Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Death of Religion

Before someone jumps on this post thinking "Religion is not dead!", I realise this. I'm not saying religion has died, or that it will ever cease to exist. What I think is happening to religion, is that it is fading out of relevance. The social relevance of all religions is dying, and in many places around the world it is already dead. People do not need to turn to religion to answer the 'big questions'. People do not need to turn to religion as a basis for morality.

Many religions constantly have to evolve to keep up with societal trends or else they face an extinction of irrelevance. Some try to stick to their old ways, like the subservience of women to men and homophobia, but these groups are more often than not shunned from modern society for being bigoted. The last nail in the coffin in my opinion is the idea that one must be a member of a particular religion to attain salvation (whatever that might mean in a particular religious tradition). Once this idea is abandoned by more and more members of religions, and all that is required is to live a good life, religion will die a slow death into irrelevance. If one can attain Nirvana, or get to heaven without following a religion, why follow it? If people can free up more time in the day to go about my business and to improve the world they live in rather than practice religion, they are likely to do so.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Christianity and Revolution

There is something that I would be interested to see happen around the world and here in New Zealand. I would like to see Christians mobilise and support the 99% movement. Most Christians I know are strongly supportive of helping the poor voluntarily, but most are also political conservatives and support parties that reinforce and grow the wealth inequality around the world (I'm looking at you National party voters, Republican voters, Tory voters etc.). If you are really supportive of making our planet a fairer, better place for all of its citizens, I implore you to join the revolution, and at the next election vote for a party that is serious about change. No more voting to make your comfortable life more comfortable, vote on behalf of the poor, needy and exploited.

There will be a revolution regardless, but we would like you there alongside us as we strive for a better world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Update on the Occupation

As threats of being arrested kept coming in our numbers slowly diminished and eventually the police outnumbered those inside the clocktower, so we marched with our friends that were supplying us with food and blocking the doors from the outside down to the permanent occupation site in Auckland central.

You can see me in the video during the protest.

Monday, October 17, 2011

University of Auckland Occupation Demands

Right now I am currently with a group of students staff and taxpayers occupying the Clocktower administration building at the university I attend (The university of Auckland).

We are in the process of finishing a meeting to formulate a list of demands from the university administration and government.

These are our current demands:

1. Unconditional Free Education
2. Sack McCutcheon and Walsh (Vice Chancellors of Auckland and Victoria Universities respectively) and restructure the university administration to be based around a public forum.
3. Remove trespass orders on Marcus and Wikitane.
4. Ask (not demand) for approval from the land owners, Ngati Whatua
5. Decisions on courses based on scholarly and social benefits, not on profitability.
6. Security guards employed for the safety of students, not for surveillance of students.
7.. That the university administration will by bound by the government to the facilitation with the TEU in November
8. That the university will work to revoke the Voluntary student membership bill.
9. That the government will fund student unions unconditionally.

Note: This is not the exact wording of the proposals, but just a summary of them.

You heard it here first!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Faith and Intuition

Many Christians laud faith as a virtue, and value intuition and gut feelings as confirmation of their beliefs. I reject all of this as unreliable, and it is my goal to elucidate why.

I will start by defining what I mean by faith, and then respond to some theistic uses of it. I accept the definition of faith in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." Hebrews 11:1. So the atheistic definition that 'faith is belief without evidence' is accurate to the definition found in Hebrews. If Christians wish to dispute this they should take it up with the New Testament canon and the anonymous author of the epistle, not with us.

When dialoguing with Christians, I am often scolded for not giving faith a chance and that I'm dogmatically accepting scientific naturalism. I would like to point out that I did give faith a chance, I was raised on faith. I consciously followed the Christian faith and bought into its conclusions for years. I read apologetics and debated online with atheists for about 4 years before jumping ship. I also do not dogmatically accept anything. If it became apparent that scientific naturalism was not producing intellectual progress or contributing to the wealth of knowledge that furthers the advancement of our species, I would abandon it just as I abandoned by former religion. The thing is though, that scientific naturalism is making progress, and we are constantly finding out more and more about the world we live in by scientific methods.

The other common thing that I hear from the Christians that I discuss/debate with is that they think faith is a path to knowledge. This is usually coupled with the two statements in the previous paragraph. When I have asked how faith is a path to knowledge, I am only ever met with distractions and diversions. I don't see the connection between faith as defined in Hebrews and knowledge. How can you learn something from having confidence in what you hope for, or from having assurance about what you don't see? In every aspect of my life I learn things by examining the world around me, or by listening, reading or doing things. I have never learned anything by believing something a priori, without evidence. In fact I contend that doing so is the antithesis of learning, and only takes away from potential knowledge, rather than contributing to it as my theist friends insist. On top of the dodging of this question, I have never received an acceptable answer when I ask what knowledge faith has given them. If as they say faith is an alternative path to knowledge than the rational methods I apply, then surely they could point to an example of knowledge that has been revealed by faith? It seems like a reasonable question to me.

When the issue of morality arises I am met constantly with the view that God instils moral values into our intuitions, or something akin to it. No amount of sociological, evolutionary or neuro-scientific reasoning seems to be able to convince them that intuitions are not reliable ways to know anything. Moral ideas are  largely the product of cultural conditioning, and many intuitions come from our evolutionary heritage and are explicable by natural, hormonal or neural means. We have learned so much about how our brain works and the natural world we live in, and as a result we can correct for errors in our cognition and intuition. Similarly, we can correct moral beliefs that are conditioned into us from cultural or evolutionary heritage. Pointing to moral intuition is not a cogent argument for the existence of God, as our moral intuitions are constantly changing as a result of cultural change. Our intuitions and gut feelings are useful tools in every day life, as we often can not afford the time to sit and think rationally about every decision we make, but we must also realise that they are often error-prone and sometimes flat out wrong. If you think God exists because you have a gut feeling that something exists out there it is my opinion that this is but another example of cognitive failure.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eternal Universe

"Saying the universe is eternal simply is saying that it has no beginning or end, not that it had a beginning an infinite time ago"
—Victor J. Stenger

This quote from Vic Stenger really highlights the failure to understand what the cosmological debate is really about. Mischaracterisations occur on both sides of the debate, from the common atheist quip: "Well who created God then?" to the theist criticism: "You can't have an infinite number of events".

First I will address what I find to be a misguided criticism of theism: "Who created God?". This line of argumentation really fails off the block, because it is a strawman. It doesn't address what theism actually claims, which is generally some sort of eternal uncreated being. By definition this is not a created being, so would not have been created by anything. A much better way to come at this in my opinion is to ask the theist to account for why they point to something undetectable supposedly outside the cosmos to explain the cosmos. What inductions have they drawn to justify an external non-physical explanation for physical phenomena?

The theist argument in this case essentially boils down to an argument from ignorance, they can't explain how the universe came into existence (which is begging the question anyway) so they resort to some generally undefined, mysterious explanation. There is no empirical data that points to this mystical source. Theists will protest that this isn't a god-of-the-gaps argument, but I contend that it is. In fact I contend that it is the ultimate god-of-the-gaps.

Regarding the infinite number of events criticism, I find it to be rather hollow and hypocritical. Any criticism of an eternal universe can be equally be applied to an eternal god. As Carl Sagan said:

In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course ask next where God comes from? And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed?
 Before anyone says it, I do not think that Carl Sagan is proffering the argument that I criticised at the beginning of this post. He seems to me just to be asking what the explanation for whatever god it is that is supposed to have created the universe. If that explanation is not based upon evidence, it is not an explanation at all, and the answer is either unknown, or unknowable. Once this is admitted, plausible scientific explanations for the existence of the universe are much more satisfactory, as they are confirmable by observation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Good Old-Fashioned Christian Hate

I can't remember how, but I managed to stumble upon a video on YouTube posted by drcraigvideos. The video contained a clip from a radio show/podcast by the Christian apologist Frank Turek talking about 'angry atheists' leaving hateful comments on William Lane Craig debate videos. He said something that made me want to leave a comment. He said that he looked at the comments "to see what names were called, or were attributed to Craig and what names were attributed to Hitchens, in other words ad hominen [sic (Yes, he pronounced it hominen)] attacks, insults if you will." I left a comment pointing out that insults and ad hominem attacks were not the same thing. See for yourself what I got in response from drcraigvideos.

I actually thought he was using it as an example, I should have realised from the "3rd option" that he was actually just straight up insulting me. So it seems that this evangelical Christian is just as bad as the trolls who post inflammatory comments on his channel. In fact it's rather ironic that this video was about inflammatory comments, I left a serious comment, was insulted in return, and when I explained my initial comment further, I was insulted again. In fact I think drcraigvideos is even worse than the trolls, because he's a filthy hypocrite.

Just to clarify, the comment I left that is pending approval in the picture was intended to be sarcastic.

EDIT: It seems I'm not alone in my experience with this deplorable character. See here and here for more details.

EDIT 2: I have now been blocked by drcraigvideos. He must be scared of legitimate, civil criticism. What a disingenuous tool.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fabricated Marcus Aurelius Quote

In June last year, I posted a quote that I was led to believe was from Marcus Aurelius Antonius (121-180 CE), after reading Meditations recently, I discovered that quote was no where to be found, and there are no other known writings of Marcus. I must correct my previous mistake.

The quote I posted was this one:
"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but...will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."
The closest thing to that in my copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is this:
"Now departure from the world of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist: because they would not involve you in any harm. If they do not exist, or if they have no care for humankind, then what is life to me in a world devoid of gods, or devoid of providence? But they do exist, and they do care for humankind: and they have put it absolutely in man's power to avoid falling into the true kinds of harm."
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.11
It seems to me like the former quote was fabricated based loosely on the latter, and I have not been able to track down the source of the forgery. Marcus Aurelius was NOT an atheist, the actual quote should show this quite clearly, though much of his philosophy was very practical, and for the most part disinterested in the supernatural.

EDIT: If anyone finds another translation that is closer to the quote I have decided is a fake, I'd like to know about it.

Theists Justifying Torture

A friend of mine is running an event this month where people have the opportunity to ask tough questions to Christians and get some free food. He asked me (being an atheist) to pose a few tough questions on the event page on facebook to prepare Christians for tough questions at the event. I put up 3 sample questions

1) If morality is absolute and defined by God; and the Bible is the word of (or inspired by, depending on your doctrinal orientation) God, then why does the Bible endorse views that are by and large considered to be immoral, if not inhuman?
2) How is it moral to condemn humans to infinite punishment (or torture, if you're that way inclined) for finite crimes?
3) How do you reconcile the biblical view of an original pair of human beings whose sin brought death and suffering to all their descendants with the findings of modern science?

To the first question, I provided two quotations from the Bible where it endorses rape, genocide and slavery most of the responses were fairly typical, ranging from “That’s out of context!” to claiming that Biblical slavery was actually really nice. Both of these responses are quite plainly absurd. Interestingly enough no one felt game enough to try and justify the rape and genocide from Numbers 31.

The third question attracted a legit fundie, who said things like “Nothing in modern science goes against the traditional, literal teachings from the Bible.” And “Evolution describes a possible history. Creation describes a possible history. Science does not support or disprove either one.” I responded fairly briefly to his smorgasbord of fallacies and mistruths, providing him with links to learn more about the subjects he obviously hasn’t the slightest clue about. Some of the other responses included misusing the ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, claiming it supports a literal Adam and Eve, when it does no such thing.

Where the real juicy moral dissonance came pouring in was the question about eternal torture. Here are some quotes from the responses.
“The offended one dictates the extent of punishment. Offending an infinite God requires an infinite punishment. Since humans are finite beings, except for their immortality, the punishment must take eternity, or else an infinite payment credited instead.”

“Without hell, then there is no proof of God's holiness, or mercy or love.” 
“Yes hell is a terrible and torturous place, but it is proof of just how important love, mercy and justice are to the God of the Bible”

“Those who are commanded or judged to go to hell and suffer, are those who chose not to do so[To love God], but instead of their own free will disobeyed instead.”

It amazes me that people have allowed this religious doctrine to poison their moral thought and their empathy for their fellow humans. What was going through their heads when the words “eternal torture” came up on the screen?

Here are some excerpts from my responses to them.

Isn't God supposed to be merciful? Not to mention omni-benevolent (though this is admittedly not from the Bible)? Yet you still think that in God's dishing out of eternal punishment/torture he is satisfying his merciful, just and benevolent natures?

What of the 'sin' of non-belief? What of a person who despite their trying, and at one point desire to believe in Christianity, simply cannot? Is it just at all to punish someone who can't bring themselves to believe that a God even exists? I am of course speaking of myself here, I was raised in the church, and became an atheist just before my 20th birthday, I just couldn't believe any more. Do you honestly believe that I deserve eternal torture for simply being honest to myself?

I care for my fellow human beings and that is exactly why I find the doctrine of hell repugnant. I do not 'love God' in fact I think that a being that thinks it right to torture his dissidents would not be deserving of love, but rather would only be deserving of loathing and contempt. I do not steal, cheat, lie, am not violent and I am very interested in social justice and helping the poor. Despite all this, because I care for the wellbeing of my fellow hominids, and care very much whether my beliefs are true, I will be tortured for eternity according to your belief system.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Atheism: The Null Hypothesis

I have heard it claimed recently by some theists that “Atheism is not the default position” and it puzzles me somewhat. When atheists talk about the default position what we are referring to is the scientific concept of the null hypothesis. A claim is made—in this case that a god exists— and the null hypothesis is to say that the claim is false. From Wikipedia: “The null hypothesis typically corresponds to a general or default position. For example, the null hypothesis might be that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena or that a potential treatment has no effect.” The null hypothesis is a negative statement, not a positive claim.

I have also seen many atheists try to ‘prove’ that god(s) do not exist. You cannot prove a null hypothesis. From Wikipedia: “It is important to understand that the null hypothesis can never be proven. A set of data can only reject a null hypothesis or fail to reject it.” The issue is widely misunderstood on both sides of the debate though, so it isn’t only atheists who are pushing the envelope too far. It has been claimed by theists that to be an atheist means you have to know everything. Again, this is false as atheism is the null hypothesis, and as atheists our position can merely be the data we have so far is not enough to reject the null hypothesis. Much to my dismay, one of favourite scientists Carl Sagan also seemed to misunderstand this. He once said: "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."

So let it be known, atheism is not a claim to omniscience, nor can it ever be proved. Atheism is rejecting the existence of gods, not a claim to knowledge of their non-existence. People on all sides of this debate would do well to learn this, as it would make the debate much more enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

False Analogies

It generally annoys me when I hear people making comparisons between Jesus and other mythical deities, because most of the time, they make false analogies. The most common ones are what people learned from movies like Zeitgeist (which is horrible), and they make bold claims like "The Jesus story was copied directly from pagan religions!" and "All of these gods (10s or 100s of them) were born on December 25th of a virgin and when they died rose 3 days later!"

My biggest gripe with these faux arguments is that there ARE legitimate comparisons to be made. There are quite a number of dying and rising gods in ancient religions. There are a number of mythical man-god figures who were said to have been fathered by gods. There are also other figures who are ascribed many of the same kinds of miracles that Jesus did. These are the comparisons that should be made, and are made by people who know what's what. It isn't a black and white issue and the stories are not identical. I really wish people would stop speaking out their ass and treating movies like Zeitgeist and Religious as scholarly sources.