Sunday, 10 April 2011

More Rees Pudding

In an interview with Jonathan Leake in the Sunday Times (behind a paywall, so no link - paywall down? - up again), the new Templeton Prizee Martin Rees continues his apologia against his critics. AC Grayling is quoted as saying:
...I wish Templeton would not bribe scientists into giving them credibility. The Templeton desire to mix religion with science is like trying to mix astrology with astronomy or magic with medicine. A great disservice is done to education and the proper understanding of the world by this and anyone who accepts Templeton money is helping to perpetuate this problem.
Leake puzzles over Rees the atheist's attitude to religion:
What Rees seems to be saying is that he believes religion is valuable and useful - while also believing it is completely untrue. That's a contradiction most of us would find hard to reconcile but for a scientist, whose life has been spent seeking out provable truths, surely it should be impossible.
I think this is what most new atheists complain about when faitheists make their rather vapid apologies for religion. Rees responds:
I think some people even with no belief may see that there is value in the practice of religion...
But that is not the issue; is the value worth the cost?
Let me give you an example: there are lots of Jews who would say they are atheists, but they still light their candles on Friday and participate in some rituals because they think there is some value in maintaining those traditions.
Of course, but some rituals don't end with candles being lit, but fuses.

But to get back to Templeton, Rees cites the rather anodyne version of religion of which he approves while apparently being oblivious of the insidious harm to science caused by the Templeton Foundation, since they took up the 'Science and Religion' meme. As I wrote before, we have them funding scienceandreligion organisations at both Oxford and Cambridge, with such 'scientific' papers as Human genomics and the Image of God. What do Templeton gain from Rees? Bell Pottinger are their PR advisors (Chairman, Tim Bell, who conspired to bring the Iron Lady to power), and Leake ends his report by saying:
Rees was, as ever, reluctant to comment. but for the man from Bell Pottinger discreetly minding Rees throughout his media interviews last week the answer was obvious. "I think the Templeton Foundation have got just what they want out of this year's award," he said, as he whisked Rees off to another interview.
Brilliant. £1,000,000 to be a poodle to the religious lobby. It really is unforgivable that Rees has no response to the problems that Grayling identifies.

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Harris on Divine Morality

This debate, Does Good come from God?,  is an interesting contrast of styles. Some have 'awarded' the debate points to William Lane Craig, since he responds more formally to Sam Harris's points, while Harris sticks, mostly, to his agenda, and doesn't really expose WLC's argument. This may be because he didn't want to spend too much time on WLC's nonsense so as not to legitimise it.

But, while not formally objecting to WLC's particular argument, Harris did rather brilliantly expose the poverty of the divine command theory. In his original statement, Harris sets out his stall: because there is a worst possible state of affairs that we want to avoid, we can therefore safely assume that morality is the attempt to make the world better than that. And so, human flourishing determines morality. This is a pretty controversial position to say the least, and not necessarily true; I'm just putting that up there to set the scene for Harris to address WLC's Christian world view:
Ask yourselves: what is wrong with spending eternity in Hell?
So Lane Craig has laughed at the idea that well being could be a sufficient determinant for morality (which it may well not be), but his philosophy is built on the very same idea. And Harris goes on to show how the nature of Christian consequentialism can logically lead to immoral behaviour, and because of that, *is* an immoral doctrine to hold and preach.
Well I'm told it's rather hot there, for one. Dr Craig is not offering an alternative view of morality.The whole point of Christianity, or so it is imagined, is to safeguard the eternal well being of human souls. Now happily, there is absolutely no evidence that the Christian hell exists. I think we should look at the consequences of believing in this theistic framework in this world, and what these moral underpinnings actually would be.
Nine million children die each year before the age of five. Picture an Asian tsunami, of the sort we saw in 2004 that killed a quarter of a million people. One of those every ten days, killing only those under five. 24,000 children a day, a thousand an hour, seventeen or so a minute, that means before I can get to the end of this sentence some few children will have died in terror and agony. 
Think of the parents of these children. Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God, and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared. And their prayers will not be answered.
According to Dr Craig, this is all part of God's plan. 
Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them, or doesn't care to. Is therefore either impotent or evil. And worse than that, on Dr Craig's view, many of these people will be going to hell because they're praying to the wrong God. Think about that. Through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture, where they got the wrong theology, and the missed the revelation. 
There are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment, most of them are Hindus, most of them therefore are polytheists. In Dr Craig's universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are praying to the monkey god, Hanuman, you are doomed. You'll be tortured in hell for eternity. Now is there the slightest evidence for this? No, it just says so in Mark 9, Matthew 13and Revelations 14. Perhaps you'll remember from The Lord of the Rings, it says that when the elves die, they go to Valinor, but they can be reborn in Middle Earth. I say that just as a point of comparison. 
So God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus; he engineered the circumstances of their deaths in ignorance of revelation, and then he created the penalty for this ignorance, which is an eternity of conscious torment in fire. 
On the other hand, on Dr Craig's account, your run-of-the-mill serial killer in America, who spent his life raping and torturing children, need only come to God, come to Jesus on Death Row, and after a final meal of fried chicken, he's going to spend an eternity in heaven, after death. One thing should be crystal clear to you, this vision of life has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.
Please notice the double standard that people like Dr Craig use to exonerate God from all this evil. We're told that God is kind and loving and just and intrinsically good, but when someone like me points out the rather compelling evidence that God is cruel and unjust because he visits suffering on innocent people of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath, we're told that God is mysterious. Who can understand God's will? This merely human understanding of God's will is precisely what believers use to establish his goodness in the first place. If something good happens to a Christian, he feels some bliss while praying, say, or he sees some positive changes in his life, then we're told that God is good. But when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parents' arms and drowned, we're told that God is mysterious. This is how you [Christians] play tennis without the net. 
And I want to suggest to you that it is not only tiresome, when otherwise intelligent people speak this way, it is morally reprehensible. This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism; God loves me, don't you know? He cured me of my eczema. He makes me feel so good while singing in church. And just when we were giving up hope he found a banker who was willing to give my mother a mortgage. Given all that this God of yours doesn't accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that's being imposed on some helpless child at this instance, this kind of faith is obscene. To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently for the suffering of other human beings. 
And if God is good and loving and just and kind, and he wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery; why give us a book that admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft? Now, of course, there are ways of not taking these questions to heart. According to Dr Craig's Divine Command theory, God is not bound by moral duties, God does not have to be good, whatever He commands is good, so whenever He commands the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, that behaviour becomes intrinsically good because He commanded it.
Here we're being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. Psychotic because it's completely delusional, there is no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled over by an invisible monster, Yahweh. But is is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings, that so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.
I should point out here that the well-being of humans is being ignored by theists in this world, because of the pre-occupation with the afterlife, for which there is absolutely no evidence.
Just think about the Muslims, at this moment, who are blowing themselves up convinced that they are agents of God's will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour in moral terms apart from his own faith based claim that they're praying to the wrong God.
If they had the right God what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
Now, I'm obviously not saying that Dr Craig or religious people are all psychopaths and psychotic, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. if you wake up tomorrow morning, thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you've lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you're just a Catholic.
A good demonstration of how religion legitimises ridiculous beliefs.
And I'm not the first person to notice that it's a very strange loving God that would make salvation depend on believing in him on bad evidence. If you lived two thousand years ago, there was evidence galore and he was just performing miracles but apparently he got tired of being so helpful. And so now we all inherit this very heavy burden of the doctrine's implausibility, and the effort to square it with what we now know about the cosmos and what we know about the all too human origins of scripture, it becomes more and more difficult. It's not just the generic God that Dr Craig is recommending, it's God the Father and Jesus the Son. Christianity, on Dr Craig's account, is the true moral wealth of the world.
I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame: Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice. Christianity is not a religion that repudiates human sacrifice, it is a religion that celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son - John 3:16. The idea is that Jesus suffered crucifixion so none may suffer hell. Except those billions in India. And billions like them throughout history.
This doctrine is astride a contemptible history of scientific ignorance and religious barbarism. We come from people who used to bury children in the foundations of new buildings as offerings to their imaginary gods. Just think about that. In vast numbers of societies, people would bury children in postholes, people like ourselves thinking that this would prevent an invisible being from knocking down their buildings. These are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible.
If there is a less moral framework than the one Dr Craig is proposing, I haven't heard of it.
Well said, Sam, imho.

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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A Compliant Quisling?

So the Astronomer Royal has won this year's Templeton Prize, worth a cool £1,000,000.

Sir Martin Rees has given this interview to The Guardian, and it contains some interesting quotes. He says he doesn't have a view on what the Templeton Prize achieves. When pushed, he says:
They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin's correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.
This is a rather disappointing comment. It suggests that because people are nice, their agenda doesn't matter. Certainly Templeton's agenda is broad, in the sense that it tries to affect a wide range of disciplines, but it's not broad in its world view. It looks to encourage theism and spirituality, and, more worryingly, it looks to insert faith into scientific work. That should worry Rees. For example, he also says:
...I think doing science makes me realise that even the simplest things are pretty hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they've got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality. And also I see human beings as not the culmination, but only a stage in the marvellous unfolding of evolution, because the timeline ahead is as long as the time that has lapsed up to now. Those are respects in which my professional interests affect my response to dogmatic religion.
That's well said, and works against faith and the idea that we can have a divine access to the truth, a heavenly broadband connection. Indeed, dogmatic religion is something of a tautology, certainly in the Western tradition. He goes on:
I won't comment on him [Dawkins!], but I'm not allergic to religion. I would say two things. One is that I think all of us are concerned about fanaticism and fundamentalism and we need all the allies we can muster against it. And I would see Rowan Williams et al as being on our side. I admire them more than want to rubbish them. 
Rowan Williams on our side? What about the Pope? These people preach misogynistic and homophobic lies for dogmatic reasons, so it's difficult to see how they could be on the side of any right-thinking person. But, of course, they may be nice people for a cup of tea and a sit down, so that's all right then. I'm happy to say that I'm allergic to misogyny and homophobia.
Another point is if you are teaching Muslim sixth formers in a school and you tell them they can't have their God and Darwin, there is a risk they will choose their God and be lost to science. So those are two respects where I would disagree with the emphasis of the professional atheists, as it were.
'Professional' atheists don't say that people cannot believe in God and Darwin; plainly they can. They say that the science is incompatible with most of the claims of the major religions. which is a fact unless one is prepared to indulge in the sort of epistemological relativism that leaves us impotent to move forward. I wonder if Rees can think of a downside to saying that they can have God and Darwin?

Rees does betray some militant tendencies:
Science teachers have to address them [Creationism and ID]  if they are brought up, but I am rather opposed to faith schools in general.
That strikes me as quite strident. But he says further:
Interviewer: If there is a clear and obvious boundary between science and religion, how does religion come to be used in these contexts?

MR: I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates.
He's avoided these debates to the tune of £1,000,000!

But, of course, he hasn't avoided them; he's accommodated, as you can see from the replies immediately before this one. Now, I don't see that there is anything he's done other than a little light accommodation to warrant the prize, so there's no corruption of science here. He's just a good scientist who believes a little in belief, and I dare say always has, regardless of Templeton. Before talking about the science he says:
I am sorry you focused on science and religion rather than what I think are the interesting things I do. 
A rather naive thing to say when you've just banked a large sum of money for accommodating religion. It would be a shame indeed if this overshadowed his science.

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