Tackling superstition

July 2, 2009

Apologies it’s been so long, but I’m crazy busy working every day and don’t  have a lot of time. I spend a lot of my space on this blog bashing religion, but I should specify that I don’t think religion is the main problem. Religion is in turn fed by irrationality and superstition, I think weeding out this root cause could solve a lot of the problems we have today.

I spend a lot of time talking with the people at my new job, not least because a large proportion of them speak Spanish and I like to practice. One of my colleagues provided an example of such irrationality at work. She said that she took her flatmate to the bank machine to take out rent money, and after he withdrew the money, he folded the notes over, and a number handwritten on the outside note was the exact same number as the amount of money he’d withdrawn. “How do you explain that?” she said smugly.

My response was to ask her how many times she’d taken money out, folded it up and there was a different number written on the outside note, or how many times there hadn’t been any number written on the note. A statistically unlikely event will still happen if you repeat the situation an excessive number of times, and that doesn’t make it a coincidence, much less a supernatural event.

Dawkins goes through a similar idea in one or other of his books, which I’ll paraphrase here. A TV psychic looks into the camera and tells the audience to look at their watches and clocks, proudly declaring that someone’s will stop right at that second, and that they should call in. 5 minutes later, a few people are calling in, amazed that he was correct. I mean, what are the odds that my watch would just happen to stop right when he told me it would, that’s amazing!

Except that it’s not. If millions of people are watching and they’re each looking at several timepieces, the odds of one of them stopping aren’t all that huge. Next we have people saying “my watch didn’t stop just then, but I was speaking to my aunt in Canada and hers did stop just then, she’s across on the other side of the world and wasn’t even watching, that’s amazing!” Except it’s not. If we’re now including not only the millions of people who are watching but all their friends and relatives that aren’t, then the Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental (PETWHAC) just grew significantly, but conversely it seems more amazing that a watch belonging to someone who wasn’t even watching had stopped.

So, how do we tackle such basic superstition? Fortunately I think the education system can do a lot of the work for us.

I suggest we start with a basic education in statistics and probability. I’m not hot at all on statistics but I have the basics and it helps a lot. There’s a lot of logic that goes along with it too which often isn’t emphasised. For example, just because there are two possibilities, doesn’t mean that they are equally likely. Most mathematical problems used to teach probability involve 10 different coloured balls in a bag pulled at random, but this is only useful for illustrating equally likely outcomes. There isn’t, as some apologists seem to think, a 50/50 chance that God exists, just because he either does or he doesn’t. A building either stays up or falls down, that does not mean that there’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll fall down at any given moment.

A knowledge of the scientific method would also go down well. My friend wouldn’t have made her silly mistake if she’d known about recall and confirmation bias (she only remembered the time there was a number, and not the hundreds of times there wasn’t), both of which need to be accounted for when we’re practicing science. Put Philosophy of Science on the school science syllabus! This will also make sure everyone knows why clinically controlled trials are essential in proving the efficacy of a treatment, why randomization, blinding and placebo controls are important, and hopefully get rid of people’s faith in unproven alternative medicines. Win/win.

Last but not least, we need to foster an environment of critical thinking. I took a Critical Thinking class at school. It was terrible. We got a history teacher who barely knew the first thing about the subject for a single session a week for 40 minutes, and all he did was teach us what a non-sequitor was (which I could’ve figured out from my Latin class) every week, and we’d mess around for the rest of it. If that was taught properly, that would’ve been the most valuble class I could have taken. But then I suppose Catholic schools aren’t too keen on having rational critically thinking students, are they? Fortunately I’m happy to hear that Critical Thinking will be going on the GCSE syllabus.

As a final thought, remember that dwindling church attendance numbers are not in themselves good news, since lots of these people are losing faith in organised religion simply to go into New Age bollocks or become superstitious and just believe in ‘something’. We need to tackle the root cause, not just one of it’s branching weeds.


April 5, 2009

Last night the Humanists went to watch Religulous, Bill Maher’s documentary about religious belief. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s the trailer:

We all thoroughly enjoyed it and it was very funny. Actually a lot of the laughs weren’t even at the expense of religious belief. So for example when some truckers in a chapel put their hands on Bill to pray for him when he was leaving, he walked away and said “Hey! Where’s my wallet?”, and after a conversation about hallucination, he told the cannabis-worshipping Dutch guy that his hair was on fire, and he shat himself. Brilliant. Some of the  best parts were when someone said something stupid or ironic and he just sat in silence, like in the trailer where the senator for Arkansas says “well, you don’t need to take an IQ test to get into Congress”, or when Ken Ham said “Well, he is God. Are you God?” as if he’d won some big point, and Bill just shook his head and quietly said no.

Now I’ve heard a lot of people saying that it was biased, that it only dealt with the craziest beliefs, that it didn’t poke fun at atheists too (‘Schindler’s List’ didn’t show the Nazi side of the story either, so what?), and I agree! The whole thing was slanted against religious belief, it was obviously edited to make the people he was interviewing look more stupid, but it’s a comedy documentary about how ridiculous religious belief is! It’s kind of in the title! Besides, you can’t deny that some of the things those people said, no matter how they were edited or what context they were in, were ridiculously stupid. Things like “I’m gonna go up to heaven and come back on a white horse!”, or ‘No, it wasn’t in here, Mohammed kept the winged horse outside in the courtyard!’, or that the Messiah was going to come, raise people on the Mount of Olives from the dead, hop over a wall and go through the Golden Gates. WTF?!

Anyone out there, especially theists, I encourage you to go and see it. Maybe it’ll show you a glimpse of how ridiculous some of your beliefs seem to people on the other side of the fence, people who don’t just make some of their beliefs immune to scrutiny or evidence, just because it comes under the label of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. Maybe you can laugh when he pokes fun at a different religion, but remember that they’ll be doing the same thing to you too.

At one point Bill seemed to be making the point that lots of religious people will happily laugh at beliefs like Mormonism and Scientology saying they’re stupid, but they need to take a look in the mirror! Compared to the daftness of their own religious beliefs, Mormonism and Scientology are only a tiny bit more stupid. I sketched a quick chart, hopefully it’ll come out ok.


(You may ask why I don’t think Islam is as stupid as the other Abrahamic religions. Well this isn’t exactly to scale, I think it’s less less stupid than Scientology is more stupid [if you can follow that], but at least we are more certain that Muhammed existed than we are Jesus did.)

So yeah, go see it.

The religion of Einstein

July 15, 2008

I have often heard it said that even Einstein, one of the fathers of modern science, was himself religious in spite of his vast scientific knowledge. This is often used by religious campaigners as some sort of proof that science leads to religious belief. I think what someone says should be taken on its own merits rather than the merits of who says it, but nevertheless this point could do with putting down. Now you may know that I’ve recently been reading “The Portable Atheist” in what little spare time I have, and one particular section has me enthralled. It’s a selection of writings on religion by Albert Einstein, mostly in letters either to friends or in reply to people who ask his opinion. In any case I intend to try and address this question of whether Einstein was ‘religious’ or not.

At first glance, you could be excused for saying immediately that there’s no doubt Einstein was not religious. The first exctract is from a letter dated March 24th, 1954:

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

This seems clear, but the use of the word “personal” God, muddies the water a little. What many people claim is that he was a Pantheist, in that he saw Spinoza’s God in nature and the universe.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings”

Now the issue is muddied further because Einstein uses the word religious in odd ways. The word “spiritual” or “awe” would probably be better placed in the following:

“The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious.”

“To know that what is inpenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling… that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men”

So why is the word religion used here? It’s daft. Dictionary.com defines the word religious as:

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

Each of these definitions make certain to include the elements of both belief and practice. As far as I can tell, Einstein’s religion concerns no practice, no ritual observance, and only a belief which has more to do with the laws of nature (a scientific belief) than with any kind of God. Fortunately he clears the issue up a little in this next readng, from a letter in 1954 or 55:

“I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything else that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

Again he insists on using the word religious even though he says almost as clearly as you can that he ascribes no sort of consciousness to this thing he calls Nature. He is genuinely just an admirer of the universe and of science. We would not call that religious today. This is merely the kind of agnosticism that leans towards atheism, in that even if some kind of superior spirit exists, it doesn’t matter because it wouldn’t concern itself with the fates and actions of human beings. As Hitchens says in his introduction, “Einstein always insisted that the miraculous thing about the natural order was that there were no miracles, and that it operated according to astonishing regularities.”

In a way, Einsteins beliefs as I’m interpreting them from his writings are fairly similar to my own. I’ve often said whilst debating online that I have no problem with the idea that there was a First Cause that we may as well call God. But the odds of this God still existing, being a conscious ‘anthropomorphic’ entity, being able to control the universe as it wishes (indeed our experience tells us that the universe works according to strict principles than by the whims of a superiour being), having intended to create in the most roundabout way possible a race of beings out in the sticks of the universe, giving a damn about our planet or the living things on it (least of all specifically humans over all the others), and coincidentally being one of the same anthropomorphic Gods that human beings have created out of the mystery of the unknown world and universe are so astronomically small that you may as well live your life as though no God exists.

Dawkins and Holloway

April 2, 2008

Last night some of us at the Humanist Society went to an event at the Edinburgh Science Festival, where Richard Dawkins and Richard Holloway sat and had a conversation with each other about God, Religion and Spirituality, at George Square Lecture Theatre here at Edinburgh University. It was a great event, and afterwards Richard Dawkins signed my copy of Unweaving the Rainbow.

Anyway it was really interesting because they didn’t really disagree on anything. The event was all filmed, so I’m sure you’ll be able to see it soon enough, either on YouTube, RichardDawkins.net, or at the Edinburgh Science Festival website.

What I want to discuss mostly here is Richard Holloway’s views about God and religion. If you don’t know much about him, he was formerly the Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, but he must be the most liberal Christian you’ll ever meet. The funny thing is, he doesn’t actually believe what the Bible says, he doesn’t believe God exists, or in the virgin birth, or that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, the Son of God. What he does believe is that Jesus was “an extraordinary man”, by which I assume he means a great teacher, with huge moral authority, and that the Church does a lot of good. Indeed Richard Dawkins then compared Jesus with other moral figures of our day such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Gandhi, but we don’t claim there is anything supernatural about these people. In short, as much as I don’t like labelling people, in this case it is useful, and I would describe Richard Holloway as an agnostic/pantheist.

The two men spent some time discussing the Bible stories as “beautiful myths” that can teach us a lot, whether or not they are true. Dawkins correctly noted that you could say exactly the same about the aboriginal myths about the Dreamtime, or Polynesian myths, or any other set of myths in the world, and yet Holloway specifically chooses the Christian myths, what’s that about? And furthermore, he picks and chooses which parts of the myth are useful for teaching morals, it’s not the myth itself which tells us what is moral, we put our own subjective judgement on it and decide for ourselves. So why bother with the myth?! Why not just jump straight to the morals?

So in what sense is Richard Holloway a Christian? I would say he’s not at all because he doesn’t believe in God or what I call “the mythical Jesus” (as opposed to the historical Jesus), but he defends his position saying that he still calls himself a Christian because he still associates himself with the community that has had such an influence on his life, and because he still sees the good work that the church does and the good moral teachings of the church. But then if I was living at home, I could say that as well, and it doesn’t make me a Christian. A question I wanted to ask would have gone like this: Just as there are good points about the Christian religion, so there are also very negative points. How can you justify to yourself continuing to associate yourself with a religion which is misgynistic, homophobic, and continues to condemn people to death in AIDS-ridden Africa through its condemnation of contraceptive use? Admittedly most of that is the work of the Catholics, but it gives Christianity as a whole a bad name.

I suspect the answer would have incorporated the facts that he thinks religion does more good than it does bad, and that the church is gradually changing. But I can’t help thinking that there is no good act that a Christian can do that an atheist cannot also do, but someone’s religious beliefs can make them cause a lot of damage, which an atheist would not do.

Anyway, a great event, look out for the video.