Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 07:14 AM - Not TFTDI haven't seen too many stories so far about wicked, po-faced bureaucrats trying to spoil the fun for everybody this Christmas. So I thought I'd get in first this year and officially start The Campaign to Cancel Christmas. I invite all atheists, secularists and council officials who are politically correct gone mad, to join me in this noble cause.
The aims of the campaign are simple: to rename Christmas to "Mid-winter, secular, non-culturally affiliated, over commercialised, stuff your face and booze up festival." (The booze being optional for those of a particular cultural affiliation whose beliefs we totally respect.)
All mention of God, Jesus, Merry Gentlemen, or "Three Kings of Orient are", will be banned. Carol singers, especially those doing it for charity, will be arrested and held incommunicado throughout the season. Particular attention will be paid to Salvation Army brass bands, who will be locked in a room with "The Ace of Spades" being played at full volume 24 hours a day. Angels must be replaced by a Christmas fairy stuck on top of the tree instead. Anyone caught complaining about the "true meaning of Christmas" will be forced to live out in the cold with no log fire or glass of brandy.
Under no circumstances will Father Christmas be permitted. Children are to be told about the non-gender specific, non-overweight, age neutral, magical present giver. The notion of "good little boys and girls" and "bad little boys and girls" should not be raised. This can cause intense psychological trauma and is evidence of poor parenting skills. Those responsible will be forced to take part in council run classes on the Emotional Development of Junior Citizens.
Going irresponsibly into debt on all credit cards will be compulsory from now on. The economy needs your spending and the banks need your home. You will simply be performing your patriotic duty.
Merry "Mid-winter, secular, non-culturally affiliated, over commercialised, stuff your face and (optional) booze up festival" everyone!
It's Armistice Day, when we remember the dead of two world wars and those who continue to die in the service of their country in Afghanistan. What is the long term solution to this war against religious fanatics?
Should we discourage the feudal allegiances and corruption of the Afghan government?
Should we work towards the long term goal of a stable, liberal democracy in Afghanistan?
Should we close down the madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan that indoctrinate children with hatred?
Should we seek to educate Afghan children, including Afghan girls, about the benefits of a secular society?
Should we ridicule the mullahs who preach luxury in the next life above improvements in this one?
Should we shout from the rooftops, "Religious faith is a vice, it is the tool that makes the suicide bomber possible"?
No, of course not, for then we would have to question our own religious schools and the culpability of my own faith in lending respectability to unprovable assertions.
We humans are totally incapable of building a peaceful society. We must pray, pray to the Invisible Magic Friend to make everything better.
Happy Interfaith Week everyone! Throughout this week, important faith leaders such as myself, will be discussing, yet again, how to stop faiths hating one another. There'll be conferences and meetings, with buffet lunches and, for some faiths, the odd glass of wine. All paid for by you the tax payer. Thank you.
Not hating other religions is a central part of Sikhism. It was because all the other religions hated one another that we had to start a new religion in the first place. One of our Gurus even included some of the nice bits of Hindu and Muslim scriptures in our own, even holier, writings. You don't get much more tolerant and not other-religion-hating than that.
It is particularly important, in this week when we celebrate the demise of the Berlin wall, that we also destroy barriers between different faiths. Religions have been killing each other for thousands of years, but I think there's a good chance that we'll work out our differences this week. Unlike communism, we won't have to destroy the dogma to destroy the barrier.
I wasn't there when the Berlin Wall fell. I wasn't sitting on the wall or walloping it with a hammer, but today I join everyone to celebrate the fall of that great symbol against freedom.
Christianity has always been a great defender of freedom. That's why we organised the downfall of communism. From the day the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the only allowed religion, right through the Crusades and the Reformation, Christians have been famous for promoting freedom. Even today, my own church promotes freedom of conscience by being the official state religion and not allowing a Catholic to sit on the throne.
But what has Berlin done with it's freedom? It's gone all capitalist, with people selling things and other people buying things. It's disgusting, vulgar materialism. Yes, I know, I know, we must generate wealth and all that, but it's still disgusting and vulgar. They should be using their freedom to do things that I approve of, like quoting famous 19th century Catholics for example.
They even sell bits of that famous wall in the mini bar in posh Berlin hotels. It's cheap, tacky, tawdry commercialism. So I bought a bit from the posh hotel that I happened to be staying in and then left it lingering at the bottom of a drawer somewhere.
Monday, 9 November, 2009, 06:38 AM - ClemmiesI have to say it has been a very poor month for platitudinousness. Many of the posts of late have been thoroughly unobjectionable. Quite a few have bordered on being reasonable and a couple have even been entirely agreeable. I can only hope and pray that the BBC'S Department of Holiness puts its foot down on this at once. It strikes me as being decidely un-British for clergy to go around making sense. I might even have considered not awarding a Clemmie at all this month, were it not for one star performer who has restored my faith.
Valiant efforts were made by Clifford Longley, a distinguished Catholic gentleman who talks a lot about religion. Clifford found it necessary to look up Slavery and torture in his Big Book of Magic Stuff to figure out whether they were a bad idea or not. Clifford also managed to pick up points by being the umpteenth person to tell us about the holy bones of Sant Tayrez of Lizyew. So commendations to Clifford for at least trying.
There were a couple of others who I thought performed reasonably well, but sadly didn't capture the popular imagination and scored low on the platitudinometer. I can only put this down to my poor summary of their splendid efforts. Oliver McTernan deserves some recognition for pointing out that the Catholic Church invented the idea that decisions are best taken locally. At times the Catholic Church seems so decentralised that it's very hard to figure out who's in charge.
The Chief Rabbit, now Lord Sacks of Aldgate, was extremely fortunate in having a major natural disaster to equate to his talk about a Jewish festival that he was going to give anyway. Bit of luck there, Lord Rabbit!
But there can be absolutely no doubt who this month's winner is. With a thoroughly respectable platitudinometer rating of 4.4, it is my pleasure to award this month's Clemmie to the Gargantuanly Reverend James Jones, Lord Bishop of Liverpool and Bishop of Prisons. It was Lord Bishop Jones who reminded us of the crucial role that religion played in solving the problems of Northern Ireland. For such a stunning disregard for history and such a complete reversal of religion's role in the province, I think I can safely say that this month's award is richly deserved. Well done Lord Bishop Jones, you've really shown the rest of them how it's done!
Sunday, 8 November, 2009, 10:04 AM - Not TFTDThe Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) seems to be becoming more popular. It's one of the preferred arguments of Oxbridge academics and not one that you're likely to face from your typical, rolling eyes, creationist.
It picks some abstract attribute, such as logic, scientific laws or morality and then asserts that these must be contingent on a rational creator, therefore that rational creator exists. In the case of Christian apologists, they then go off on some hair-brained argument to "prove" that only a triune God as worshipped by Christianity can possibly fit the bill. I'm going to ignore this latter part.
When I first heard this argument, I was so thrown by it that I couldn't think of a response. I wasn't thrown by its insightfulness, but rather that it was such a blatant non-sequitur that I thought I must be missing something so had better shut up. It threw me in exactly the same way as the Ontological Argument did (by definition God is perfect, existence is more perfect than non-existence, therefore God exists). It seemed to be sheer sophistry.
Before addressing the three most typical versions of TAG, I'd like to look at the argument itself. The first thing to note is that it is not an argument at all, it is a simple assertion that a rational God is the only possible explanation for something. There are no clearly defines premises. There is no chain of deductive reasoning. There is no examination of alternative conclusions.
The second thing to realise is that this is just a fancy dress version of the millennia old God Of the Gaps Argument (GOGA). GOGA used to be relatively simple, something like "Who makes earthquakes? Must be the Gods." Well, no, it's caused by tectonic plates shifting. "Who made the sun? Must be God." Well, no, actually the Sun is a condensed ball of hydrogen, where gravitational collapse is exactly balanced by the outward pressure of nuclear fusion in its core. "Who designed all the animals and plants? Must be God." Well, no actually, life evolved through natural selection.
You'd think that theists would start to see a pattern here, but no, they replay the same old mistakes every time. As the gaps have shrunk and God becomes ever more squeezed and diminished, they now resort to the God of Abstractions.
I'll dispense with the specific argument from morality first. By "morals" here, I don't mean morals in the sense that the Catholic Church almost invariably does: a euphemism for sex. I mean morals in the sense of that collection of actions and traits that we regard as "good", specifically good to humans, but we could throw in humans being good to animals as well.
Given that empathy, sympathy, charity and a sense of justice have been observed in other primates and even in dogs, it's clear that morality is not something unique to humans. We see behaviour analogous to human morality in even the lowliest of creatures. The self sacrifice of an ant defending its colony from attack is just as moral from an ant's perspective as any moral action we might take through instinct. We see love and care in even the most stereotypical creatures that are "red in tooth and claw". A lioness, for all her ferocity as a hunter, will do almost anything to protect her cubs, if she didn't, her species would not have survived.
We are a social species and like all social species must cooperate and help one another, just like the ant. We must look after our children, just like the lioness. All of this is essentially instinctive. They are instincts which have evolved and survived because they are necessary for our own survival. This does not make human morals any less important. Indeed, in some ways it enhances our perspective on ethics. Knowing that our tribal nature is evolved allows us to study it in other species and perhaps learn something about ourselves.
There is also a sense in which human morality is unique. Humans posses an unparalleled degree of foresight and planning. Someone who dives into a river to save a child from drowning knows full well the danger to themselves in a way that no other animal would. They can foresee the possibility of their own death yet may still choose to follow their instincts despite this. Understanding this conflict between instinct and rational thought provides new perspectives on ethics that no amount of theology ever could.
In short, morality is both better explained and better understood through evolution than through scripture.
The next specific assertion of TAG is that the laws of logic are divinely inspired. A specific example comes from Aristotelian logic: a statement cannot be both true and false. My first objection to this is simple: who says it's a law? It's not a law by divine diktat, it's not one of the ten commandments. In fact, logic would not seem to be one of Hebrew scripture's strong points. Logic is a purely human construct arrived at through inductive reasoning.
It's childishly simple to construct statements that have no obvious truth value. "This sentence is a lie," is the classic example. So this "law" is definitely not universal. Nor is it universally applicable in the physical world: an electron can be both spin up and spin down simultaneously, it doesn't have to be in one state or the other. Other statements do have a definite truth value. "Two is less than three," is a statement that is true because it is axiomatic of Number Theory. In this case the law of Aristotle is really the tautology of Aristotle.
So what distinguishes the sets of statements with and without a definite truth value? Aristotle's law only applies to those statements that we believe have two distinct and mutually exclusive outcomes. In other words we select the statements for which we believe Aristotle's law to be true and then apply it accordingly. This is not a sufficient answer however. We need to explain how it is that we arrive at this belief that there are a set of statements that can only have one of two truth values, and the fact is, we arrive at it inductively.
Our mental model of our environment recognises it as "true" that cups fall to the ground, and "false" that they float up into the sky. We deduce from millions of empirical observations, from the moment of our birth, that there are large classes of actions which preclude other alternatives. We're not the only ones who do so. Our friend the lioness recognises that if her prey is ahead of her it is not behind her. The way to obtain lunch is to move forward. We have the ability to abstract this property of the world and call it Aristotle's law.
"You cannot base the laws of deduction on purely inductive reasoning," counter the philosophers and they may be right, but as I've suggested above, Aristotle's law is not universal and as the example of the electron shows, we should be wary of applying it outside our normal experience.
The final example of TAG that I'd like to look at is the argument that the universe is orderly and that someone must have imposed that order upon it. Once again this can be dismissed on the basis that it's an unfounded assertion whose conclusion simply doesn't follow, but I'll go a little further.
There's no reason that I know of why every electron has to be identical. Yet this appears to be the case, so much so that it has quite profound implications - the periodic table would be impossible if it weren't true. There's no obvious reason why the universal gravitational constant, or Planck's constant should actually be "constant". Facts like these strongly suggest, so the argument goes, the imposition of a design.
Let's consider the case of a universe that is completely random. Forces come and go, they vary in strength over time. Such a universe would be chaotic and unpredictable. Or would it? The first thing to point out is that many of our most successful scientific theories are, at root, based on total randomness. Quantum Mechanics, Thermodynamics and Evolution are all based on randomness. Yet out of these apparently random behaviours, emerge statistical patterns that we label as "laws". The second law of thermodynamics, that the amount of energy available to do work always decreases, is one of the few laws of physics that can be deduced from first principles and it is entirely statistical in nature. The point here is that "randomness" does not necessarily lead to chaos.
Many of the "laws" of physics are thought to arise through symmetries in nature (in a way that I've explained here). This combination of geometry and statistics explains really rather a lot, but it doesn't explain everything. It doesn't explain identical electrons or physical constants. Yet we have no way of knowing whether these are inevitable because of the underlying geometry of nature. If the worst comes to the worst, we can resort to anthropic reasoning and posit the multiverse where all things are possible and we just happen to exist in one where our particular geometry causes the laws of nature to take the form that they do. The point is, it doesn't follow from the laws of nature that a supernatural intelligence must exist. You cannot conclude that there isn't a natural explanation.
In summary, TAG is simply an assertion. Its conclusion does not follow from its premise. In specific instances, morality is better explained by evolution, the laws of logic are really empirical conclusions and the order of the universe has alternative explanations that do not require a god of any kind.
[Edit - there's a truly superb critique of TAG available on the Freethought & Rationalism Archive]
I'd like to talk about war, but first let's just mention football and the late Bobby Robson. Now back to war. What do you think about during the Remembrance Day silence? I think about relatives killed or injured during the two world wars. I think about a tearful old woman who recalls the deaths of her brothers. I think of the rows upon rows of crosses in Flanders and the Somme.
Yet the killing goes on, as if we have learned nothing. Young people are still dying in battle. Army Chaplains and Mullahs are still blessing soldiers as they go out to fight the enemy. It's an abuse of the gift of memory from the Invisible Magic Friend, which is nearly as bad as rendering all those deaths meaningless by forgetting the reason for their sacrifice.
Scripture constantly tells us to "remember", although the overall message on killing others is a bit mixed. So remember those who have gone before so that we may change the present. After all it's always worked in the past.
The deaths of five service personnel at the hands of an Afghan policeman they were training, illustrates the limits of trust in fellow human beings. Few betrayals result in such devastating consequences, but we all face choices when we become involved with others. To help another might involve pain and sacrifice, while to stand back is to become cold and insular. We cannot be wholly afraid to help others but at the same time, while giving freely, we must be aware of the dangers. As Jesus said, Be as wise as serpents, as innocent as doves.
Thursday, 5 November, 2009, 08:34 AM - BrookRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
I can't help it, I'm in love with my computer. When you have the kind of hectic, busy lifestyle that I have, it's inevitable. I'm constantly being contacted by my fellow celebrity Christian writers about really important things that just can't be put off. It's all just work, work, work. Even in the midst of my bubble bath the other day, my rubber duck had to make way for my laptop. My daughter complains that all I do is twitter and email.
I tried once to just sit still in a chair, let my mind go blank, and not have any interesting thoughts at all. But how can someone with my feverish imagination and dazzling intellect possibly be expected to not have any thoughts? I solved several of the world's pressing problems while sitting still in that chair.
The monastic tradition teaches us that it really is possible to just sit still and think of nothing. As the Psalm says, "Be still, and get on with worshipping me. Oh yes, that's better. More, more!" So I'm going to pray to the Invisible Magic Friend to cure me of my computer addiction, right after I've sent off just a few really, really important emails.