We gets email!

So like I say I’m not having much luck finding humanisty stuff around here in Malaga. I did find a(nother) cool video by QualiaSoup which I think I’ll be blogging at some point, but here’s something a little closer to home. The Humanist Society at UoE regularly hold a prayer contest, which goes like this. The morning of the contest, a member of the society randomly generates a number, which goes into a sealed envelope. Noone else knows the number. Two other members of the society run the contest, getting people to choose a ‘god’ which could be anyone, and pray to this god for intervention whilst they roll the dice, trying to get as close as possible to the randomly generated, and unknown, number. Whoever wins, well then their God is obviously the one to pray to for divine intervention! Last year we also ran a parallel experiment using the wisdom of crowds phenomenon, where people had to guess the weight of a candle, the object being that none of the Gods were right, but the general guess of humanity was more or less on the money. Harmless, you might say.

Anyway so someone’s complained and I’m going to take their complaint apart piece by piece. I should mention that I haven’t actually sent this email back. You may call this two-faced but a response has already been sent from the society and I think it would be inappropriate to send another which probably says more or less the same thing but a bit more diplomatically. But if this person decides to read it here I’ll be happy to address any other complaints.

“okay.. this Wednesday at your freshers fair one of members decided to taunt the other religions at the fair by requesting four digit numbers and names of gods, then rolling a series of dice to prove that the peoples gods did not care.”

That’s not actually true, we don’t do this to taunt (in fact I don’t believe the members of the religious societies I know would even be bothered by it), there are indeed many other reasons why we do it. It demonstrates that the supernatural is difficult to quantify and measure, it makes people realise that there is more than one god out there on the market, it encourages people to question the world around them, it shows that if you’re going to make a claim about divine intervention, you should back it up with evidence. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates a sense of humour.

“This was a vague and frankly stupid attempt to taunt people of faith and to demonstrate your own faith as superior (and yes I mean faith in the same way that Richard Dawkins, the confessed atheist, has faith). It was
purely a random attempt to insult and aggravate and proved only that you were little, and did not understand your own cause.”

As I’ve said, we didn’t do this to taunt anyone. Humanists do not have faith. Please try to understand this, because it’s an argument that comes up time and time again. Faith is believing something without evidence. Humanism and atheism are not faith, they are simply a lack of belief in God (or that and more, in the case of humanism) since there is no evidence to demonstrate that there is one. There is no leap of faith involved. If we were to say “there definitely is no God”, then yes, that would be a faith position, because we couldn’t back that up with evidence, because you can’t prove the non-existence of an invisible being that seems determined not to be detected. But in the absense of evidence we maintain the neutral position of not believing until sufficient evidence is supplied. Google “Russell’s teapot” or “the invisible pink unicorn” for more information.

Yes, many of us are passionate about our lack of belief, but that is because we see the harm that religion often does to society and the way it affects the rational thinking of the population, as well as in some cases the public understanding of science, but this does not make it a faith position. Some even lean to the side that the evidence (such as the Problem of Evil), points to there not being a god, certainly not in the sense that the Abrahamic faiths tend to see it. But again, this is only going where the evidence takes us, there is no faith involved.

“As you claim to be humanist, a belief/devotion to the respect of humankind as a whole and one that accepts that people, even those of faith, should be approached with compassion, I would like to hear a public apology from your society for its members actions.”

I wonder if you actually heard any of our members directly insulting anyone else in the room? I was not present but it would be very out of character of any member of the society. What this experiment did was challenge an idea, the power of prayer, not an individual. Religion is an idea just like any other, it is not protected from criticism. We do not hold respect for any idea, not even our own, because if you can’t defend your ideas from criticism, then what’s the point in holding them in the first place? The only apology you will get is that we’re sorry you think independently-minded students need to be protected from our gentle questioning of an extraordinary claim such as the power of prayer.
“Should this not be forth-coming I shall label your society as obviously only intended to offend and shall report its actions to the student societies council (who ban societies based upon racist or discriminatory views) and the various humanist organisations across the UK and request that your society should be shut down.”

I fail to see how the experiment was discriminatory. Anyone who wished to take part was allowed to, and those who declined to (only 6 out of over a hundred) were not asked again. EUSA and the student societies council are well aware of our group and what we do, and I’m certain that any attempt to have the society shut down would result in failure. We comply with EUSA rules and enjoy the freedom of speech that being a member of a liberal democracy involves. The hypersensitivity of others is no reason to suppress freedom of speech.

Furthermore if you think this is sufficient justification to shut down a society, perhaps you should consider making a complaint about the majority of the religious societies, many of which explicitly state that anyone who doesn’t believe as they do will suffer for eternity. We do not take this seriously, although it is certainly much more offensive than what we were doing at the Fresher’s Fair.

“Before you ask.. I’m an agnostic (In the words of Old Harry’s Game an Atheist without courage in their conviction). However I have more respect for a Christian evangelist who believes he is trying to save my soul that an atheist who preaches just to taunt me because they believe they are right.”

Atheists who argue against religion do not do so because they believe they are right. They do it because they see the bad effects that holding religious belief can cause, some of which I have already mentioned. They do it simply to search for the truth, just as a scientist would publish a paper refuting the ideas of a well-respected theory. Ideas, as I have said, are not immune to criticism, they should invite it! I have little respect for someone who makes the claim that my soul is in danger, and then uses that claim to convince me of that same claim’s truth, without consideration for the evidence. If it held any sway with me then I would simply believe the faith which has the greatest penalty for disbelief. I would expect anyone to respect more someone who strives for the truth via science and evidence, than someone who gets their truth from an Iron Age text or a nice feeling in their stomach, for example. I also presume you would respect such a person more than someone who denies women their rights, or who discriminates against gay, lesbian and transsexual people, or who preaches to children that they are going to burn in hell unless they adopt a certain lifestyle?


5 Responses to We gets email!

  1. Marc Surtees says:

    Hi Mike,

    You wrote:
    “Humanists do not have faith. … Faith is believing something without evidence.”

    That is not a definition of faith that any religion would accept neither is it a definition that I accept. The Bible gives us good definitions of faith and they all mention some evidence. This evidence is not conclusive which is why faith is required.

    “Humanism and atheism are not faith, they are simply a lack of belief in God (or that and more, in the case of humanism) since there is no evidence to demonstrate that there is one.”

    But Mike you do have faith in human beings.

    And what is more as the athiest has no evidence for the non-existence of God (as this is logically impossible) then by your own definition you need faith to be an atheist.

  2. grammarking says:

    Hi Marc,

    I believe the Bible says something like “Faith is knowing what cannot be seen” (Hebrews 1:11 IIRC – actually I just checked that and it’s not, nevermind), but anyway that’s more or less consistent with my definition. You could argue that the evidence is in what cannot be seen but if it can’t be observed or measured in some way then it’s not really very good evidence. I wouldn’t call it evidence at all actually.

    Faith in human beings how? It’s the same word but it barely means the same thing. I know that on the whole people are good and act reasonably, from experience. When I meet a new person, I presume they will act in such a way. After I get to know a person I know how they will act and have pretty good evidence if they’re reliable and can trust them. If a person lets me down more often than they come through then it’s not the kind of person I want to associate with. All this is going by the evidence, there’s not a great deal of faith involved.

    But even if it is based partly on faith, it’s not that important. What do I have to lose? Maybe I’ll trust someone who turns out not to be so trustworthy, not a big deal. I don’t dedicate my whole life to worshipping God based on faith and neither do I let faith change my whole worldview. That’s a big load to be wagering on something that according to the Bible can’t be seen.

  3. grammarking says:

    Sorry, missed the last paragraph.

    I dealt with your assertion that the atheist needs faith too in the post itself. If we were saying ‘there definitely is no God’ then the burden of proof would lie with us and it would be a faith position. I know of no atheist who holds this position. Atheism is simply a lack of belief, not an active disbelief. I would go so far as to say God probably does not exist, due mainly to the problem of evil, but that’s by the evidence. We maintain a lack of belief until sufficient evidence is supplied.

  4. Alex Pryce says:

    His faith comment:
    I think I would substitute the word faith for trust. I trust that science will provide the answers, I do not have faith it will.

    The reason I use the word trust is because trust is something you develop based on previous positive and observable conditions. I trust that the sun will rise tomorrow as I have experienced it several thousand times. I do not need faith.

    His Agnostic comment:
    Agnostic is a position relating to knowledge (or lack of). You cannot strictly be JUST an agnostic on the subject of religious belief. I usually use the following four definitions, which I believe I have stolen from Dawkins:

    Gnostic Theist: I believe in god and I know he exists. ( I would assume that Marc, you fall into this category).

    Agnostic Theist: I believe in God, but I do not know for certainty that he exists, I cannot prove it, but I heavily believe he does.

    Gnostic Atheist: I do not believe in God and I KNOW for a fact eh doesn’t exist.

    Agnostic Atheist: I do not believe in God, but I cannot say he definitely doesn’t exist. I don’t know for a fact he isn’t real, I strongly believe he does not exist and live life accordingly.

    I think most people who call themselves Atheists fall into the last category, I think most Agnostics will aswell, but there is a certain stigma attached to the word atheist. I also think that those who associate with the word atheist rather than agnostic are more active.

    I could call myself either an Agnostic or an Atheist and both would be correct, but technically I am an Agnostic Atheist, I just relate to the Atheist part more.

    Great post as usual Mike! keep em coming.

  5. Tim Mills says:

    I think the first response to this e-mail should simply be that the guy needs to learn to laugh things off. It’s not a serious scientific poll, it’s just a bit of fun that expresses one aspect of our society’s identity.

    Lighten up.

    (Of course, the rest of the responses offered above are valuable too.)

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