Ray Comfort and The Way of the Master

October 7, 2009

I presume people will be familiar with Ray Comfort. He’s the guy with the Atheist Nightmare video which you must know. If not just type Atheist Nightmare into youtube, there’s lots of versions but the one that hasn’t been modified is the best one. Anyway I stumbled across this video today which I genuinely thought was a spoof. So here it is, and I’ll take apart a few of the things said within it. Sorry it’s a bit outdated.

So first of all we have the thing about atheists removing the part about the coke can, “missing the point of the illustration completely”. I fail to see how taking out the part about the coke can misses the point. I haven’t found the part about the coke can but I know how Comfort works, he takes something that is designed and compares it to something natural, indicating that it must be designed. He’s done it with the Mona Lisa, a painting in a cave, all kinds of stuff. That message about how bananas must have been designed for us came across clearly without the need for the stuff about the coke can. But that’s not important.

Next up is about how the atheists actually ended up helping Ray Comfort. Apparently on the day of release, Comfort’s book “You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think” went from number 69, 572, up to number 38 on it’s day of release. Meh, that’s kind of impressive but books always shoot up on their release days, they’re being released that day. After the kind of audience that were viewing the atheist nightmare vid, I suspect a fair few of those were atheists looking for more material to laugh at. But whatever. Next up it beats The God Delusion on Darwin Day. Comfort’s book came out in 2009, according to the inside cover which is on Amazon. The God Delusion came out 3 years earlier in 2006. This is not good evidence that more people are interested in Comfort’s opinions than Dawkins’, just that lots of people already had a copy of the God Delusion. That doesn’t really matter either.

Ray apologises for the atheist nightmare after it’s pointed out that bananas were bred by humans, but maintains that God gave ‘man’ the ability and knowledge to modify it. So God gave people this knowledge but chose to conceal it until people figured it out for themselves, or what? This is an act of humanity, God can’t take the credit for this one. But more than that, he’s missed the whole point of the criticism. The videos weren’t just showing that this example was wrong, but that he’s using a dodgy argument. Why does he just look at the banana when there’s the whole of creation out there? The coconut isn’t easy to eat at all, but supposedly God also designed that. Additionally, fruit evolved on this planet, often collaboratively with birds, for example, so that they’ll be eaten and their seeds will be spread, so it’s no suprise that they’re tasty, it’s in their own interest.

Now the video slips into weird casual sexism which is why I thought it was a spoof. It repeatedly refers to people as ‘man’, which is nothing new, but then says that “man did the same [modified through hybridisation] with wild cats, so that they are perfectly fit for his wife”. What the hell! Accompanied by an old sepia photograph this definitely gave the impression of women as sitting at home helpless, waiting for their big strong husbands to come back with a gift of a domesticated cat. The waaay outdated use of a singular, masculine pronoun to refer to the human race actually gave me the impression that Ray was talking about God at this point, which got a bit weird when he started talking about God’s car and God’s wife.

Then the vid takes a swipe at Dawkins using the Expelled film. When pushed to admit that Intelligent Design may have some kind of input into genetics and evolution, he said that it’s possible that a very intelligent being with superior technology may have designed a form of life, which is a possibility, and that it’s possible that there could be some kind of signature. Stein then goes on to claim in a voiceover (drowning out something else that Dawkins said) that Dawkins considers Intelligent Design a possibly legitimate pursuit. I notice he didn’t say that in the interview, else he would have clarified that there’s no evidence of that in the evolution of life on Earth. The implication is then that Dawkins just has a problem with the idea of God and is biased, when actually he even says in the clip that whoever created this new life would have had to have evolved by Darwinian means, because it couldn’t just spring from nothing! This isn’t a bias, this is a good argument! What’s the problem with stating a possibility, I mean we’re not all that far from creating life now! But instead of listening to what he actually say, the Way of the Master video hears a reference to an alien and giggles like a schoolgirl “ooh, he say alien, he stoopiid”, as if mentioning this possibility is as stupid as Ray’s banana argument. Wow.

What Comfort doesn’t seem to realise is that Dawkins’ objection to debating stupid creationists isn’t anything to do with money or fear that he’ll lose. He has stated repeatedly that he won’t do it because he doesn’t want to give creationism the honour of being put side by side with science.

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.

The Case for Christ

June 26, 2008

I promised a couple of weeks ago that as soon as I finished reading The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel, I’d post a full review. Well I’ve found a couple of reviews that are much more extensive than I could ever be bothered writing, so instead of writing a full review here, I’m just going to Book Coverlink to those, and pick out maybe a couple of things I took from it.

There’s one tiny thing that I did find a little convincing. I’ve already said how it’s pointless trying to compare evidence for the gospels with evidence for secular documents, because they deal with very different issues, but one thing that was repeatedly said was that if the gospels weren’t true and Jesus genuinely hadn’t risen from the dead, then the apostles and the early Christians wouldn’t have claimed so for the rest of their lives, leading them eventually to rather gruesome deaths at the hands of the Romans. This was a problem for me whilst reading; I could dismiss a lot of the other things, but this kind of stuck. So I’ve thought about it myself, I’ve been reading around a little bit, and I think I’m past it.

The review I linked to above has a section on this assertion (the first part of “The Circumstantial Evidence”, near the bottom, page 246), which makes the assertion that plenty of people have died for their faith in the past, Mormons and Muslims for example, which doesn’t prove that what they’re saying is true. This only partly answers my problem. The objection in the text is that although plenty of people have died for something they believe is true, none would die for something they know is false, which if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, the disciples would know, since they were the witnesses of it.

Book cover 2Since finishing this book I’ve started on ‘The Portable Atheist’, a collection of exerpts by various authors, put together by Christopher Hitchens. There are a number of chapters by or about David Hume, the famous Edinburgh philosopher, which half addresses this problem. Hume says that miracles are miracles because they go against the human experience, they’re not what we normally see. This amounts to as great a proof as any human experience can provide. Therefore, if there is human testimony which supports the occurrence of a miracle, you have to weigh that testimony against your own, subtract the difference of strength between them, and then you will naturally incline on the stronger side, albeit with a diminution of certainty.

He goes on to state that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” In simpler terms, is it more likely that the testimony come from someone who was deceived, or trying to deceive, or is it more likely that it’s true and the miracle took place? I think that in all cases I can think of, it’s more likely to be untrue.

Even the miracle of the sun at Fatima, where 70,000 people were reported to have seen the sun move and dive down towards the earth, can be explained using this logic, as Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow. Would it be more likely that these 70,000 people were deceived into thinking the sun moved, or that the rest of the world were deceived into thinking it didn’t move whilst it actually did? That the people wouldn’t have been burnt up by the sun? That the physical effects of the sun’s nearness would be felt by the whole planet and would likely still be measurable? (In reality apparently there is some inconsistency in the reports of the crowd; Wikipedia says that some saw it dive down whilst others saw it zigzag. There are also no photographs of the event, despite photographers and reporters being in the crowd.)

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.

Death and beyond

March 21, 2008

Today’s humanist society meeting was very interesting. We had a man with us who’d never been before, and he soon told us that he’d had a pretty bad time and that he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he’d been going to all different religious organisations, and now he was looking at humanism for answers. He asked some really good questions and brought up some issues that I want to discuss here a little. It’s going to be a brief one because I’m due in work fairly soon.

Anywho this man (let’s call him John for anonymity’s sake) was scared, quite frankly, by the humanist viewpoint that there’s nothing after death, it’s just oblivion. David, our rather blunt philosopher-in-residence, replied that there’s nothing you will experience that is oblivion because you won’t be there, so it’s not that bad.

Personally I gave my own slant on the issue, which I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here before. For me, although there is nothing physical or “spiritual” after death (Tim at the Friendly Humanist would probably not like me using the word ‘spiritual’ in this way, contributing to religion’s monopoly on it), you live on in people’s memories of you and the
legacy that you leave on the world and on people around you. You would hope that these memories and your influence would be a positive one, but maybe not.

The conversation took many twists and turns (including a hell of a lot about brain surgery, can’t imagine why), but somewhere along the way we got onto the topic of the meaning of life, or to quote exactly from John, “why am I here?” Again, humanists don’t agree on everything, but I’m sure a lot of them would agree with me that since there’s no creator, noone has sat down and made a purpose for each one of us to live, or given a reason for life more generally. So your reason for living can be whatever you think is important, and we agreed that “making people’s lives better”, as we put it, was a very good start. John was a healthcare worker so I’m sure he’s done this in many ways.

John asked if we thought it was necessary to have children in order to leave a positive legacy on the world, and each one of us replied with an emphatic ‘no’. Although in purely scientific circles the reason each one of us lives is because of a long line of predecessors, and so it could be argued that our purpose in life is to continue the species and to “live on” through them, personally I think it has less to do with the continuation of your DNA, and more to do with how you’ve influenced people, regardless of whether they’re of your bloodline or not (or to put it in Dennettite language, “less to do with genes and more with memes”).

I’m glad we had this discussion. It showed us that although the humanist worldview is perfectly capable of providing comfort and guidance to someone in quite a difficult position, so far organised humanism has found it difficult to replace the community feeling that religion benefits from. It’s my vision that in the future this will change.

To finish this off, I’d like to quote Richard Dawkins from the opening lines of his book Unweaving The Rainbow, which are very meaningful for me, and I’m sure a good number of other humanists feel the same way.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could be here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.”

I think I’ll leave it at that for today.


January 21, 2008

I sound like a lecturer, but before I start I’d like to remind anyone reading in Edinburgh that THIS WEDNESDAY 23rd January, the Edinburgh University Humanist Society will be showing the Richard Dawkins “Dawkumentary”, ‘The Root of all Evil?’, at 6pm in Room 3 of Appleton Tower, George Square. It will be followed by a group discussion on topics raised in the documentary.

Today I had a politics lecture on ideology in the British political system. It was rubbish, but it’s got me thinking about things only tenuously related, so that’s always good. Anyway the vast majority of socially liberal people are concerned about people’s rights and liberties: the right to free speech, freedom of assembly and things like that being the main ones, (although today someone started harrassing me with leaflets and stuff while I was eating my lunch in Teviot. I’d like people to care more about my right to eat in peace).

Another of the more highly esteemed basic rights is the freedom of religion, ie:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Now call me ultramodern, but I think this is a bit out of date. Ok, everyone generally accepts that this also includes the freedom to follow no religion (although it’d be nice to have it in writing one of these days), but I think that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought” and “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching” can sometimes be very slightly contradictory. Only a little bit, not completely.

How can you have freedom of thought if you’re not making informed choices? Anyone who doesn’t have the whole story will naturally believe what they’ve been told. I think you know where I’m going with this, bloggers. The right “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching”, which has been cemented into International Law, basically gives any religious nutcase (no offence) justification to set up a faith school and brainwash kids that are too young to know any different with nonsense. I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows that we can explain the world without resorting to a fairy tale would not choose to believe religion, not unless it had been instilled in them from a young age or it was a big part of their family’s culture or some other excuse which has nothing to do with what’s correct and what isn’t.

I now firmly oppose teaching religion to children in schools. Earlier I wasn’t so sure, but it’s sick. How can we encourage our children to be thinking for themselves, rather than just regurgitate facts in exams, when from such an early age they’re being brainwashed with some dodgy worldview which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but permeates much of their lifestyle? Especially in an environment where they’re otherwise being exposed to useful, factual information. It’s just plain confusing and it shouldn’t be allowed. I remember once when I was about 8, we’d just finished RE and were moving on to our science class. The teacher asked the question “how do we see?”, and one kid replied without hesitation, “because Jesus is the light of the world.” It’s not right to expect kids to separate facts from fiction for themselves at such an early age.

But what about if parents want to teach their kids about religion privately? Personally I’d probably charge them with child abuse, but it’s a subject of some controversy. As the child is under the age of consent, the parents make decisions in her name, so they decide whether they can teach her or not, even though they themselves are the ones teaching her. It’s the equivalent of telling them repeatedly in all seriousness that if they don’t do something pointless like clap their hands 30 times at midday, then a big scary man will come and torture them forever. It’s probably perfectly legal, but I’m sure you’ll all agree it’s wrong. Actually it’s not the equivalent at all, that’s exactly what it is, just replace the hand clapping with praying, believing nonsense and following the 10 Commandments.

In my opinion, religion should not be taught. It’s spreading lies. Maybe teaching it to people who have already given consent by becoming a member of the church would be ok (and of course I don’t think baptising children counts, they can’t consent). But I don’t think many will turn to the church if it hasn’t been part of their lifestyle previously. It should be there if people want it, but it shouldn’t be taught as the norm, as is the situation now.

But what about teaching about religion? Censoring religion is no better than brainwashing kids in faith schools, so we shouldn’t do that. Religion has also been a big part of our culture, so it is definitely worthy of being taught about. BUT I think it should be made perfectly clear that it’s not necessarily true, and I think other non-religious worldviews should be taught alongside it, such as humanism. It should be in the history books by now anyway.

Maybe religion should be taught similarly to the way we teach about political or philosophical ideologies. Often religion, philosophy and politics are very closely linked, so it’s certainly appropriate.