in larger communities of distantly or entirely unrelated individuals, the costs of defecting from social contracts might have decreased in concert with a decrease in the positive incentives toward cooperation (reputation, inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruisum, indirect altruism etc.), increasing the likelihood of free-riders or cheaters. It is hypothesized that the specter of all-powerful, vengeful, omniscient deities played a role in enforcing cooperation in the absence of effective incentives toward cooperation (or equally effective disincentives toward defection). Widely accepted, the idea that ill-deeds never go unpunished might have played a role in stabilizing large, complex social systems.

This is the sort of thing I could see theists latching onto, arguing that – by virtue of its hypothetical merits with regard to the maintenance of social order – religious beliefs has demonstrated its value and paid its way. Such an argument is not unthinkable (I just thought it), but it is hardly justifiable. Even if religion played a role in facilitating social cohesion, it did so a great cost. If one takes the Old Testament as an example, then morality is vouchsafed by tyrannical, capricious, and petty3 god dispensing harsh punishments for petty infractions. Who, after all, wants to go back a system where people are stoned to death for not properly observing the Sabbath? Not I. Religious enforcement of social forms involves not only the fear of damnation according to the whims of an ever watchful eye, but severe real-world costs to those caught in the act of defecting. This latter item is probably the more important motivation for cooperation when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Additionally, the success of the modern monotheisms is, to a considerable extent, predicated upon their militancy. The fear of god maintains order within the group while the wrath of god eradicates those outside of it. The primary intrinsic merit that has secured Christianity’s supremacy as a putative moral authority in the West is its apparent willingness to annihilate opposing ideologies. This was true of Christianity before it was known as such. After all, the god of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites and Amalekites. Once Christianity had earned its modern moniker and Constantine had consecrated Christianity with the blessing and authority of the Roman state, the stage was set for centuries of slaughter. Take Charlemagne’s brutal response to the Saxon’s initial refusal to accept Christianity, for instance, or the Spanish conquest of the Inca and Aztec nations as another.

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Charlemagne (742–814) receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).

These, I think, are real problem with notion of religion as a source of moral authority. I don’t think they invalidate the hypothesis that religion played a role in ensuring cooperation in incipient nation-states (as I said, I find the idea compelling) but they do illustrate that religions role in said regard was not a moral one. However, I think the best reason to disregard religion as the wellspring of moral of enlightenment is the simple fact that there is no reason to believe religions are true. This is a realization the Abrahamic monotheisms steadfastly guard against in their insistent on blind faith and submission in and to the will of god. I won’t waste any space pointing out why I find the truth claims of religion so dubious. Fundamentalist believers never change their minds, regardless of the reasoning and evidence with which they are presented. This sort of intransigence is made manifest in Creation Museum, a subject Grayling touches on4.More malleable minds can consider the matter for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

And that, as Grayling so eloquently describes, is at the very heart of humanism. It is a philosophy that celebrates individuality and critical thought. To summarize Grayling, it says the best possible kind of life is that life carefully considered and freely chosen. It takes love, freedom, creativity, and respect for the dignity of all humans as its core values and allows individuals to elaborate from there. It is not a rigid code of dos and don’ts, but a general outlook that requires both courage and hard work.

Courage, in that many people stumble when they realize that there is no concrete, universally applicable, monolithic meaning to life. There are many. There is, in fact, one for every single person. Put plainly, that sounds like some crass hippy bullshit, but it happens to be true. Having been reared in a religious home, I personally had a difficult time transitioning out of theism. Letting go of that bastion of purported truth was difficult because, for me, it entailing giving in to a period of listlessness. There was no new foundation to jump on when I stepped away from the old because that foundation hadn’t been built yet.

In a way, it still isn’t.

That’s where the hard work comes in. Thinking for one’s self and coming to a personal understanding of what one finds valuable can be difficult. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

From Why Men Fight, 1916

It demands engagement with unfamiliar and challenging ideas. It is also a task without a firm end point. People build the meaning of their lives until they die. It is, for most, a work that is never truly finished. The trick is to revel in the work itself.

  1. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press
  2. Johnson, Dominic & Jesse Bering. 2006. Hand of god, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219-233
  3. Other than petty and capricious, what would you call someone so concerned with his personal image that he commands people in four different ways to show him respect? Then, for good measure, he says we probably shouldn’t kill each other either.
  4. Grayling calls the Creation Museum a “human rights crime”. As Jerry Coyne commented in his blog, the museum is certainly abominable, but I think calling it a human rights crime is a bit extreme. That said, I do think Ken Ham, the museum’s creator, is  not a particularly good person. One might counter that he is trying to do good – he is, with the best of intentions, trying to do what he thinks is right. Fair enough, but the same could be said for Adolf Hitler. Before someone carries that analogy to far, let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying Ken Ham is anywhere near as terrible a person as Hitler. Hitler was a real human rights criminal. If one could quantify evil, Hitler would be orders of magnitude worse than Ham. The point is that a person’s intentions do not necessarily redeem their actions. Ham’s work may be perfectly well intended, but its fruits have been unequivocally rotten.