Category Archives: Religion

Objective: Morality

When considering morality, questions about the subject are as important as the ethical conclusions reached within moral investigation. This subject, known as metaethics, asks not what is good but what is good. This question seems basal to the whole process; first we figure out what the hell an ethical conclusion is, then we can attempt to identify instances thereof and derive more practical outcomes. Is the good subject to the whims and feelings of the individual or are there murkier, more holistic and impersonal forces at work? Are morals subjective or objective, and what form does such objectivity take? There are some who deem objective moral values both desirable and unthinkable without a god or gods to send down such edicts and give us lowly primates a foundation upon which to stand. As with so many religious arguments this seems to succeed only in pushing back the problem one more step, and then placing great faith in the power of special pleading.

Objective morality, by its very nature, is something which can be assented to by any rational, dispassionate observer. To be subjective is to be open to debate precisely because there is no fact of the matter. I might say that Star Wars is a better franchise than Star Trek – and defend my conclusion to the bloody end – but since there is no demonstrable correct answer this is purely subjective. But were I to say that the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there can be no disagreement of this kind. All of the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is a fact; it is objectively true. Objective morality is of this kind. Objective moral propositions are verifiably accurate therefore are true regardless of your protestations or support. Based on this definition, objective morality must be based upon objective reality, not upon the conviction of a single being. A statement of an objective moral value will end in, “… because facts xy and z are factually accurate to any rational observer.” A statement of a subjective moral value will ultimately end with, “… because I/he/they say so.”

I do not think that it is an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation of the theistic position that all believers regard their god or gods as a source, at least, of moral teaching and guidance. Many go further and state that their deities are the only source of solid and objective morality at all. The mantra is, “If there is no god, there is no foundation for objective moral values.” Such moral guidance as is forthcoming from gods may take the form of precepts in scriptures, vicarious communication through their representatives on Earth, or a conscience urging us towards the good implanted directly into our bodies. This godly morality applies to all people at all times and must not be contravened. It is thus dubbed ‘0bjective’. This is a very different definition of objective morality than the one offered above: No rational or dispassionate person can reject these ethical statements because the guy in charge said so. Rather this divine command theory eerily resembles subjective morality.

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates confronts the eponymous character over his intention to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Making the not unreasonable assumption that such a man must be confident in his own piety, Socrates performs his usual duty of relentlessly questioning his interlocutor into submission. His challenge is to request that Euthyphro define piety, which forces this hapless fellow onto the horns of a particularly ill-tempered dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If piety is something independent and is only communicated by the gods, deities become irrelevant middle-men between humans and holiness. If piety is simply that which is demanded by the gods, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of of the mighty and holds no deeper meaning than that. The gods are rendered either irrelevant to piety, or piety is rendered meaningless by the gods. The same principle is exactly applicable to morality. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

There are those among the unbelievers that entirely agree with this line of reasoning, and therefore hold that morality is subjective and cannot be defended in an objective manner. In the worst of cases they lapse into moral relativism, a position as repugnant as it is self-contradictory (A moral principle is good if the society deems it so, except for the moral principle of relativism, which holds among all societies). However, there is a way to construct an objective morality that does not depend upon the divine, but only upon those minds that seem to clearly be present: the minds of conscious creatures. On this view, objectivity is not a nebulous, universe-spanning concept, but applies only to a limited sphere, namely those entities which are capable of suffering. If we grant the uncontroversial premise that the best possible flourishing is better than the worst possible suffering, we have all the foundation we need to build an objective moral system. To argue that it is not good or moral to promote flourishing and avoid suffering is, to me, to lose sight of any reasonable concept of ‘good’. In any given situation concerning a human, there will be options as to how to proceed, and among those options there will be some which will cause suffering and some which will cause flourishing. This is simply factual. I can demonstrate that drinking brake fluid will cause me to suffer. Thus, it is objectively true that to drink brake fluid would immoral, insofar as it causes nothing but suffering. Because there is tremendous diversity and uncanny similarity among all conscious creatures on Earth – chauvinistically singled out because we do not as yet have any proof of extraterrestrial life – there will be no simple, sweeping answers to moral questions. But we will always be faced with paths which are more likely to cause suffering and paths which are less likely. The objectivity lies in the demonstrable conclusions and the ability to apply such a method in all cases, if not in practice then certainly in principle.

I once wrote an essay entitled, “Why Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is Neither Naturalistic Nor Fallacious”. While I hold only a tenuous grip on the conclusions that I reached in that particular composition, while still thinking I was mostly correct, I can report that it is very satisfying as a critic to find that your target fails on multiple levels. This may seem childish, but it is undeniably true in my own case. In the case of objective morality as based in gods’ existence, we find that not only is such morality not objective, it is not moral either. It is based on what some being or beings think, and is thereby subjective. There is no guarantee, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the thoughts of such beings as they are reported to us will be beneficial or in any sense good. (Should anyone doubt this, please consult any given holy book.) Rather this theistic morality seems an impediment to building the better and more comprehensive ethical framework towards which we are still struggling. Cast off the notion of divine parental permission, focus our energies on the eradication of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, and it seems clear that we can accomplish yet greater feats of compassion than we have thus far.

[Addendum: The ideas for a godless objective morality are not entirely my own, but have been heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I highly recommend checking it out, as it makes a powerful case for the fusion of ethics and science, and lays out a plan for putting an end to quibbling over moral dilemmas – thus putting me out of a job…]


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I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There is a trope called the “Pyrrhic Victory”, which references a Greek king who achieved a desperate victory at the expense of destroying his own armies. The basic concept is that an empty success is snatched at the cost of your own side along with the enemy’s. This idea is also inherent in the “scorched earth” strategy, where one retreats in the face of an overwhelming attack, while burning and salting your own territory, rendering it as useless to your foe as it is to you. Why bring up these suicidal military tactics? Because both of these approaches seem to drip from a very peculiar response levelled by believers against atheists: Atheism is just one more religion among many.

Coming from the religious themselves, the accusation of religiosity as a criticism is an extraordinary attempt at a knock-down argument. What could be more self-refuting than an argument that states, “You are unjustified because you are the same as me”? This seems to be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. If atheism is just another religion, then it is just as superstitious, irrational and baseless as any other faith. Congratulations, you have successfully argued that those who disagree with you are just as absurd and bewildered as you are. The statement is certainly not intended as a compliment. When a Christian says to another Christian, “Your faith is admirable,” they intend a great compliment. When the same sentiment is offered to an atheist, the intent is a snide potshot. I understand that words can have different meanings, but with such a foundational concept, it is unwise to define it in diametrically opposed ways. It may begin to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Atheism is not the end point of an examination of god claims and finding them wanting, nor a result of lacking any exposure to them. Rather, it is a position based upon faith, the groundless failure to accept that any deity exists. Theism and atheism are therefore left on equal footing, right? Well, no. A belief is relatively reasonable if, while it lacks real justification, it accurately reflects the way the world works. We would look more kindly on a heliocentrist than a geocentrist, even if their belief is based on nothing more than personal preference. There are better and worse reasons to believe, but a correct belief is better than a false one, even if it falls short of actual knowledge. So in the presence of a universe operating by physical laws, wherein all the suffering and chaos and wonder one might expect in an unsupervised space exists, atheism still seems eerily like one of these true beliefs. The claims of the religious of miraculous events and benevolent superintendence are as ridiculous as ever, regardless of the faithfulness of their opponents.

This is where my generosity ends. Atheism does not fit any description of religion that isn’t so hopelessly diffuse as to also bring sports fanaticism and knitting club membership into the fold of faith. We use definitions as limiters, to distinguish things by noting those characteristics that are shared by that group and not by everything else. Thus atheism can easily be excluded from the category of “religion” by its failure to participate in the necessary features thereof. Admittedly, religion is difficult to define, but most people have something specific in mind when they use the word, and it may be accepted that a layman’s definition is sufficient for the purpose.

A religion generally includes a belief in some kind of deity or deities, whether deistic, theistic or pantheistic. Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily fall under this umbrella, and for this reason it may be argued that these are closer to philosophies than religions – though some sects of Buddhism do hold a belief in the deity of the Buddha. Atheism spectacularly fails to fulfil this requirement, by its very definition. This is an analytically true statement: Atheism is the lack of belief in a god, and therefore atheists lack a belief in a god. No further empirical investigation is necessary. The vast majority of religions include a belief in an additional cornucopia of supernatural propositions. If one lacks belief in god, prayer and miracles become untenable. And while the term “atheism” only applies to the belief in god, most atheists in my experience – in the West, as many Chinese atheists hold traditional beliefs like ancestor worship – are also sceptics and materialists, and this certainly excludes these atheists from being religious believers. Religions commonly have a text or set of texts that are seen as essential and inviolable, often claimed to contain tales of gods, inspiration from same, or even direct communication from the divine. While atheists may have personal favourites and admired authors and thinkers, we stop far short of deification and are all too aware of their human limitations. I have great affection for the works of David Hume, but I will freely state that his views on race were backwards and vile.

Remove god, the supernatural and holy texts from religion, and what are we left with? Groups of people with similar ideas who meet regularly and celebrate particular days, identifying under a particular label. There is nothing now to differentiate between a religion and a political party or supporter’s club. A definition that describes everything describes nothing and should be discarded as useless. So, no meaningful definition of religion can include atheism. This leaves the theists’ scorched earth policy as a failure on two fronts: it is factually incorrect, and even if used damages theism more than it does atheism.

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Easter Special – Almost 10 Reasons Jesus Came to Die

This Easter weekend, it’s prudent to remember the reason for the season: the appropriation by Christianity of another conveniently-timed pagan celebration. However charity is a virtue, and it would be terrible manners to ignore Jesus during his special vacation time. Happily, I was presented with a timely gospel tract explaining to this rudderless heathen precisely why it was necessary for an apocalyptic prophet from 1st Century Palestine to be executed in a truly hideous manner. This information comes courtesy of John Piper and Good News Publishers of Wheaton, Illinois. There are a nice round ten reasons for this human sacrifice, so let us delve in.

10. To destroy hostility between the races

“Jesus died to create a whole new way for races to be reconciled: he “has broken down… the dividing wall of hostility… making peace… through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).”

We begin with a double-whammy of violent departure from reality and a staggering case of missing the point. Is Piper seriously suggesting that the history of Christianity has been marked by a diminution of “suspicion, prejudice, and demeaning attitudes between Jews and non-Jews”? This might have been more convincing if the death of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, was not attributed to the Jews collectively – “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us, and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25) – which led to Easter pogroms for centuries, and the odious historical artefact of the “blood curse” and the charge of generalised Jewish deicide. Though since repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church in The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and by the majority of Christians around the world, it is undeniable that during the intervening centuries, Jesus death was not a source of harmony between the Jews and their neighbours. Immediately afterwards, we are treated to a stellar example of doublethink. The death of Jesus is the “only means” of reconciliation between the races. This is to be achieved by stark division between religions, with only Christianity being acceptable. This reveals exactly the method by which this racial equality is to be achieved; I will accept you exactly as you are, provided that you change your beliefs and agree with me. Now we see where the Jews went wrong for all those years. If only they had stopped being the thing that Christians hated, Christians would have stopped hating them. It completely escapes me why racial reconciliation is not possible without this forced conversion to a uniform belief. The attempt to apportion credit for any progress we have made in destroying racism to Jesus’ death stands in opposition to historical fact and basic common sense.

9. To give marriage its deepest meaning

“God’s design for marriage is for a husband  to love his wife the way Christ loves his people, and for the wife to respond the way Christ’s people should.”

Evidently Jesus’ death allowed us to bolster the sexist idea that there is something different owed by men and women when it comes to relationships. It is telling that the biblical quotation offered begins at Ephesians 5:25, and that the previous verses are referred to only obliquely. These are the famous passages urging female subjugation:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

It has been argued that men are equally asked to sacrifice for the benefit of their wives, but these passages still place men firmly in the driving seat, and demand submission only from women. To suggest that the deepest meaning of marriage is an asymmetrical power relationship between two people based entirely on the configuration of their genitalia, rather than an equal partnership between loving and consensual adult humans is approaching bigotry, and certainly pales in comparison to our evolving ideas about gender equality. This is not even to mention the love that, once upon a time, dare not speak its name; would two husbands be bereft of a willing submissive, and two wives be paralysed by their mutual lack of disturbingly paternal guidance? Of course, gay marriage cannot participate in the depth of heterosexual marriage, and ought not to be considered. If marriage demands inequality, whether between spouses or sexualities, it reveals not a deepness of meaning, but a whiff of the sinister and oppressive.

8. To absorb the wrath of God

“Not to punish [sin] would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself.”

We are only on the third reason, and already the incoherent concepts begin to snowball into an incomprehensible avalanche of incomprehensibility. The central issue is scapegoating as a form of justice. The term originates in a primitive belief that one could throw one’s sins onto a beast of burden, then sacrifice the creature as a form of absolution. This is explicitly the case with Jesus; he is the perfect sacrifice, absolving us of all of our sins. But this is simply not justice, it is morally absurd. Justice would be to reward or punish people based upon their actions. But in this case, justice is defined as allowing another to die, not only taking the punishment of humankind, but also their responsibility. This cannot be done. Even if I were to pay your fine or serve your time in prison, the responsibility for your crime remains inextricably yours. So Jesus’ death is not justice, as presented.

Additionally, this involves us in the logical Gordian knot of the Trinity, forcing us to accept that God sacrificed himself in order to subvert his own demand for bloody justice. (Incidentally this Gordian knot can be untied in much the same way as the original; slicing to the point and rejecting that the Godhead can be fully three and fully one as ridiculous.) What pressure could a god be under to act in such a convoluted way, when he is the one making the rules?

Finally, I have spoken before on the severity of an offence scaling negatively with the power of the victim. Punching a child is a greater evil than punching a 300lb bodybuilder. And so the snivelling claim that sin against “the Ruler of the Universe is somehow worthy of greater punishment has been addressed and defeated.

7. So that we would escape the curse of the law

“The laws demands have been fulfilled by Christ’s perfect law-keeping, its penalty fully paid by his death… Our only hope is having the blood and righteousness of Christ credited to our account.”

The Gospel of Ryan Gosling Movies tells us that Only God Forgives, but this seems to be something of which God is incapable. Again, God is running the entire production, and so would be perfectly capable of simply forgiving humankind. Why is he subject to such strange restrictions? Setting aside for the moment that substitutionary atonement – scapegoating – is unjust, the pantomime of God demanding an impossible recompense for an unachievable crime and then intervening in human form to solve the conundrum is entirely unbelievable. God places us under the curse of the law, setting us up to fail, and we are expected to fall to our knees in gratitude when he fixes his own mistake. As far as is apparent, God is as responsible for the curse of the law as he is for our lucky escape.

6. To reconcile us to God

“”He took the steps we could not take to remove his own judgment by sending Jesus to suffer in our place: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).”

Remember that the steps that God took to remove his own judgement did not involve simply deciding not to judge, but rather took the form of some improbable gestation, a decades-long interim and a sanguine execution. The Almighty clearly has a penchant for the dramatic. All we are asked to do is accept that our agency has been removed and agree that this grisly and theatrical event was for our benefit. Acquiesce to human sacrifice and eternal life can be yours. At this juncture, I want to state that these ten reasons are beginning to thin. The absorption of God’s wrath is our escape from the curse of the law and therefore our reconciliation with God. The concept of the Trinity seems infectious, as it is unclear whether these are three things or one thing.

5. To show God’s love for sinners

“The measure of God’s love us shown by the degree of his sacrifice in saving us from the penalty of our sins… the sacrifice the Father and the Son made to save us was indescribably great! The measure of his love increases still when we consider the degree of our unworthiness.”

Christopher Hitchens was very fond of a passage from Fulke Greville’s Mustapha which perfectly illustrates this view of wretched humanity:

“Oh, wearisome condition of Humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound.

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity.

Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

Humankind has a lot to answer for: the corruption of God’s perfect creation, myriad sins of violence and selfishness, not being careful in their culinary choices. So worthless are we that we are born evil, stained with the sins of our fathers. And despite our repellent nature, God still finds it in himself to love us. That God who created humans with no knowledge of good and evil, then expected them to make moral choices. That God who programmed us with sexual instincts and the capacity for anger, then condemns us for our lust and hatred. The God who punishes not only the original transgressor, but all people for all time. Could a more perfectly abusive relationship be described? God creates imperfect humans – for perfect humans would never have erred in the first place – and then demands perfection, and is surprised when we fail again and again. Human unworthiness, such as it is, is eclipsed by the divine incompetence of our fumbling architect.

Reports of God’s sacrifice have been much exaggerated. “[T]he degree of his sacrifice” extends to approximately 30-35 years of living as a human, culminating in a horrendous death by one of the most sadistic methods conceived by humankind. For an infinite and eternal being, this is less time than the merest blink of an eye. Even considering the gruesome execution, Jesus endured one day of torture and dying, before returning to his own kingdom for three days, before returning from the grave. After a brief interlude, he returned to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. I leave it to your reason to judge the sense of God being both omnipresent and confined to a human body, before taking up residence on his own right hand. A true sacrifice involves losing something. A true gift involves giving something away. God did neither of these things. If God has a son, he still has his son; nothing was lost. Conversely, if I were to sacrifice my hypothetical son in a fit of utter madness, leading to his death, he would be truly lost to me. I wouldn’t then get to enjoy his company for eternity. God’s love for sinners proves to be nothing more than an empty façade, a show to impress his own victims. 

4. To show Jesus’ own love for us

“Jesus paid the highest price possible to give me – personally – the greatest gift possible.”

I confess myself confused again. What is the difference between God’s love and Jesus’ love if they are the same being? And why is this “sacrifice” any less vacuous than the Father’s? Again, Jesus paid a pittance to offer an illusory carrot, with the ever-present threat of a luckily equally illusory stick.

3. To take away our condemnation

“Christ becomes our punishment (which we don’t have to bear) and our worth before God (which we cannot earn)… It is as sure that they cannot be condemned as it is sure that Christ died!”

The final sentence presents me with an opportunity to be sardonic, and I can rarely resist this temptation. The surety of Jesus’ death is far from solid, though I will admit that it eclipses my conviction that any such death could possibly form a magical shield around a person, armouring them against condemnation by an omnipotent being. All I ask is a modicum of consistency. In this system, humans are entirely devoid of agency, except when they are sinning. It is exceedingly odd that our actions are powerful enough to doom us, but never capable of saving us. It is strange to simultaneously be so mighty and so impotent. There has been frequent talk throughout this tract of a “gift” of freedom from the punishment we so sorely deserve, but here we discover the hidden charge for this gift: belief. Despite our inability to earn our absolution, we can do something in order to make our absolution possible. Evidently this is a definition of “earn” with which I am unfamiliar.

2. To bring us to God

“The gospel is the good news that at the cost of his Son’s life, God has done everything necessary to captivate us with what will make us eternally and ever-increasingly happy – namely, himself.”

The allure of God is not enhanced but rather marred by his participation in blood sacrifice in a curious attempt to subvert his own regulations. Ought we trust the being who cannot understand that, being omnipotent, he can just fix things in an instant, with justice meted out in a fair way rather than using an ethically simplistic one-size-fits-all penal system? Particularly, should we trust his nebulous promises of happiness everlasting? Eternal life as a positive is the result of human greed and human failure of imagination. An eternity of anything would become torture, simply given the nature of eternity. I find the notion of “ever-increasingly happy” rather telling that Piper recognises this problem, and thinks that scaling happiness will resolve the issue. Humans, being finite, possess a maximum happiness in which they can participate, and once this logic is reached the torture of eternity will soon set in. This could perhaps be avoided by humankind advancing to become a singularity of consciousness, an enormous and limitless cloud focussed entirely upon happiness, but this drifts into science fiction in an attempt to justify the childish idea of heaven.

1. To give eternal life to all who believe on him

I’m fairly certain that this was a typo, as I’ve never considered belief to be something to be placed atop another thing. I’ve explained already why eternal reward is a gift not worth having from an entity not worth respecting.

Easter seems to me to be the commemoration of an execution as if it were necessary, a resurrection as if it were factual, and a farce as if it were providential. Once again we are asked to dwell on the inborn depravity of every human, bestowed upon us by our loving creator, who then offers a complex and violent get-out clause based on subjugation. Instead of the seemingly more attainable forgiveness. Thankfully, Easter is more or less entirely secularised, with eggs and rabbits taking presence over death and shame. Good thing too, as chocolate seems to gain something wonderful from being shaped into an egg. Long may the heartless exploitation of every culturally significant holiday continue.

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Hate Where Hate Deserves

It has been well said that loathing is like swallowing poison and expecting the object of your ire to sicken. Both religious and secular people have warned us against hatred as an inherently and exclusively destructive entity; a force capable only of tearing down and never building up. Well, like a modern day Gordon Gekko, I come before you today to extol  this traditionally negative trait: hatred is good. Hatred can be virtuous, it can be useful, and it can be necessary. Directed properly, it can be a powerful engine for positive change, provided that its target is something worth destroying.

Admittedly, the statement that “hatred is good” cannot be unqualified. Some elaboration is necessary. It seems to me that hatred in itself is a victimless crime, a personally held emotion that directly affects only the one who feels it. To suggest otherwise is to flirt with the idea of thoughtcrime. No-one has ever been killed or maimed by hatred, though countless have been stricken by the potential consequences of hatred. So the first point must be that while I am claiming that hatred can be good, I am certainly not endorsing every possible pathway down which such a feeling can lead. A useful analogy may be drawn from another “deadly sin”. Looking upon a person with lust, however biblically exaggerated, is not adultery by any stretch of the reasonable imagination. In fact, it affects no-one except the person experiencing the lust. Only by acting on that feeling can there be the possibility of any damage. In the same way, hatred is something which is felt internally; only acting upon this feeling can possibly have harmful consequences.

To return to the toxic comparison offered in the introduction, even if hatred is not, in and of itself, harmful to those around it, is it not true to say that it is deleterious to the individual who feels it? This is a very serious objection, and is the one that I feel comes closest to making a complete mockery of my entire thesis. Having experienced hatred on numerous occasions, I can agree that it is often accompanied by some unpleasant sensations of envy, disappointment and resentment. The very fact that hatred on its own can do no damage beyond the mind it inhabits makes that mind a prime target. I can only say that I have also felt hatred coupled with feelings of justice, righteousness and powerful motivation. As anecdotal evidence, this is very weak. The best I can argue is that those who claim that hatred must necessarily be a negative influence within person are as wrong as those who claim that hatred must necessarily be a positive influence. There is no room for absolutism here, and to reiterate, hatred only can be a good thing, if harnessed and utilised in the right way.

Certain aspects of the world are undeniably hateful. Human beings are regularly imprisoned, tortured and killed for nonexistent crimes like speaking the wrong words, thinking the wrong things or loving the wrong person. Despite all evidence to the contrary, people still make prejudicial judgements about others based upon the least relevant and blameworthy traits of their target; their race, their gender or their sexuality. Lying and manipulation of the facts bring power and renown rather than scorn and opprobrium. I can say, with no hint of apology, that I hate these facts about the world. Further than that, I hate that so many individuals exhibit these evil ideas, and I hate the ideas themselves. (As always, my definition of evil is very simple and, I believe, unassailable: evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, whether the cause be agency or happenstance. If something causes evil, then it is is evil in this sense.) When these characteristics seem endemic to a particular person, I confess that my hatred sometimes spills over into hatred of the individual, but this seems ultimately counterproductive: better to hate a person’s moral failings, and attempt to get them to discard them.

An important side issue results from this final statement. This seems dangerously close to the Christian idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Largely, I don’t have any real issue with this idea. “Love” might be a bit strong, as a person who consistently lies to me is unlikely to gain my affection, but I can at least agree that we ought not to hate this individual, but to hate the harmful consequences of their dishonesty and hope for their rehabilitation. Sadly, the most common use of this adage is these days used in opposition to homosexuality, a case where there is simply no sin to hate. When we love the homosexual and hate their homosexuality, we are essentially trying to say, “I love you, but I hate a core aspect of your character that you are completely incapable of changing.” This use cannot be countenanced.

So having build up a repository of hatred towards the injustices of the world, what are we to do with it? Hatred is a powerful emotion that drives people to fervent and sometimes obsessive behaviour. Herein lies the creative principle of hatred. I can hate bigotry, and channel this feeling into action towards destroying this loathsome institution and at the same time building a world in which we treat our fellow primates with respect and judge them not on their biology, but on the content of their character, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. If I refuse to accept that it is justified to prosecute a person for blasphemy – the ultimate victimless crime – and harness my intense opposition to this stupidity, I can stand up and say confidently that such practices have no place in our world, and ought to be abolished. Indeed, there are many things to which the only reasonable response is hatred. Faced with mass genocide or indiscriminate torture, our initial reaction ought not to be tolerance and understanding, though an attempt to understand may be attempted at a later point, but hatred and disgust, and an intense desire to avert these terrible events. Hatred can be enormously beneficial, provided that it is not the end, but the means to an end. I am not asking you to live a life filled with loathing; love, laughter and passion are too important and too enjoyable to be overrun by hatred. But when you do inevitably feel hatred, I am simply asking you to tame it, and trammel it towards that admirable goal: to leave the world a little better than you found it.

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Suffering > Blustering

After a leave of absence and a bout of stomach virus that has left me completely useless for the better part of a weak, I have been shaken out of my stupor by one of the most inane pieces of journalism I have ever had the misfortune to witness. In an opinion piece for the Telegraph website, Cristina Odone opines that our humble livestock are now more important than our Jewish and Muslims citizens. My entire response could simply be strangled cries of “category error!” followed by a string of meaningless typed gibberish created by the unhappy meeting of forehead and keyboard, but I shall attempt to be slightly more eloquent.

 If John Blackwell, soon to be head of Britain’s vets, gets his wish, ritual slaughter will be banned. Blackwell, you see, is worried about the pain that animals might feel if they are not stunned before they are butchered. He is not worried though about the millions of Muslims and Jews whose religion dictates that they eat only animals that have been killed in a particular way.

It should surely be unsurprising that a vet is more concerned about the suffering of animals than religious dictates. Indeed, anyone would be well within their rights to question the wisdom and morality of any religion that demands an appropriate level of suffering be inflicted upon a creature before it can be ingested. How much respect can a belief system that prizes tradition over material realities like pain really be afforded?

Halal and Kosher butchers have for millennia practised a ritual slaughter as part of their religious tradition. It is a hygienic way of butchering animals which consists of slitting their throats and allowing them to bleed to death. Not for the faint-hearted, but religion seldom is.

For millennia humankind felt no compunction to keep their faeces out of their food. The age of a practise has no bearing on its legitimacy, and in fact the trend is often the opposite. Astrology, trepanning and the owning of slaves all have a long history, but few would argue that they ought to be respected one the basis of their age (astrology’s ubiquity notwithstanding). Hygiene is not the primary concern as far as the morality of animal slaughter is concerned. Leaving aside arguments against the eating of meat and accepting that we are going to slaughter animals for food, the suffering of the livestock in question is surely more important ethically than how hygienic a method is. This is really a red herring, as the cleanliness of kosher slaughter is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Methods involving stunning are at least as clean and safe as kosher slaughter. As for the final line, I would remind you that Odone is discussing Judaism, not a rollercoaster. 

In a culture where animals matter more than people, and a lot more than religious people, halal and kosher are verboten.

Ours is not a culture in which animals matter more than people – but it is a culture in which animals matter. If what Odone writes were true, we would think nothing of abbatoirs full of people hanging from hooks, quietly and consciously exsanguinating. This is Odone’s category error. Her assertion is only correct if we equate a person with their “deeply held religious beliefs. In reality, it is perfectly simple to respect a person while giving no regard to their unfounded assertions. Rephrased, the true situation concerning the banning of religious animal slaughter is thus: In a culture where animals matter more than antiquated and baseless religious beliefs, halal and kosher are verboten.

Let the Danes stamp all over deeply held religious belief in the name of a calf. Who cares about the Koran or the Torah when it comes to soft furry creatures?

Credit to Luke Hecht, president of the University of Edinburgh’s Humanist Society for the perfect response to this – restate the last line without sarcasm and you have my position. 

Once this precedent is established, circumcision — another religious ritual practised by both Muslims and Jews — will be banned. 

Not only is this a textbook slippery slope fallacy, I don’t see the problem. While adult circumcision ought to remain legal, infant circumcision is the amputation of a body part without the consent of the patient for a non-medical reason. Protestations of its AIDS-defying efficacy are pointless, as this is not the specified reason for the surgery – it is about following God’s rules. Any “anger and upset” felt by Jews and Muslims barred from having bits cut off their children must be weighed against the child’s right to bodily autonomy and integrity. Removing nebulous, faith-based ideas from the equation, the balance swings violently in the direction of the rights of the child. Thus, Odone attempts to scare-monger by threatening an outcome that seems all too reasonable.

Banning a religious ritual because an animal may (who knows) feel some pain before its killing, is a nonsense value. It prioritises the animal over the human, and the four-legged over the pious.

Rene Descartes, in one of his more deranged religious investigations, held that humans were uniquely ensouled and therefore unique among animals in possessing self-determination. Conversely, non-human animals were mere automata, incapable of sensation and simply obeying physical laws. This led to a resurgence in vivisection, with misguided scientists dismissing animal suffering as an impossibility. The illusion of pain was exactly that. Thankfully, we have learned better. We know now that cows, pigs, and other animals involved in the meat industry, while they may lack the range or intensity of feeling that humans possess, certainly can suffer and suffer horribly. Odone’s snide “(who knows)” is a weasling attempt to cast doubt on the verifiable fact that stabbing a live animal in the throat and inflicting upon them a slow death by blood loss will cause them pain. The label “nonsense value is misapplied, as the truly nonsensical consideration in this argument is value of a ritual from centuries ago that is bestowed with significance because “God said so!”. Countless religious rituals have come into collision with brute reality and lost – staying within Judaism, the cleansing of women after childbirth or menstruation is generally no longer demanded except in the most Orthodox sects – and I see no good reason why kosher slaughter shouldn’t join these on the scrapheap. Odone has certainly failed to make even the most superficially convincing argument for her case, and I still can’t decide whether to be disgusted or amazed at the depth of her failure. 

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Answers for Christians, Geeky or Otherwise

Boredom does funny things to the mind. It can cause obsessive introspection, generally resulting in stark existential dread. Or, more commonly, it can lead down dark paths in your shady internet neighbourhood. Inspired somewhat by an episode of the Dogma Debate podcast – recently listened to but broadcast months ago – I’ve decided to go back to basics and look at a few questions fundamental to my lack of a god-belief. This might serve as a belated introduction, and perhaps a handy primer for laypeople when confronting common apologetic arguments. These questions come from Dr. Norman Geisler’s book Conversational Evangelism, as reposted on the Geeky Christian blog

1. Are you absolutely sure there is no God? If not, then is it not possible that there is a God? And if it is possible that God exists, then can you think of any reason that would keep you from wanting to look at the evidence?

We begin with an easy one. No, I am not absolutely sure that there is no God. It is possible that there is a God, though I would certainly say that there are certain conceptions of God which have been offered that can be positively said not to exist. This category would include logically incoherent Gods. A perfectly just and perfectly merciful God, for instance. Since mercy is pardoning someone from their deserved punishment, these two “perfections” are mutually exclusive. Either God punishes everyone according to their desserts, or he pardons certain people because of his mercy. So, entirely dependent upon the definition of God being put forth, God’s existence is a possibility. The final part of this question is slightly problematic, as no evidence is forthcoming for these special gods which are not already discounted by their incoherence. These gods seem to be entirely unfalsifiable, possibly existent but following a strict policy of non-intervention. Unfalsifiable propositions can have no evidence for or against, and thus there is no good reason to believe that they are true. I suspect that I am being tempted to admit my inherent biases against theism, particularly my desire to go on sinning, but no amount of unbiblical merriment can make an unfalsifiable proposition more acceptable. So gods are either testable, and have failed to materialise when tested, or unfalsifiable and unbelievable by nature.

2. Would you agree that intelligently designed things call for an intelligent designer of them? If so, then would you agree that evidence for intelligent design in the universe would be evidence for a designer of the universe?

By definition, an intelligently designed thing demands at least one intelligent designer. This is tautological. However, evidence for intelligent design in the universe would not be evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe. It would merely count as evidence for the existence of one or more designers of that particular feature of the universe. Evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe demands evidence of intelligent design of the universe as a whole. Anything less could only support a sub-universal intelligent designer(s).

3. Would you agree that nothing cannot produce something? If so, then if the universe did not exist but then came to exist, wouldn’t this be evidence of a cause beyond the universe?

Nothing is an incoherent concept when used in this way. What would nothing actually look like? What would the features of nothing be? Could nothing even exist? This is not the definition of nothing used by physicists like Lawrence M. Krauss, but a colloquial definition that seems not to have been thoroughly thought out.. Taking the second part of the question, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This would seem to imply that the a material universe such as ours could not come to exist, having not existed, as this would violate this scientific principle. If the universe had simply popped out of this questionable nothing, this would indeed be evidence of an extra-universal cause, but it is unclear whether such an event could or did ever happen. Indeed, the current Big Bang model states that in the beginning (of our current universe at least) there was an infinitesimally small and dense point into which all of matter, energy, space and time were concentrated. This is referred to as a “singularity”. A singularity, being something, is emphatically not nothing.

4. Would you agree with me that just because we cannot see something with our eyes—such as our mind, gravity, magnetism, the wind—that does not mean it doesn’t exist?

Inability to see something is not, on its own, a reason to disbelieve in the existence of a thing. Just to add to the question’s examples, we cannot see atoms, germs or Wi-Fi signals either. However, this is an incomplete stipulation as to what it is reasonable to believe. Things which cannot be seen can still assert their existence by their observable effects. We cannot see our mind or Wi-Fi signals, but without these, how exactly am I communicating this to you? Certain of these entities can actually be observed directly with powerful enough magnification, but anyone who has experienced flu would be foolish to doubt the existence of microbes. And as for atoms… Well… Pretty conclusive. The point at which we are justified in disbelieving the existence of something is when we cannot see it with our eyes, and nor can we observe its effects where effects would be expected. This is often summarised as “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”, provided that such evidence ought to be present.

5. Would you also agree that just because we cannot see God with our eyes does not necessarily mean He doesn’t exist?

This really ought to have been a part of the previous question. As stated above, it is not only our inability to see God that makes disbelief a reasonable conclusion; it is the added inability to see any of the observable effects of God that makes atheism tenable.

6. In the light of the big bang evidence for the origin of the universe, is it more reasonable to believe that no one created something out of nothing or someone created something out of nothing?

See my above point about the nature of the singularity, and their peculiar not-nothingness.

7. Would you agree that something presently exists? If something presently exists, and something cannot come from nothing, then would you also agree that something must have always existed?

It would be rather self-denying to deny that something presently exists – even doubting Descartes thought that our own thought was an undeniably existent thing. So I can happily assent to the first question. The second part is fairly unobjectionable as well, as creation ex nihilo is an unlikely proposition. So something must have always existed. As far back as we can trace, at no point is there nothing, whether the something in its place is the universe or the singularity, and so these may be accepted as those eternally existent things – not least because they are the same stuff in different forms. Add in the point that time, as well as space and matter, is theorised to have come into existence in its current form during the Big Bang expansion, it may be incorrect to demand that something must have existed for all time. “Always” can only be measured as “at every point in time”, so without time, there is no always.

8. If it takes an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia, then would it not also take an intelligent being to produce the equivalent of 1000 sets of an encyclopedia full of information in the first one-celled animal? (Even atheists such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges that “amoebas have as much information in their DNA as 1000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1996), 116.)

A small point to begin – the first one-celled animal was not an amoeba. Modern amoebae have been evolving for as long as humans have, and have therefore accumulated the same billions of years of genetic baggage to achieve their enormous amount of genetic “information”. The scare-quotes are entirely intentional – information is not something inherent in DNA, but rather is the way in which our minds understand DNA. DNA is entirely chemical, and those chemicals interact according to physical laws, producing certain chemical effects. Information only emerges when a mind comes along, puts names to the different chemicals involved and describes the physical interactions thereof. The use of “CGAT” in the description of DNA, and descriptions of DNA strings being “millions of letters long” give no credence to the notion that DNA is information.

9. If an effect cannot be greater than its cause (since you can’t give what you do not have to give), then does it not make more sense that mind produced matter than that matter produced mind, as atheists say?

The word “greater” is not clearly defined in this question, threatening it with outright incomprehensibility. If “greater” in this context refers to physical size, it makes far more sense to say that matter produced mind, as matter actually has mass, while mind is, as stated in question 4, is not visible. If “greater” simply means “better”, this seems a value judgement coming from a biased mind, convinced of its own importance. Mind is an incredible phenomenon, and can lead to incredible reasoning, beautiful acts of creativity, and powerful emotions. But all of these wonderful effects can be immediately halted by damage to the matter causing this mind-phenomenon – the brain. This gives us a clear indication of which is greater, so it would seem to make more sense to say that matter produced mind, as atheists say.

10. Is there anything wrong anywhere? If so, how can we know unless there is a moral law?

This is a serious contender for “Vaguest Question Ever Posed”. It may narrowly lose to, “Is there stuff somewhere?”. You need to define the term “wrong” to even ask this question. Luckily, the second part of the question offers a clue – this wrong is a moral wrong. So, I can now offer an answer; yes, there is something wrong somewhere. Maybe several somethings and myriad somewheres. Alas, the assumption that wrong can only exist as a contravention of a moral law is a tenuous, vaguely authoritarian assertion. Instead, why not define wrong as an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures, and point to one of the billions of examples available on Earth. Voila wrong appears, as a factual occurrence and not a value judgement, without the necessity for a moral law. This is clearly open to the criticism that this simply creates a moral law with the rule that “Whatsoever is an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures is wrong.” While I am personally happy to accept the notion that suffering is bad by definition, this criticism is largely unproblematic – let me adopt this as my moral law.

11. If every law needs a lawgiver, does it not make sense to say a moral law needs a Moral Lawgiver?

While I’m flattered to be awarded with capitalisation, it’s unnecessary. I’m content to simply be a moral lawgiver. It is tautological to say that a moral law needs a moral lawgiver, and these questions give no good reason to think that such a lawgiver need be capitalised – many humans create moral laws, and make judgements of right and wrong.

12. Would you agree that if it took intelligence to make a model universe in a science lab, then it took super-intelligence to make the real universe?

The problem with any analogy is that it breaks down when you examine it too closely. This argument is put forth in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, instead using a comparison between a house and the universe. My reply is the same as Philo’s – a model universe and the actual universe are too dissimilar to draw any conclusions from such an analogy. The initial conditions of the model and the universe are entirely different. The universe is 13.7 billion years old in its current form, and potentially eternal/timeless before the Big Bang expansion. The model is much younger. A model built by hand may be analogously compared to the universe, but so could the reproductive development of a sheep – from a single zygote, a complex animal composed of billions of cells results. Why not propose that the universe was birthed by the Cosmic Ewe? Either analogy seems equally plausible, at least partially because neither approximates the universe very well.

13. Would you agree that it takes a cause to make a small glass ball found in the woods? And would you agree that making the ball larger does not eliminate the need for a cause? If so, then doesn’t the biggest ball of all (the whole universe) need a cause?

Since a small glass ball is an effect, it requires a cause. This is uncontroversial. A yet bigger ball would likewise require a cause. The universal ball is also in the business of requiring a cause, and we have a suitable cause all ready – the Big Bang expansion. From the singularity, our universe has expanded to its current state, and is still expanding, as this event billions of years ago continues to exert its influence.

14. If there is a cause beyond the whole finite (limited) universe, would not this cause have to be beyond the finite, namely, non-finite or infinite?

If the singularity is eternal, by virtue of existing without the time that is a feature of our universe, then it serves nicely as the infinite cause of our admittedly finite universe. But even if we do not accept the eternal singularity, we might point to the Big Bang-Big Crunch model, which states that this universe is one of a series, which began with an expansion, and which will end with a retraction back into the singularity before bouncing back into expansion. If this is the case, no infinite cause is necessary for our finite universe, as we may simply appeal backwards to the chain of finite causes back to the beginning of our universe and beyond.

15. In the light of the anthropic principle (that the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception), wouldn’t it make sense to say there was an intelligent being who preplanned human life?

Why must we grant the anthropic principle? This seems like a remarkably myopic view of the universe. For a universe fine-tuned for the emergence of life, there is a staggering amount of waste. Taking only our own star system, 12.5% of the planetary bodies are capable of supporting life. This is a pretty poor result for supposed fine-tuning. Douglas Adams had a brilliant illustration for demonstrating the foolishness of the anthropic principle. Imagine an irregularly-shaped pothole in the road. One day a rain comes and fills the pothole to the brim. The resultant puddle then marvels at the perfection of his situation – this divot in the ground is exactly the right size and shape to accommodate him. What are the odds? Pretty good, actually. Life has adapted to the universe, and not vice versa. We find animals thriving in their environment because those who didn’t have died off in favour of their better-suited brethren. And on a broader scale, if the universe had been unsuitable for the existence of life, none of us would be here to complain about the fact. These facts mean that the assumption that the universe proceeds according to the plan of an intelligent being, while technically possible, is entirely unsupported and thus not worth believing.

Over and over again while answering these questions, certain fallacies kept flashing across my mind. “Argument from Ignorance!” “Strawman!” “Equivocation!” As well as “Poor Wording!” In the end, some of my answers may be foolish or factually inaccurate – and if they are, please correct me. Theoretical physics is not a strong suit of mine, and I do not claim to be much more than scientifically illiterate. However, that doesn’t particularly matter, as these questions are an exercise in shifting the burden of proof onto the atheist, and claiming that if they cannot offer comprehensive answers to these queries, theism is the necessary conclusion. No positive evidence for God is offered above, and the worst position that my inability to answer would push me into is “I don’t know. But you don’t know either. I still see no reason to believe in God.” More proof is required than misrepresentation and special pleading can offer.


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I Agree with Pastor Rich Henderson… Sort Of…

Much has already been made in the atheist press, such as it is, about a recent Huffington Post article by Pastor Rich Henderson proclaiming that, “there is no such thing as a good atheist.” Most of the criticisms are spot-on – that his piece is an abuse of logic, that his terminology is sloppy, and that he himself is so patronising that he thinks “worldview” is a complex term. However, there are aspects of his critique that I agree with. So, in a departure from my usual bilious torrent of cynical criticism, I want to take each of his points as it comes and rebut or agree wherever is appropriate. This is all while acknowledging his clever “Vegas hustler” prestidigitation, which seems to regard a no-lose argument as a strength rather than a weakness.

In addition to the familiar definition of atheist – which for my purposes is simply a non-theist, someone who does not hold a theistic belief – Henderson adds three additional necessary beliefs that must be held to qualify for this label.

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Henderson seems to have in mind a more specific kind of nonbeliever, namely a rational, skeptical atheist. I personally have no problem in acquiescing to this definition, as it fits me to a T. I suppose that atheistic Buddhists, Raelians, and Jedi can indeed be good people, though evidently they cannot be atheists. And god forbid that you believe in ghosts, homeopathy, and your own imprisonment within the Matrix. But Henderson needs a scientific atheistic materialist in order to form his argument, so we’ll just disregard our less skeptical atheist brethren.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

I wish that Henderson had elaborated on this point, because it really does merit a better defence than bald assertion. Indeed, if his argument had been phrased thus:

These are all actions that can be known and explained but do not possess any inherent meaning or value.

I would have no problem with this statement. From the perspective of the universe, a barking dog and the liberation of a sex slave have precisely the same lack of meaning. This is, of course, due to the very salient point that the universe is a gigantic physical phenomenon lacking its own consciousness, and therefore the very tools to make a value judgement. Where Henderson’s assertion falls apart, and likely the reason that he neglected to phrase it that way, is his failure to notice that there is something within the universe that does possess a consciousness, and therefore the tools for the job – humans. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of value or meaning judgements every day, whether about war crimes or the quality of our morning coffee. Such value judgements, imposed as they are from the exterior of an object or event, are instrumental, rather than inherent. Henderson’s article fails to make this crucial distinction, and so he only argues as to the impossibility of the ascription of inherent meaning by atheists. Instrumental meaning is still our plaything.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality.

Again, I agree with Henderson in his conclusion, with the qualification that I agree only is his use of “objective meaning and morality” means “meaning and morality independent of the status of conscious creatures”. I doubt Henderson would object to my reading of his words. Objective meaning, in Henderson’s view, demands some medium through which such meaning can exist, which does indeed seem to demand at least a universe-wide force with the ability to make value judgements. (It ought to be noted that I don’t see exactly how the morality imposed by a god is any less subjective than that imposed by a human – it remains subject to one particular entity. He’s just bigger than you.) But yet again, Henderson neglects to mention a version of objective morality and meaning that seems quite at home in this materialistic, scientific, and impersonal universe. This objective morality is objective insofar as it is applicable to all conscious creatures in an objective way – see Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. In a universe of unconscious rocks, this morality, unlike Henderson’s morality, would no longer exist, but as long as there are conscious creatures capable of flourishing and suffering, objective morality is possible. Objective meaning, in this sense, is more problematic, and I confess that I have thought far less about this side of the issue. However, meaning is of less pragmatic value than morality, and therefore it seems less imperative to argue for objective meaning than for objective morality.

While Henderson cannot does not mention these nuances concerning meaning and its application, one of the three atheists he quote blatantly state the point, evidently avoiding his notice:

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” (Emphasis mine)
–William Provine

Provine is quite correct in his assertion that there is no ultimate meaning for humans, and thus there is no problem with this statement. One can easily deny the existence of ultimate meaning while allowing for the existence of more fleeting senses of meaning, or simply a meaning that doesn’t outlive the person providing the meaning.

“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. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

As stated above the universe, by its very nature, is entirely incapable of offering us anything but “blind, pitiless indifference”, but Dawkins is a poor choice for quote-mining. This is a man who dedicated an entire book to finding meaning and wonder in the universe, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. One quote should suffice to show that Dawkins is entirely capable of finding meaning in this cold, faceless cosmos:

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The final quote offered by Henderson is slightly more supportive of the argument he is trying to make, but can still be broken down to a point where it too argues for personal, subjective meaning over any ultimate value.

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.” (Emphasis mine)
–Edward O. Wilson

Firstly, this does offer a purpose or meaning for humankind, albeit a rather limited and uninspiring one – not that continuing the species is an entirely unpleasant process. But Wilson plainly states that this purpose only applies at the species level. Unfamiliar as I am with Wilson, I cannot say whether or not he would agree that individuals can have whatever purpose they choose, but his comments do not disallow this, and I’m happy to take that position myself.

Henderson next states two possible stances that atheists can take regarding a moral foundation, a socio-biological evolutionary approach and a logical approach. The short version is that is it not his readers who are guilty of strawmanning. Read his article and draw your own conclusions about the necessity of atheists taking up these positions in their attempt at “continuing the delusion of objective morality.” Once again, our definitions of “objective morality” are causing a divergent conversation. A particularly telling point about his comment is the scoffing way in which he notes that, “All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.” Why not assume this, at least provisionally, and wait for the results of taking this line of reasoning? To quote Sam Harris, to ask why human thriving is superior to human suffering is to, “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Henderson may wish to argue that there is no objective difference, as far as the human perspective is concerned, between a world of maximal human flourishing and maximal human suffering, but he might not appreciate just how this would make him look.

As the title states, I do agree with Henderson on particular points. I agree that inherent meaning does not exist, and I agree that objective meaning and morality, in the sense he is using, do not exist. The problem lies in his utter disregard for human agency in matters of meaning and morality, and in his assumption that objective has some abstract, higher meaning – meaning apparently unaffected by being the subjective judgement of the personal being in which, given he is a pastor, I assume Henderson believes. Again accepting his inaccurate definition of “atheist”, a materialistic and scientific nonbeliever is perfectly capable of ascribing any meaning to anything they wish, and can also make a good faith attempt to reach an objective morality that benefits their fellow primates, rather than merely enforcing the diktats of the god du jour (mixing non-English loan-words FTW). Because the dirty little secret of Henderson’s argument is that not only does he fail to discredit the ability of atheists to find meaning and morality, but he fails to notice that his own worldview fails to make this possible. Morality does not become objective because the one passing along the message is all-powerful, and meaning becomes merely impersonal and imposed if it must conform to the divine will. And to quote Henderson for a final time, “How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.”


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Hitchens and Mortality

Well, it’s after midnight, which means I’ve been terribly remiss. Two years ago yesterday, 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens died. (Incidentally, two years ago today, Kim Jong-Il died, broken-hearted at having lost the one person on Earth who understood what a truly twisted, cockatiel-haired little psychopath he was.) Hitchens’ death affected me more profoundly than the death of any other public figure, and recently reading his autobiography and re-reading his short volume “Letters to a Young Contrarian” both saddened me and emboldened me to renew my efforts to make some impact, however small, towards making this planet a better place for my fellow primates to live. The man himself would likely have regarded me as slightly obsequious, but sometimes it is hard to repress feelings of admiration. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but he could never be accused of having made a statement lightly, or of being unable to defend his positions with admirable reasoning, delivered in an infuriatingly clever way. As for thoughts on death, I’ve yet to hear someone better Hitchens:

“Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, ‘Well, good on you. See you there.”


“They call it gallows humor for a reason. You may laugh at death all you like, but only on the condition that you allow death the concluding cackle.”

To follow Hitchens’ own advice, it is important to remember to regard every expert as a mammal. Hitchens was every bit the fallible human, capable of error, boorishness and arrogance. However, I would claim that it could never be said of him that he was a friend to tyranny, earthly or celestial, and nor was he willing to surrender an inch of hard-won ground to those offering threats of eternal or temporal harm. Unlike prophets and preachers, whose words must be regarded as sanctified and inviolable, instead we ought to take Hitchens’ work as exactly what it is – the thoughts of a fellow human, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect, but always worth considering and challenging. Even violent disagreement, if it stimulates thought and results in a more well-reasoned conclusion, can be of tremendous value.

From Hitchens, I learned that the written word can stir more than simple emotion or excite the imagination. Purpose and intent can be communicated through the pages of a book, and can stimulate a strangely irresistible impulse to action in the right mind. For now, I can honestly say that I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do know how I want to do it – boldly, intelligently, and always remembering that as this is the only life of which we can be assured, squandering too much of it on useless or malicious endeavours is an irretrievable waste.

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Return from the Dead, and the Persecution Delusion

I’m not dead yet, for the none of you who were curious. It’s been a rather busy six months or so, and quite a lot has happened. I can now legitimately refer to myself as more than a mere student of philosophy – a philosophy graduate. This is a distinction as consequential as that between a juggler of imaginary geese and a juggler of imaginary flaming geese, of course. But at least I’m now able to put a few letters after my name, which is an amusing novelty. Naturally such a relevant degree from such a prestigious institution has left me adrift in a veritable puddle of job offers, but for now I’m walking among my people in the service industry, selling discount books, imitation Lego and bargain Xmas decorations. Hence, my bloated schedule and inability to update this brain-dump of a blog in a timely fashion.

But something has broken through into my little corner of Paradise. Naturally, I still find time to browse Facebook. How else is one to keep abreast of the developments of one’s friends and who is playing which free, inbox-bloating casual game these days? But one particular chain letter caught my eye, not least because of the grey and bespectacled visage of the author – former Nixon speechwriter and peddler of misinformation, Ben Stein. Admittedly the message was posted last Xmas, and thus this is hardly timely, but since this has only come to my attention in recent days, and since I have already extensively commented on Stein’s statements, I thought this might serve as a springboard back into blogging. If nothing else, I hope for a catharsis, and an opportunity to correct some persistent myths about the state of the persecution of Christians in the United States. There follows the text of Stein’s comments, as quoted by Steve Forbes on Facebook:

My confession:
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejewelled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a nativity scene, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.
Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. 

Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. 

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what a bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

A few points of rebuttal, covering both the simple factual errors and the lapses in logical argument, as well as the broader implications of what Stein appears to be saying.

1) America is not an atheist country, it is a secular country. The difference is subtle but significant. The only way in which to treat all faiths, and lack of faith, fairly is to offer no special treatment to any one belief. Thus, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states that Congress can make no law respecting the establishment of religion. This means that the government cannot endorse any particular religion, or lack thereof, over any others, leaving an equal playing field for all systems of belief, with neither favouritism nor oppression.

2) If God was unwilling to save victims of Hurricane Katrina simply because it is illegal for the government to promote religion in schools and government – while it remains perfectly legal for schoolchildren and government officials to believe and privately practice as they please – such a god is no gentleman, but a petty and malicious egomaniac, who is more interested in his own reputation than saving drowning people. Such a god, if he exists, merits no worship. Anne Graham’s comments, far from being profound and insightful, smack of victim-blaming and emotional blackmail. To use an analogy that I have come to adore, the difference between God and Superman is that Superman will save you whether you believe in him or not.

3) Madelyn Murray O’Hair campaigned successfully for the removal of school-led prayer in public schools, as such a practice is a palpable violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. To characterise this effort as her own personal prejudice being adopted by the government is an attempt to tar this necessary and just development with the legacy of the “most hated woman in America”. Prayer is still perfectly legal in schools, so long as it is not supported by the government-owned establishment. This is entirely the point of a secular government – in refraining from legislating any religious behaviour, any given citizen is free to practise their faith in their own way, or not, as the case may be. And once again, any god vindictive enough to allow the deaths of thousands because his pride has been bruised is worthy only of pity and contempt.

4) As above, reading the Bible is perfectly legal in public schools, so long as it is not a mandatory reading of the book, enforced by the school. Any student may bring their own Bible, and read it during any time that is their own during school hours. The more worrying implication is that we would have no basis for saying that murder and theft are wrong if not for the Bible. Firstly, ethics are a concern entirely independent of religion, and this is plain enough due to the fact that we make ethical judgements about the actions found in religious texts. Secondly, the Bible also teaches behaviour that would make any school environment, and society at large, a much more miserable and inhospitable place. Ought we stone disobedient children (Exodus 21:17), fire all female high school teachers (1 Timothy 2:11-12), or teach children to despise their families (Matthew 10:35-37)? Simply put, the mandatory teaching of the Bible and its morality will do nothing to curb “terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc.”

5) Not merely Dr. Spock, but the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes corporal punishment for children. Minimising the issue by attributing it to one man – and taking a low potshot at his own personal tragedy – is a miserable strawman and appeal to emotion. Is Stein really suggesting that to make beating children illegal is an infringement of religious liberty? If so, this rather undermines his prior point that violence in society stems from a lack of religion.

6) “Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.” – I must ask Mr. Stein for his sources as to a general homicidal, sociopathic tendency among American youngsters, as compared to their pious forebears. This is simply a vile generalisation based upon a few extreme cases – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook – in order to make the political point that the US Government ought to be in the business of indoctrinating children into religion. In the simplest possible terms, conscience is an innate part of our self-awareness and social instincts, right and wrong are meaningful only insofar as they relate to the suffering and flourishing of conscious creatures, and only those who are seriously mentally aneurotypical – psychopaths, for instance – are not bothered by murder.

Mr Stein is mistaking a loss of privilege for persecution. If a Christian is receiving special treatment, above and beyond the treatment meted out to non-Christians, it is not persecution to remove such treatment to the point where all are treated equally. If we are to believe that all people are equal before the law, then the body making those laws, the government, cannot show preferential bias towards any one group in society.And the pitiable complaint of the majority about their loss of privileged position, and their being forced to be treated equally to those they used to look down upon, shows nothing but that the plaintiffs have yet to progress beyond the level of spoiled children.

Funny that a group comprising 80% of the US population regards itself as a put-upon minority.

Funny that those who believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God can find ready, weaseling excuses for his absence during times of real need.

Funny that those who claim a higher moral character must resort to mischaracterisation, ahistoricity and emotional blackmail to advance their cause.

Actually, it isn’t funny. Rather, it is exactly as funny as Stein’s attempted irony. A final analogy: If you have received, every day of your life, a full-body massage, while everyone else must do without, it is not persecution for your shiatsu privileges to be revoked. Rather, for societal equality to be achieved, either everyone must receive special treatment, or no-one. In the case of religious liberty, special consideration for every faith is contradictory and self-defeating – one cannot privilege both the Jewish notion that Jesus was not the Messiah, and the Christian one that he was – and thus secularism, the removal of bias for any particular religion, is the only viable path.

My Best Regards, actually honestly, but only respectfully as far as such respect is merited,

J. Millar

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Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

Having not long finished my honours dissertation on the problem of evil, you could say that I have sin and punishment on the brain. While I didn’t actually address the argument I currently wish to discuss in my TL;DR composition – I was focusing on the rather more grievous problem of natural evil – an interesting objection occurs to me.

Enough foreplay, I ought to actually state the issue: infinite punishment for finite crimes. According to many theists’ models of the universe, the post-death experience contains, for the morally reprobate, some kind of unending torment, usually fixated on the application of extreme heat. As with any time you introduce concepts of infinity into ethics, this presents a seemingly insuperable problem. Take the most loathsome individual of human history – the classics being Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung – and calculate the amount of suffering they caused in their lifetimes. Tally up the millions of deaths, the myriad suffering and the incredible sadness that any of these men visited upon the planet. If you were to put a number on this evil influence, it may well stretch into the millions, billions, or gazillions – but it will be well short of infinite. To co-opt a phrase from Douglas Adams, infinity is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to infinity. Thus, as counter-intuitive as it is, even the worst individual in human history, indeed, the combined efforts of every person who has ever committed the merest immorality, cannot justly merit an infinite punishment. There will come a point when any person has had all the punishment that their actions merit, and from that point all punishment is entirely excessive.

I may have been slightly premature to call this problem “insuperable”.There is a rather ingenious solution that has been put forth by some theists in order to redress the balance, and acquit their supreme being of the charge of cruel and unusual punishment. What matters is not the status of the sinner, the amount of suffering that they caused, but rather the status of their victims. Well, one victim in particular – all wrongdoing is a sleight against an infinite god. So, even the smallest infraction causes infinite harm, because it harms an infinite being, and therefore is deserving of infinite retribution. Don’t worry, petty thief, you’ll get yours.

Call me cynical, but I smell a very large rodent infesting this argument. It is undoubtedly true that we do take the victim’s identity and status into account when judging moral or immoral actions (whether or not this is strictly an ethical thing to do). Punching an infant is seen as far more immoral than punching a young adult. Both are immoral, but the former is seen as more so. So, the premise that the status of the victim is relevant to ethical considerations seems to be provisionally valid, whether this is due to the greater damage caused, or the relative blamelessness of the sufferer, Within this sensible assumption, however, is the kernel of the refutation of the “sleight against the infinite god” argument. If I were to punch an infant in the face, I would be quite rightly reviled as an unmitigated bastard for attacking a tiny creature who cannot defend themselves. If I were to punch a 6′ 7″, 300lb bouncer in the face, I would be regarded as a bit of an arsehole, punching well above my weight and risking a swift and somewhat justified head-kicking. If I were to attempt to punch out Cthulhu (or Godzilla, or King Ghidorah – insert your giant monster of choice), I would be seen as a pathetic insect with a deathwish, utterly incapable of perpetrating the harm that some mad impulse has driven me to attempt. You may be able to extrapolate the argument – in opposition to the desperate theist – that the more powerful the victim, the harder it is to do any harm to them. An infinite god ought to be even less amenable to harm than a Great Old One or the King of the Monsters.

On a side note, this argument obviously relies upon a particular definition of “evil”. I’m using exactly the same definition I used in my dissertation: Evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, whatever happens to cause it. I feel that any other definition either overcomplicates the issue, or introduces nebulous and irrelevant aspects into the discussion of morality and suffering.

So, this rather pitiable objection to regarding infinite punishment as entirely unjust is, in my mind, utterly refuted. I’m open to having my mind changed, but until I do, belief in any religion with any concept of infinite punishment (or reward, for that matter) cannot be moral. As always, this is not a denigration of religious believers of this stripe, but rather the recognition that the overwhelming majority of religious believers are better than their religion. I have no idea who might be reading, but if you’re out there, and if you have any thoughts on the matter, please, pass them on.

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