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Religion: Respect? Ridicule!

Dealing with reality

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DEALING WITH REALITY:

AN EVALUATION OF THE CLAIMS OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF SYSTEMS AND A SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM IN EQUIPPING PEOPLE TO ADDRESS THE CORE DEMANDS OF BEING.

October 2005

Lunching with friends at the time of her husband’s retirement, Madame de Gaulle was asked about her desire for the future. ‘A penis’, she replied without hesitation. The awkward silence was broken by the former President, “My dear, I don’t think the English pronounce the word quite like that. It is ‘’apiness’.”[1]

Abstract

This paper evaluates the claims of religion and reason in providing comfort, intimacy, morality, meaning, and awe and wonderment. It is proposed that the attainment, sustenance and communalisation of happiness are best facilitated by a scientifically minded society as opposed to a religious society.

Religion and Science: Current Perceptions

“Religion is a human universal”, says Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, “In all human cultures, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that ritual can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods.”[2]

Humankind apparantly cannot bear very much reality; toss them make-believe and attended ritual instead and they’ll snap it up[3]:

Current ethnographical surveys indicate that some 81% of Americans believe in heaven, 70% in the devil and in hell, 78% believe in angels, and 90% in God.[4]

82% think Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God, as opposed to a spiritual leader like Mohammed or Buddha, 55% (83% among Evangelical Protestants) believe that every word of the Bible is literally accurate – that the events it describes actually happened; 67% believe that the entire Christmas story, including the Virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem, and the Wise Men from the East is historically accurate.[5]

61% accept the Genesis creation story as absolutely true, 60% the story of Noah’s Flood; 64% the story about Moses parting the Red Sea.[6]

A poll conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corporation[7], reveals that 34% of Americans believe in ghosts and an equal number in UFOs; 29% in astrology; 25% in reincarnation and 24% in witches.

A scientific disposition is scuppered by its questionable reputation for being just too difficult for some people. Says a distinguished literary scholar, John Carey, the Merton Professor of English at Oxford, “The annual hordes competing for places on arts courses in British universities, and the trickle of science applicants, testify to the abandonment of science among the young. Though most academics are wary of saying it straight out, the general consensus seems to be that arts courses are popular because they are easier, and that most arts students would simply not be up to the intellectual demands of a science course.”[8]

Science is perceived to be threatening. Children grow up in an environment of beliefs – both religious and superstitious – and by the time they are exposed to electrons and genes, to an expanding universe and to natural selection, they are firmly entrapped by the rubric of their formative years.

Comfort

In debating human happiness with Pinker and Martin Seligman, Fox Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, states “… various features of human nature would seem to make ‘lasting fulfilment’ elusive. To take a pretty fundamental example: Natural selection didn’t ‘design’ us to be lastingly fulfilled. An eternally happy animal would presumably sit around and bask in bliss, rather than do those useful things that anxiety and restlessness provoke it to do – find food and mates, cement alliances, stay vigilant against threats, etc. In other words, lasting contentment would seem to be a prescription for genetic oblivion, in which case genes highly conducive to it presumably wouldn’t have survived natural selection; happiness, it seems, is ‘designed’ to evaporate shortly after we attain it by reaching some goal. (Hence addictive behaviour-the repeated pursuit of repeatedly vanishing gratification.) And various features of human nature – rage, jealousy, etc. – would also seem to complicate the quest for bliss.” [9]

A benevolent God that created humans and then died and rose again so they may live eternally assuages the pain of human existence. But this, says Pinker[10], is not a legitimate adaptationist explanation, because it begs the question of why the mind should find comfort in beliefs that are false. Saying that something is so doesn’t make it so, and there’s no reason why it should be comforting to think it so, when we have reason to believe it is not so. Someone freezing to death can not be made warm by being told that it is warm; it is not comforting to believe a menacing predator is a bunny-rabbit when faced by an agitated lion. Metaphorically speaking, we are not returning to Eden – we might as well get used to the idea.

Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize winning American science writer, recalls this insight from a Caltech biologist, “One of the first things you learn in science is that how you want it to be doesn’t make any difference.”[11]

People are not generally this deluded and it begs the question why intelligent people would succumb to the absurdities of religion. It is said that Richard Feynman once remarked that science is a way of trying not to fool oneself.

Science is not on the whole going to console one if one loses a loved one, for instance.

Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, attempted to indicate why humanism does not work in light of tragedy, specifically the 2002 murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, or in life in general, in an article entitled “Parasites on religion.”[12]

He admits that his world-view has nothing to offer, though: “Not that I am after an explanation, for there is none. Nothing can be said to lessen the pain. Nothing can be said to explain why.”

Indeed. Nothing can be said. “So what is this vicar trying to say?”, asks Dawkins in his response.[13] “All that he seems to be offering is ‘a place to go so that we might light our candles'”.

“Well”, continues Dawkins, “if my beloved daughter had been brutally murdered, and some sanctimonious vicar tried to say that senseless tragedies like this are all part of God’s mysterious plan, I’d be tempted to tell him what to do with his stupid candle. And his cruel God. Isn’t it more consoling to believe that God doesn’t exist at all than that he is a callous monster?”

The fact that religion may console one doesn’t of course make it true. It’s a moot point whether one wishes to be consoled by a falsehood. Although science may not be able to console one in the particular case of a bereavement at the death bed of a loved one, it’s not at all clear that science can’t console one in other respects. So, for example, when one contemplates one’s own mortality, when one recognizes that one will not live forever and that nothingness follows at death, one should find great consolation in the feeling that as long as one lives one should occupy one’s mind as fully as possible in understanding why one was ever born in the first place.[14]

Certainly the scientific reality of death should bring closure more effectively than a baseless belief that the dead somehow continues to live in some nebulous state in some undefined nether land. The human desire to live forever is rooted in the terror of the nullity of death. It is inconceivable that someone will fight to remain alive, even when disease reduces that life to a mere existence of excruciating pain, when death will instantaneously introduce an everlasting life of peace, health and abundance.

The certain believe in Paradise is the motivation for suicide bombings. The firm believe in the Islamic tradition, Hadith 2687, promising 72 virgins, 80’000 servants and a monolithic abode of inconceivable babery and architectural spizzerinctum, is the sole motivation for young suicide bombers accepting the inerrant truth of Islam. The absurd folderol that death is not the end of human life, but rather the beginning of some supreme life, especially a life supersaturated with unbridled sex and gross opulence, lies at the very base of the pernicious bane, this pestilent destructive force, this grotesque parody of thought, this egregious abuse of intelligence that is religion.

The delusion of eternal life is reified in the mind of the Islamic believer to the extreme of suicide. Given the ferocity of the human instinct for survival, it is obvious that this belief in everlasting life after death is not universally accepted with like fervour among believers.

Everlasting happiness after death is a supreme religious fallacy, not in fact subscribed to by believers who claim comfort from the delusion. Such agnosy does not translate into comfort.

It was Feuerbach who said, “Religion is the dream of the human mind. But even in dreams we do not find ourselves in emptiness or in heaven, but on earth, in the realm of reality; we only see real things in the entrancing splendor of imagination and caprice, instead of in the simple daylight of reality and necessity.”[15]

Intimacy

It is generally claimed by religious leaders that religion brings communities together. Geneticist Dean Hamer argues this line in his Darwinian explanation of religion in his book “The God Gene”. Pinker notes that again it simply begs the question as to why.

“Why, if there is a subgoal in evolution to have people stand together to face off common enemies, would a belief in spirits, or a belief that ritual could change the future, be necessary to cement a community together? Why not just emotions like trust and loyalty and friendship and solidarity? There’s no a priori reason you would expect a belief in a soul or a ritual would be a solution to the problem of how you get a bunch of organisms to cooperate.”[16]

I remain unconvinced of religion’s ability to unite… here’s a little jewel from commedian Elmo Phillips, albeit banal, to illustrate my point: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and shouted, “Stop! don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well… are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God Or Baptist Church of The Lord?” He said, “Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

It is not so much moral concert that is spawned of religion as it is exclusivity and the arrogant deception that one’s own group is superior to other groups.

Forged in the crucible of inerrant ideology, religion favours the cubical of shibboleth values to the blanket of coexistence.

Science, on the other hand, has an uncanny ability to unite across cultural and ideological, and even religious, divides.

Morality

Religion has given humankind stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, Conquistador infant murders, fatwas, Papal decrees not to return Jewish babies to their parents for saving their souls, suicide bombers, gay-bashers, abortion-clinic gunmen… There is no credible argument to entrench religion as the custodian of ethics and morality.

Soup kitchens are run from church halls while President George W “Jesus-in-my-heart” Bush has ideological oblati reducing major parts of the Middle East to wasteland… And taking out children in the process of endowing Evangelical democracy upon the hapless Iraqi’s. Religion is not moral. Religion is not ethical. To claim morality for religion’s account is akin to stealing a million from a defenseless octogenarian and then giving a street urchin 10c towards a meal in demand for respect of one’s creed.

Mother Teresa leaves a legacy of abject poverty and unmanageable overpopulation in Kolkatta, by the dictates of an infallible Pope committed to the banning of birth control in the name of Christ, and is hailed as a saint?

Religion marches on unabated, leaving a crushed humanity in the wake of its morality: Beslan, Hai al-Amaal…

The extraordinary reports of survival and support in the wake of the South-East Asian tsunami of December 2004 entrenches the adamantine will to survive in our human making.

Angier[17] contends that in contemporary America, some 40 states are dealing with new or ongoing challenges to the teaching of evolution in the schools. Forty states – 90% of the states! According to a recent CBS poll, Angier continues, 55% of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form. Only 13% of Americans hold that humans evolved from ancestral species without divine intervention. Only 13%. The evidence that humans evolved from prehominid primates, and they from earlier mammals, and so on back to the first cell on earth some 3.8 billion years ago is incontrovertible, is based on a Himalayan chain’s worth of data.

Despite the fact that nothing in the universe is absolutely certain and that science dictates that nothing will ever be known with absolute certainty, one can attest with impunity that evolution is a proven and fundamental natural process underlining the primal relationship of all life. DNA and genetics are critical to this process and through mechanisms such as natural selection, it leads, over millions of years, mostly to the development of increasingly complex organisms. Evolution is supported by empirical results from a panoply of scientific disciplines – comparative anatomy, palaeontology, embryology, histology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, micro biology and geology. One can indeed speak of evolution as a fact without fear of contradiction.[18]

The evidence for divine intervention, however, is, to date, non-existent. Yet here we have people talking about creation and evolution as though they were discussing whether they prefer chocolate praline ice cream or rocky road, as though it were a matter of taste.

This is supremely unethical behaviour. An appreciation for the difference between evidence and opinion is a critical part of ethics.

Dawkins argues, “People certainly blame science for nuclear weapons and similar horrors. It’s been said before but needs to be said again: if you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so. The trick is to want the right things, then science will provide you with the most effective methods of achieving them.”[19]

Science offers the sole morality not of human making – natural selection, the survival of successful descendants. The very survival of humankind is a function of this morality. Nature sustains us humans, we who re-arrange and manipulate energy and matter warehoused by Nature for some 15 billion years already, in the simple demand for respect sufficient to enable it to sustain a bio-diverse milieu for the survival of our life form. This demand of Nature is in service of humankind, for the survival of humans, not for purposes of adulation – Nature will not be diverted by entreaty, supplication or forfeiture… by worship. Nature is fulfilled by the continuous yield to create and sustain life.

Said Feuerbach, “Whenever morality is based on theology, whenever right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established.”[20]

In a recent study, Gregory Paul[21] tested the hypothesis that religion is associated with lower rates of lethal violence, suicide, non-monogamous sexual activity and abortion, by comparing data from 18 developed democracies. He found “in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion… None of the strongly secularised, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction.”

The broad trend, argues George Monbiot[22], looks clear: “the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have… come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’.”[23]

Meaning

The dynamic of life is without meaning.

Says Dawkins: “… if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[24]

Scientific pronouncements on the dynamic of life are in stark contrast to religion’s arguments maintaining meaning by virtue of man’s unique place in the universe, capped by an extraordinary relationship with some divine supposition.

Carl Sagan once remarked on humankind, “… star stuff contemplating star stuff…”, and is quoted in A tribute to Carl Sagan, by Dan Lewandowski and John Stear[25], “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.”

Darwin put ephemeral life in its proper place by identifying humans as a mere motley of multiplex molecules. Religion, maintaining everlasting life for the virtuous after death, can not reconcile with this reality.

Chairman of the Creation Truth Foundation, G. Thomas Sharp, conceded recently that “if we lose Genesis as a legitimate scientific and historical explanation for man, then we lose the validity of Christianity. Period.”[26]

What vertex of religious hubris arrogates meaning and purpose for us hirsuite carbon sacks of inchoate compost and salty water? What arrant arrogance drives us to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that the Universe exists for us, that we are somehow immortal, created in the image of some ideogenous cosmic manipulator?

I am yet to be introduced to a religion that regards death as the end of life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end. The finite nature of human life, some seven hundred thousand hours of it, (should) focus humans on the precious nature of the random gift of life. We who are about to die are fortunate for we are the ones that have, against all odds, managed to live.

In deference to Ernest Becker, I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever one does on this planet has to be done in the lived certainty of the terror of origin, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic from the faultline of existence. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of vision, of fear, of pain, of sorrow, of joy, of passion.[27]

We should revel in the urgency of life’s transience. Meaning, such as there is, lurks in the celebration of the imperative of fugacity.

Awe and wonderment

Says Dawkins, “Far from science not being useful, my worry is that it is so useful as to overshadow and distract from its inspirational and cultural value. Usually even its sternest critics concede the usefulness of science, while completely missing the wonder. Science is often said to undermine our humanity, or destroy the mystery on which poetry is thought to thrive. Keats berated Newton for destroying the poetry of the rainbow.”[28]

Awe? And wonderment? God and religion are not only superfluous; God and religion are vexatious, pestilent. Consider the constructs of Shakespeare. The presence of a lover at dawn. The intimacy and commitment of a spouse. The colour of Matisse. The form of Picasso. The sombre clarity of Carravaggio. The mystic concrete of Le Corbusier. Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more“. Animation from Pixar. Frank Gehry’s deconstructive masses. The paradoxes, illusions and ambiguity of Maurits Escher. Al Pacino’s ebullitions. The sacrifices of Paul Morphy en route to an inevitable opposition check mate. The intellectual bravery of Richard Dawkins. The risible neurotic despair of Woody Allen. The plodding insight and laborious denouement of a (Chief Inspector) Endeavour (Pagan) Morse mystery. The contradictions in the character of Sherlock Holmes. One of those all too regular week-ends when everyone from the tea girl to the pilot just click in the Ferrari F1 team. A new writer. The way the waves pound the shore at Pringle Bay on the Cape south coast.

I loathe religion, yet awe and wonderment are with me every witting moment of my life. Awe does not demand belief when one reflects on the mystery of life; on the miraculous necessity of life. Awe does not demand belief when one experiences the beauty of life; the joys of life. What vertex of religious arrogance reserves joie de vivre for the coterie of the godsmacked?

Dawkins continues, “Einstein himself was openly ruled by an aesthetic scientific muse: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science”, he said. It’s hard to find a modern particle physicist who doesn’t own to some such aesthetic motivation. Typical is John Wheeler, one of the distinguished elder statesmen of American physics:

“… we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say each to the other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we all have been so blind for so long!'”[29]

Says physicist Heinz Pagels, “… The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.”[30]

The explorer spirit is conspicuously absent in the theist approach. Theists invoke a cosmic legislator/regulator, a magician, to fill any present void and to explain the mysteries about nature that may have scientists stumped at any particular time. The good doctor Hippocrates warned against this mindset, “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”

There is enormous danger in a meandering into metaphysics, in covering the challenge of evolving understanding with the theist tarpaulin of faith, for as science advances, so the magician retreats, eventually to be pushed off the edge of space and time altogether, and into redundancy.[31]

Says Wendy Kaminer, “Religion is about as intellectually challenging as the average self-help book. Like personal development literature, mass market books about spirituality and religion celebrate emotionalism and denigrate reason. They elevate the “truths” of myths and parables over empiricism. In its more authoritarian forms, religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility. Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it.”[32]

The efforts of giants such as Edwin Hubble, Édouard Lemaïtre, Arno Penzias, Robert Wilson, Werner Heisenberg, Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, with enormous dreams about the Cosmos and the quantum world, indicate without fail that the material universe lies open to the explorer; that no idea is unthinkable, no statement sacrosanct, no belief inviolate. The human appetite for wonder is beyond question. And science is singularly equipped to nourish it.

Awe management? No god need apply, the position is filled.

Conclusion

Stories, the building blocks of social construction, the narratives about experiences that are eventually donned in the mantle of truth, are dangerous delusions in service of enslaving belief systems. There is too much longanimity with nonsense. Irrationality must end.

All that mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans claimed by religion is nothing but mysterium delirare – simple old fashioned garden variety vanilla flavoured delirium. Created by fear and nourished by ignorance, clothed in the vestiges of fanatic deceit, worshiped by weakness, preserved by credulity; supported by custom and tyranny, god is no more than an incredible utilitarian conception – a bespoke chimera in service of psychedelic human experience: god is a cheap analgesic; a ready hallucinogenic… an ogre of quite stupendous obstinacy.

“Science”, Karl Popper once remarked, “should start with myth and the criticism of myth.”

It is not by prayer and humility that one causes things to go as one wishes, but by acquiring a knowledge of natural laws.[33] Energy and intellectual will-power is superior and preferable to ideological envy. A scientifically minded society bodes better for the future than a society based on superstition and quasi-knowledge, than a society rooted in false hope.[34]

Science is a self correcting process subjected to continuous peer reviews of theories with a high informative content, because such theories possess a high predictive power and are consequently highly testable, while belief systems promote specific non-negotiable absolutes.

Meaning, such as there is, is to be found in the domain of facts, not stories or oracles; in evidence, not opinion; in theory, not hypotheses; in reason, not belief; in science, not religion.

One may find promise of a saner society in this sanguine remark of Minette Marrin, “Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives… If there are any answers to life’s greatest questions, or if there are other questions that we should be asking instead, it is science that will provide them.”[35]

In a letter to the Bishop of Lincoln about the December 2004 Tsunami, Dawkins concludes, “Let’s get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.”[36]

This is the only ethical, the only moral thing to do about suffering and misery. This is the source of fellowship, compassion and eventual comfort. A scientific disposition, however imperfect, is the ultimate source of contentment… of happiness.


[1] Quoted in Robert Morley, Book of Bricks (1978), but probably applied to de Gaulle and ‘Tante Yvonne’ simply because they were a famous French couple. The same pronounciation is delivered as a joke in the movie version of Terence Frisby’s There’s A Girl in My Soup (1970) – by a French hotel manager welcoming a honeymoon couple. In The Diaries of Kenneth Williams (1983), the entry for 10 April 1966 has it as told by Michael Codron and involving Dorothy Macmillan who asks Mme de Gaulle if there is any desire she has for the future and the reply is, ‘Yes, a penis.’ (My reference: Nigel Rees, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Cassell & Co, London, 2001, p201.)[2] Accepting The Emperor’s New Clothes Award, presented at the annual meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin, October 29, 2004.[3] Compare Germaine Greer, Lord save us from pomp and ritual, The Independent, April 10, 2005.[4] The Gallup Poll, May 2-4, 2004, N=519 adults nationwide. MoE ± 5 (total sample).[5] Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Dec. 2-3, 2004. N=1,009 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults).[6] ABC News PrimeTime Poll. Feb. 6-10, 2004. N=1,011 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3. Fieldwork by ICR.

[7] Polling was conducted by telephone September 23-24, 2003, in the evenings. The sample is 900 registered voters nationwide with a margin of error of ±3 percentage points. Reported by Fox News, Friday, June 18, 2004.

[8] Quoted by Richard Dawkins, Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1 Television, November 12, 1996.

[9] Slate Magazine, October 15, 2002.

[10] Slate Magazine, ibid.

[11] Atheism and children, http://www.cfimetrony.org/

[12] Giles Fraser, Parasites on religion, The Guardian, Friday August 23, 2002.

[13] Richard Dawkins, Letter to the editor, The Guardian, Tuesday August 27, 2002.

[14] Cf. Richard Dawkins, The Guardian-Dillons Debate at the Westminster Central Hall in London featuring Dawkins and Pinker in an event chaired by Tim Radford, Science Editor of The Guardian, February 10, 1999.

[15] Ludwig Feuerbach, Preface to 1843 ed. of The Essence of Christianity, 1841.

[16] Ibid., October 29, 2004.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jurie van den Heever, Talle bewyse van evolusie, Die Burger (a Cape Town, South Africa, based daily), August 2, 2004.

[19] Ibid., November 12, 1996.

[20] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (1841), from James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief.

[21] Gregory S. Paul, Cross-national Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look, The Journal of Religion and Society, Volume 7, October 2005.

[22] George Monbiot, Better off without Him, The Guardian, October 11, 2005.

[23] Gregory S. Paul, Ibid.

[24] River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 1995.

[25] http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/carl-sagan-tribute.htm

[26] Lisa Anderson, Museum exhibits a creationist viewpoint, Chicago Tribune, August 7, 2005.

[27] Cf. The Denial of Death, 1973.

[28] Ibid., November 12, 1996.

[29] Ibid., November 12, 1996.

[30] Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985.

[31] Paul C. Davies, Physics and the Mind of God, The Templeton Prize Address, 1995.

[32] Wendy Kaminer, The Last Taboo, 1996.

[33] Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, Unwin, London, 1978, p519.

[34] Cf. the editorial, Kommentaar: Ontdekkings, Die Burger, January 17, 2005.

[35] Minette Marrin, Moralists merely wail, but science gives us answers, Sunday Times (London), January 9, 2005.

[36] Science saves, The Guardian, December 31, 2004.

Written by Nathan Bond

June 30, 2007 at 15:37

10 Responses

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  1. Thanks again C-T, good advice, as always. It actually does clarify matters for me.

    For a minute there I almost feared that the fucker might have a valid point for once.

    Shazee

    October 22, 2012 at 18:57

  2. Thanks again C-T, good advice, as usual. It does actually clarify the matter for me.

    Shaazee

    October 22, 2012 at 18:34

  3. Why there is something rather than nothing is an ontological question. Science may someday be able to answer it (or at least inform it) but at present we just don’t know. We don’t even properly know what it means to say of something that it exists. “Existence” is another one of those tricky philosophical ideas the meaning of which isn’t half as self-evident or clear-cut as we’d like to think. “God” certainly is not any kind of answer to the something-rather-than-nothing question either, and anyone claiming so had also better explain why and how there was “god” who pulled him-/herself from nothing so that s/he could then make something from the rest of all that nothing. Saying “supernatural” simply won’t cut it for two reasons. First, “supernatural”, whatever else it might be, is still something rather than nothing, and second, the realm of the “supernatural” has yet to be established coherently, usefully, and reliably.

    Three other points worth bearing in mind here: (1) The concept “nothing” is not monopolar; it only makes sense in relation to “something”, which should become clear from an objective appraisal of the very simple thought experiment of trying to imagine (or even describe) “nothing”. (2) Besides our intuitions (and we all know how wrong they can be), what actual convincing reason(s) do we have to suppose that “nothing” is somehow a preferred state to “something”? In other words, that “something” needs an explanation, rather than “nothing”? None at all; again, we really don’t know one way or the other. (3) If there was “nothing” rather than “something”, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about these ontological matters.

    In brief, “nothing” comes with as many profound difficulties as does “something”.

    The fact that we know of uncaused (or apparently uncaused) events in nature may well explain the origin of our universe. Present thinking is that the Big Bang was probably triggered by a random fluctuation in an ill-understood primordial quantum foam. When told of this, godiots either don’t bother to understand the ramifications, or they deny it outright, or they respond with something like, “Yeah, but what caused the quantum foam?” Once again, the question can only be fruitfully addressed once we agree on what exactly we mean by “cause”. Godiots have turned it into a fine art shifting the goalposts as needed on this matter.

    My advice? Get your opponent to give you a clear, unambiguous, testable definition of what s/he means when s/he says “cause”. If they even bother to provide something vaguely satisfactory in this vein, I’ll put a good sum of money on it that it’ll refer to some kind of ultimate, teleological, anthropocentric raison d’être — which of course carries less than fuck-all weight in what is actually a scientific question. What these people are really asking for is some preferably comforting narrative describing why things are the way they are so that they can have at least a little assurance that (1) their world and circumstances aren’t going to change radically any time soon, and (2) that their suffering and their insecurity aren’t just blindly futile and utterly pointless. Nathan’s essay above does a good job of disembowelling that second hope.

    Con-Tester

    October 22, 2012 at 17:55

  4. Thanks C-T, your comments does indeed clarify matters somewhat.

    The argument that has been thrown at me, is that it is illogical of me to reject god as a first cause out of hand (for logical reasons), but that I am unable to ultimately explain the empirical reality that we experience ( the universe does exist, after all).

    My adversary is not interested in any theories like the big bang or primal singularities, but would like me to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

    If it is true that some effects does not have, or need, a cause, might that explain the universe and the physical reality we experience around us, without recourse to a sky fairie?

    Shazee

    October 22, 2012 at 17:04

  5. Thanks Con-Tester. Your comment does address the issue of the “uncaused cause” (god)
    I understand that god as a first cause is a useless theory.
    I also understand that our understanding of causality is probably hopelessly inadequate, and that there may be effects that are genuinely uncaused.

    The argument that has been thrown at me is that the world and the universe does exist as an empirical fact, and that it is illogical of me to reject a first cause (god) as the cause of this fact (for logical reasons), but that I am unable to explain the fact that the universe does actually exist as a matter of fact.

    I am not talking about the big bang or primal singularities, or whatever theory either.
    I gues the argument that troubles me, and always has, is the old chestnut of why there is something rather than nothing.

    Please, don’t for a minute suspect that I even remotely believe that religion has the answer to this, or any question. I understand that the fact that there is something rather than nothing does not make a creator-god necessary or logical.

    Is it the simply that at some stage we will have to accept that the universe sprang into existence ex nihilo and without cause? And might we one day be able to prove this?

    Shhazee

    October 22, 2012 at 15:02

  6. It is of course blatantly self-contradictory to posit that everything has a cause and then violate that postulate by positing a primary uncaused cause. Theologians had to invent the distinction of “necessary” vs. “contingent” existence to paper over the gaping holes in this self-contradictory non-argument. Moreover, what reason(s) do we have to suppose that this first cause is “god”? None whatsoever. As Christopher Hitchens (approximately) put it, “Even if you do accept this [First Cause] argument, you still have all your work cut out for you in getting from there to a personal god.” (Emphasis added.)

    Next, the whole idea of causation is a philosophical can of seething maggots. Which of Aristotle’s Four Causes are we talking about? What does it really mean to say that “X causes Y”? Is it merely a statement that whenever we observe X to occur, Y (almost) inevitably follows? Or must we give X a measure of intentionality so that X exists to produce Y? Does this mean that the whole universe is teleological? How can we establish such intent or teleology on the part of X (or anything else) if X is otherwise inert? Or does “X causes Y” only apply in cases where a clear-cut, mechanistic view describes how X brings about Y, e.g. some of the momentum of a foot being transferred to a ball with an appropriate direction so that the ball lands in the goal? What then about causes that cannot be so easily described, e.g. quantum tunnelling or radioactive decay or virtual particles? What “cause” do we assign to these events that are to the best of our current knowledge entirely unpredictable and random (except in a sufficient aggregate where statistical laws can be used to describe matters)?

    More prosaically, there’s the rather obvious objection that our ideas about causality and causation are in the largest part empirically derived. That is, our ideas in this regard come ultimately from our experiences of the world we inhabit, which is just a minuscule fraction of the totality, and it is very hard, perhaps even impossible, to justify that our ideas about causality and causation must remain valid under much more extreme conditions. In particular, our very narrow experiences are confined to a tiny crumb of spacetime that is caught roughly midway between the very smallest and the very largest scales. In short, it is simply another leap of faith to suppose that our parochial understanding of “cause” is at all valid when it comes to making universes. At the same time, physicists are energetically working on the problem — see, e.g., the Penrose-Hawking Singularity Theorems and what they potentially mean for Big Bang cosmogony.

      
      
    

    Shazee if the above doesn’t address some of your thoughts, you’ll need to try and frame your thinking more clearly because I’m not entirely sure then what you’re driving at.

    Con-Tester

    October 22, 2012 at 09:09

  7. I have been accused if being a fundie a atheist because I will not accept an “uncaused cause” (god), but I am happy to accept an “uncaused effect” (the existence of the universe).

    I understand why I can accept the one, and not the other, but expressing it clearly and reasonably is another matter.

    Any ideas?

    Shazee

    October 21, 2012 at 20:50

  8. JS

    Ek meen jy is inderdaad reg.

    Nathan Bond

    October 8, 2008 at 18:50

  9. Ek dink die grootste fout wat jy in hierdie essay begaan, is om oor godsdiens te probeer skryf, maar die meeste van jou data op waarnemings oor Ahabramitiese godsdienste, spesifiek die Christendom, staaf.

    Johan Swarts

    October 8, 2008 at 18:13

  10. When I read all the things the clever guy’s have written, it seems to me, that when they read the Bible, they forget reality. If one only sees the stories, as far fetched and a fantacy, then one isn’t dealing with reality.

    Hans Matthysen

    April 28, 2008 at 22:56


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