Tree 7,000 years older than the entire universe...

Thursday, December 31, 2009
...if you are a Young Earth Creationist who dates the entire universe as approx 6,000 years old.

Go here.

At 13,000 years, tree is world’s oldest organism. It began life during the last ice age, long before man turned to agriculture and built the first cities in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. It was already thousands of years old when the Egyptians built their pyramids and the ancient Britons erected Stonehenge.

The Jurupa Oak tree first sprouted into life when much of the world was still covered in glaciers. It has stood on its windswept hillside in southern California for at least 13,000 years, making it the oldest known living organism, according to a study published today.

“Ring counts show that the Jurupa Oak is growing extremely slowly. At its current rate of about one twentieth of an inch [of growth] per year, it would have taken at least 13,000 years for the clone to reach its current size. And it could be much older,” said Michael May, a member of the research team.

The Institute for Creation Research (a Young Earth Creationist organization) will start work on trying to debunk this right away, I guess.

Results of debate in Malawi

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Thanks to George Thindwa for this...


Debate took place on 27th December 2009 in Lilongwe, Malawi

These are the phone-in text messages that were received on the debate. (The English translation is in brackets where caller used local language)

1. I am glad God is in control during this debate – Mr Weston-Time: 27/12/2009 20:14:37
2. Christianity is real and acts as a safety valve, without it there could be total uncontrollable murder, theft, etc. If we revolved from monkeys, who created monkeys then? I'm Thakatwayo Mbizi, Mzimba District (north).
3. Humanism is a disgrace to our Christian country. ALLEN. time: 27/12/2009 20:17:44
4. Humanism: can change our country to better a Malawi, we are ready to welcome the humanist; they should be some sought of changes. Joel Twanjo Chihana, Karonga district.
5. To claim there is no God is to play god. To suggest that human beings are a product of evolution is to suggest that a radio or computer is superior to man. Steven. Time: 27/12/2009 20:21:59
6. Malawi has been, is and will forever be a Christian nation. People should always edit their words before they speak them to avert his wrath - Kalivute from Nthesa Village in Ntchisi district. Time: 27/12/2009 20:20:44
7. Abodza enawo chikritsu ndiye chowona. Alape lero, muwabatize abusa achakwela ine gift magunda. (Those Humanists are liars. Christ is the truth. They should repent and be baptised by Pastors) -Kabindiza Village.G DEDZA. Time: 27/12/2009 20:15:28
8. If atrocities take place in unreligious/unchristian society. Can humanism explain who is responsible for this? Moses Kasitomu. Blantyre district.
9. Mulungu ndiye mwini chitukuko asamanyoze yehova chifukwa alemela lero. (God is the owner of development. Humanists should not degrade God because they have become rich today)-Time: 27/12/2009 20:13:57
10. The country belongs to all.- M. Chingomanje from South Africa. Time: 27/12/2009 20:17:13
11. Secular humanism ilibe malo in Malawi. Amenewo akadwala amafuna KHRISTU akumkanayo, (Humanism has no place in Malawi. Those humanists when sick they will want Christ the one they are despising)-Boxer, Dowa district.
12. If he said that there is no God. Who create this world and he will meet God at the end of his life.Time: 27/12/2009 20:12:36
13. To humanists: why should u be good today if u don’t believe in life after death? What keeps a poor humanist from stealing if he is sure that his action won’t bring him eternal condemnation? Bizwick Kainga, Blantyre- Time: 27/12/2009 20:36:31
14. Who is your God? Why is it that you differ to answer!! You Christians. Time: 27/12/2009 20:36:37
15. Pa 2 timoteo 3:1-4 akukamba za masiku otsiriza zimene anthuwa ndikufuna kungosokera anthu. Chi Khristu ndi chabwino kwa aMalawi chifukwa chirikuteteza. ( Timothy 3:1-4 talks about the end times. Those humanists want to confuse people. Christianity is good to Malawians because it protects us)- Victor Mphande. Time: 27/12/2009 20:34:17
16. The humanists don’t know what they are saying. 1- I can hear them doubting often, they are always saying may be, may be. 2- Read the Bible Isaac wasn’t killed. Better shut up if u don’t know. Mazibayao Kamata, ICA, Lilongwe.
17. Christianity is the hub of mankind the world over. Diverson Bwanankubwa,Manja,Blantyre- Time: 27/12/2009 20:38:14
18. If they are saying we are from monkeys, then who created monkeys? Kungoti our god is good, if I were god ndikanangowalanga pomwepo Brighton Magongwa area 23. Time: 27/12/2009 20:32:57
19. Christianity is real and anyone there knows. If you play with God, you will face wrath. Blessings Mlowoka, Mzuzu .
20. Bravo humanists we welcome you. God is not good. Religion is counter progressive. Malawi needs to progress- Banda Lilongwe- Time: 27/12/2009 20:31:02
21. Development can be there even without Christianity. Were people from the Old Testament Christians? Elaborate on this using the Bible. Cosmas Banda. Area 12.
22. U can be a loser by following humanism. You lose nothing by following God, and you'll perish, it will be proved that God is real at the end. John Ngulube MZUZU
23. Chi krisitu ntchakukhumbika mMalawi, wanji wakubwelebweta waka .Chiuta ntchindele yai pakutipa chalu cha mtende. (Christianity is good for Malawi, others are just talking nonsense. God is not stupid for giving us a peaceful Malawi)-Allan Mphande-Mzimba West,Mphimbi.
24. Thindwa Wamwana, Leka Kuteta. Wezi Banda -Mpherembe, Mzimba district. (George Thindwa, young man, stop lying)- Mzimba District. Time: 27/12/2009 20:54:04
25. Religious people live by faith. Faith is blind belief. Therefore, Christians are blind followers. Open your eyes and see. John Lilongwe-Time: 27/12/2009 20:51:34
26. Speaking against God and Jesus is blasphemous, repent now or you perish. Aubrey Ngoma- Mzimba District - Time: 27/12/2009 20:44:42
27. Many pastors abuse God for their benefit, instil fear in people so they can reap more from them. Phil. Lilongwe.
28. Olakwa ndinu nonse akhristu muli pompo chifukwa mukupepusa dzina la Ambuye Yesus Christ. Asiyeni akufa aikane akufa okhaokha. (The wrong ones are you Christians who are there at the debate because you are belittling the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Leave them those humanists , they want to bury each other themselves when they die)-S.Chilonga.Chinsapo.LL.
29. Humanists! Did the Israelites evolve from monkeys? If God favours them, why not us because we are alike. Thus you can agree that there is real God. Fortune. Chiradzulu. Time: 27/12/2009 21:03:41
30. Kodi okhulupilira umunthuwa analembetsa kapena ndi odziwika ndi boma? Anthuwa ngosokonekela ndipo atisokoneza, tichenjere. (Are these humanists registered with Government? These people are confused and they will confuse us, let us be on the alert)-Wezi Banda- Time: 27/12/2009 21:28:19
31. Am glad that humanists are also quoting verses from the bible, it means that they know the truth but they only choose to ignore it. This isn't strange. Blantyre district-Time: 27/12/2009 21:08:55
32. Morality is not a Christian monopoly. It is a social product.–Sam, Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 21:05:09
33. There is not even a single sensible point that Humanists have said to capture my attention. Shaba Allen
Time: 27/12/2009 21:01:57
34. Abusa Achakwela amenewo ndi ana abadwa chikristu chilipo kale asatinamize. atuluke Mmalawi muno. (Pastor Chakwera, those humanist are children born after Christianity is already established. They should not tell us lies. They should leave this country)-Makina Spacious, Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 21:01:49
35. Becoz it is the only satisfying answer to the question: why is there something rather than nothing? A question of purpose & not function of lyf &or our existence. Ngosi, Mzuzu. Time: 27/12/2009 21:00:27
36. These people talking against God will one day seek God on their dying beds-P.S Seira. Time: 27/12/2009 20:59:51
37. Those on the humanism desk know the truth. They disagree just for the sake of educational purposes. Lot Manda - Mzuzu. Time: 27/12/2009 20:58:06
38. Human Rights are founded on the 10 commandments. From Olivia Liwewe, scholar. Time: 27/12/2009 20:56:08
39. Christianity is supreme in Malawi. Where would Malawi be without Christianity? No God, no science. God gave scientists brains, He controls everything. Hilda, Blantyre .Time: 27/12/2009 20:55:07
40. Can the humanists explain how they came into existence themselves? Who and what is their ancestor. Let them explain their link scientifically. Michael- Mzuzu. Time: 27/12/2009 20:53:18
41. This is blasphemy at its best. U say these humanists are Malawians? Anjatidwe manja amenewo. (Arrest them). Christianity is the best thing for Malawi, Vincent Kumwenda Mulanje. Time: 27/12/2009 20:51:53
42. There was a parliamentarian who he believed in no God, but he cried 4 God's rescue when his boat overturned on his way to Likoma Island, what was he crying for?-Jon Mulera-Zomba
Time: 27/12/2009 20:50:43
43. Those humanisms are a sign of the coming of Jesus Christ. Beware of them. I am Nelson Kapira .Kasisi. Karonga Time: 27/12/2009 20:50:31
44. Who is sponsoring u guys? Muvulala. (You will be injured). GOD is good. Amon Ndeketu.Kasungu. Time: 27/12/2009 20:49:09
45. Harboring secular humanism is to harbor evil. Malawi and rest of the world does not need that. H. Mtushera, Machinga.Time: 27/12/2009 20:48:59
46. Bravo Humanists.Atsogoleri Achikhristu asadye. (Christian leaders should not eat)-Time: 27/12/2009 20:47:37
47. Let every Malawian know that these are the end times. Lets pray for our Malawi. Those umunthu (humanists) guys should repent. God should help them through. Ruth Shaba Gulliver. Time: 27/12/2009 20:44:47
48. Fools say to themselves, "There is no God." Zausatana muno ayi! ( No Satanism here in Malawi) -I'm Michael Chibvumbula. Dowa district. Time: 27/12/2009 20:42:51
49. God does not exist. He is in your head. Grow up Christians. How can you believe in a speaking snake? John Banda, Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 20:41:29.
50. Please ask these humanists. Which book are they using and when did they come to Malawi? Where were they all this time? With Christianity, blind people are able to see. Gasana Mponela. Time: 27/12/2009 20:39:10
51. Auzeni zoona nkhani ya mulungu siyoseweletsa. Akutsutsawo apemphelereni a chakwela kuti amudziwe yesu. (Tell them the truth because God issues are not for play. Pastor Chakwera, pray to those humanist opposers so that they know Jesus) -Gogo Chalo Kalumba, ll. Time: 27/12/2009 20:39:10
52. Abodza enawo chikritsu ndiye chowona.Palibe chimene akudziwa.Tiwathandize mapemphelo ndi mayitanidwe.( Those humanists are lying. Christianity is the truth. Those humanists do not know anything. Let us help them by praying and god callings) - Gift Magunda, Kabindiza Village –Dedza district. Time: 27/12/2009 20:37:39
53. Christianity is real. Gents don’t play God. God is the source of all good things coz he is also good. J G Kajawa (Mtakataka). Time: 27/12/2009 20:36:18
54. Mulungu awakhululukire awo pakuti sakudziwa chimene akuchita. (Let God forgive those humanists because they do not know what they are doing)-Mary Hudson Phiri. Mthang'ombe Village,T/A.Masumbankhunda, Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 20:35:50
55. Christianity is the only solution for human to continue living in harmony because other ways of life have failed to bring peace to the world. Jumpha Mkandawire, Karonga; Time: 27/12/2009 20:35:38
56. Humanism can easily bring disunity, people will not respect each other and as a result the nation will fall down. Bright Nowa- Kataya School-Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 20:34:08
57. We love because God is love.1 John 4:8.Therefore, Christianity definitely is good for us Malawians. Wiseman Hudson Fredrick, Mthang’ombe Vg, Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 20:29:10
58. Christianity is a relationship. A relationship demands communication and the bible is a collection of letters to Christians and no humanist will ever understand them. Again! How did matter come into being? A renowned physicist Max Planc confirms that there is nothing like matter per se. All matter exists through a force and behind that force there is an intelligent mind. Can humanists tell me the intelligent mind behind the aforesaid force? Real science will never contradict the Bible but today's science contradicts evolution. Evolution is nothing but pure guess work. Harris Kumwenda in Area 23. Time: 27/12/2009 20:28:46
59. I say no GOD, no life. From Mchinji district. I am JOSHUA! Time: 27/12/2009 20:27:15
60. To you Humanists. What do you think can Malawians benefit if it is turned into Humanism. Time: 27/12/2009 20:23:08
61. I agree with Pastor Nick. I am a walking testimony of Christ. I know Him personally. I know that He healed- Time: 27/12/2009 20:22:43
62. Malawians set their morals thru Constitution & Laws. We don’t need god to set these for us. Phil. Lilongwe. Time: 27/12/2009 20:21:37
63. God is real and why are u speaking his name anyhow. His name should be respected. Vincent Mbwaga, Kaporo, Karonga District. Time: 27/12/2009 20:21:05
64. God is real you can’t say that humanist work at last u meet judgement. Rashid from Salima district.
Time: 27/12/2009 20:18:52
65. I am Matola from Mchinji. My comment is that we have to follow Christianity to have the blessed country. Time: 27/12/2009 20:18:52
66. Secular Humanism should not divert Christians. Why do they exist on earth? Christianity is real. G. Makalani, Mkanakhoti, Kasungu District. Time: 27/12/2009 20:18:46
67. To the seculars. Can they simply tell where they were before they came on earth? Who is their ancestor? Where are they coming from and going? May God forgive. Paul -Salima District. Time: 27/12/2009 20:17:00
68. Why are humans and animals not evolving, no monkeys becoming humans? Frank, Dedza District. Time: 27/12/2009 20:12:18

In total 73 phone-ins were received and the Moderator deleted five that he thought were bordering on obscenity. His apologies has been received as the Association wanted to read those ones as well for purpose of our strategies in promoting Humanism in Malawi.

Northumberland 29 December

I have bought a Vado HD pocket video which I will use to make little podcasts etc to post here and on twitter. Here's a quick test which I shot yesterday here in Northumberland...

Any requests?

Seeing Angels

Monday, December 28, 2009

Very irritating Emma Heathcote-James on angels. Chris French does his best given the biased format of the programme ... BBC Radio 4 "Beyond Belief" 28th December 4pm (available for one week).

Below is a quote from programme from Father Gregory Hallam, Greek Orthodox Priest and believer in angels. Chris French was challenged by Hallam to say what would count as evidence of angels (Hallam perhaps implying that Chris wouldn't allow anything to count as evidence - i.e. that there are no angels is a "faith position" for Chris) - Hallam asked Chris "What actual evidence, Chris, would make you change your mind?" - and Chris suggested we could get objective evidence of angels if e.g. under controlled conditions they provided information to those who claim to communicate with them that could be checked and which could not have been acquired in any other way.

My problem with your answer Chris is you are subjecting these phenomenon to certain criteria and tests in relation to scientific evidence and you're actually talking about a confusion of categories of truth here. I understand that you operate in the realm of anomolistic psychology and that this is a kind of a difficult interface between science and human experience but I think that unless we are actually clear how to assess each piece of evidence according to appropriate criteria we risk just making no sense at all.

From BBC Radio 4 "Beyond Belief" 28th December 4pm (@21 mins)

Kenyan elders killed in witch-hunt - 26 Dec 09

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Thanks to atheist media blog.

Health Care Reform and Franken

Thursday, December 24, 2009
On the day Congress passes the Health Care reform bill, here are two short vids illustrating why I'd vote Al Franken for President (if he were running, and, er, I could vote for him....).

Archbishop of York condemns Ugandan anti-gay bill

The Archbishop of York has condemned proposals in Uganda to put to death gay people who have sex with a minor.

John Sentamu, who was born in the African country, said anti-homosexual laws being debated were "victimising".

A private member's bill going through Uganda's parliament would see gays and lesbians sentenced to life in prison if convicted of having sex. Continues...

No sequel to "Golden Compass"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Catholic League's Bill Donahue claims credit for getting the Phillip Pullman sequel film pulled.

POST SCRIPT: A pertinent question, I suppose, is: how would Bill Donahue react if atheists had boycotted and lobbied re. the first Narnia film - succeeding in getting sequels stopped - on the grounds that such films are Christian propaganda (C.S. Lewis was a fairly conservative Christian, Aslan represents Christ, the White Witch Satan, etc.) and, in particular, that the films represent those who fail to follow Aslan/Jesus - i.e. atheists - as morally weak and/or depraved and evil creatures in the grip of The White Witch/Satan.

If he would be somewhat disgusted (and I think he'd have a right to be, to be honest - damn, I'd be disgusted at such petty-minded, bullying censorship from atheists!), how would he square that with his crowing over (he claims) his success in getting the Pullman sequels stopped because of their supposedly implicit anti-religious message? Is it OK to be a bullying censor if it's in the cause religion, but not if in the cause of, say, atheism? I wonder what he'd say...

Anti-Homosexual rallies in Kampala (received today)

Folks, homophobia is the greatest test humanists are facing today in Uganda. As I write this piece, demonstrators - a bunch of youth led by Uganda's thieving and hypocritical pastors are- covering the entire Kampala city with vehicles loaded with mega speakers and hundreds of youth shouting all sorts of insults at the Danish embassy, very near to my office, they are doing this to all foreign embassies that have recently come out to speak for tolerance and a need to observe human rights laws.

Two days ago, leading law dons in Uganda held a joint conference with anti gay legislators and the conference become an arena in which the legislators warned that the law is to be passed and all of us who in one way or another are promoting human rights and calling for a review of the anti homosexuality bill were warned of the impending dangers.

Friends, its going to be hard to research, write a book or even be associated with gays as the bill makes it criminal. I am writing a book on homosexuality and data collection on this issue is on going. With this law, I am keeping my fingers crossed.


Uri Geller crystal pendulum dowsing set

Late birthday present from Nigel and Anna. Let you know how it goes.....

I am on Twitter

my inane ramblings now on Twitter. Stephenlaw60.

Xmas Greetings

Sunday, December 20, 2009
"Lo! An Angel Appeared!"

self portrait circa 1984.

History of Humanism - for comments

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The roots of modern humanism run at least as far back as the Ancient world. The kind of “big questions” humanism addresses – such as, “Does God exist?”, “What makes for a meaningful life?”, and “What makes things morally right or wrong?” – are questions humanity has been asking the world over for millennia. In many times and places, both the approach taken to answering such questions and the non-religious answers given have been similar to the approach taken and answers given by humanists today. As we are about to discover, modern humanism is able to draw on a rich and long intellectual legacy.

Ancient Indian thought

A sceptical attitude towards religious teaching is a feature of some early Indian writing. One of the Upinashads even questions whether the god Brahman exists. Later, a sixth century B.C. Indian school of thought - the Carvaka system - did not merely question whether there was a deity, it positively asserted that there was not. The the Carvaka system of philosophy is essentially atheistic and materialistic, insisting the natural, material world is all that there is, priests are useless and the religion a false human invention. Rather than lead an ascetic existence, we should live life to the full, seeking out pleasure and happiness.


Confucius (551-479 BC) is the father of Confucianism, a system of thought that came to dominate China and other parts of Asia for millennia. Although Confucius took the existence of both heaven and gods for granted, the system of ethical and political philosophy he developed stood in large part independently of any commitment to gods and supernaturalism. Confucius is particularly associated with the Golden Rule. He said

Do not unto another that you would not have him do unto you. Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest.

The Golden Rule is embraced not only by many religious people (it is of course also associated with later religious figures, including Jesus), but also by many humanists.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece witnessed an extraordinary flowering of human culture, Particular emphasis was placed on the application of reason. Philosophers developed various theories about the nature of the world and tried to answer various fundamental social, moral and political questions. Their striving to know and understand was rooted, above all, in rational inquiry. Unlike those offering answers and explanations rooted in legend and myth, the thinkers of Ancient Greece felt a powerful obligation to try to justify their positions and answers through the application of reason and evidence. This critical attitude led some to reject belief in gods, supposing that the natural world is the only world there is.

Ancient Greece is also significant to contemporary humanists because it exhibits important political developments important to humanism – most notably a limited form of democracy (limited because it did not extend to slaves or women), though forms of democracy may have existed earlier, for example in sixth century BC India) The word democracy itself means "the power of the people" in Ancient Greek. Some Greek states – especially Athens – were comparatively open, largely tolerating the questioning of orthodoxy and the promotion of a wide variety of philosophical views (though, notoriously, it did eventually clamp down on Socrates’ stinging intellectual investigations).

Three early Greek philosophers ae of particular significance to contemporary humanism. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes lived in Miletus in the sixth century BC, and together comprise “the Milesian school”.

Thales believed that everything was ultimately derived from water, water shaped by a sort of cosmic mind. He believed the Earth floated on water. Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, rejected Thales theory, supposing that the ultimate underlying principle (or arche) is apeiron, a kind of underlying cosmic stuff from which everything we can see is derived. Anaximander offered arguments against Thales’ view – noting that water cannot encompass all the opposites we find in nature (for example, while water can be wet, it cannot be dry). Many consider Anaximander the father of astronomy. He developed an essentially mechanical model of how the heavens operate, in contrast to the largely mythological explanations that had previously been offered. Anaximander also developed a theory, based partly on fossils, that man developed from creatures that lived in the sea. In attempting to offer naturalistic explanations for phenomena that had previously been explained in mythic or religious terms, Anaximander marks an important intellectual turning point in the development of science. Anaximenes, a colleague and/or student of Anaximander, rejected both Thales claim that everything is water and Anaximander’s apeiron. According to Anaximenes, the most findamental stuff is air. Anaximenes’ choice of air as the fundamental arche or stuff was based on empirical observations Anaximenes made of, for example, the way in which air, when condensed, produces rain water. Condense air further, he believed, and it will become solid earth.

The manner in which these Milesian philosophers thought critically and independently, largely putting aside mythological and religious explanations and instead attempting to develop their own ideas and theories grounded in observation and reason, obviously makes them particularly important from a humanist point of view. These three thinkers collectively exhibit several of the key ideas and values of humanism.

Another important philosopher, from a humanist perspective, is Protagoras (490-420 BC). Protagoras was concerned with the question of how virtue might be taught. His reasoning about morality and virtue was pursued without any reliance on theistic or religious doctrine or belief. Protagoras was a self-declared agnostic. He said:

Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.

The doctrine with which Protagoras is now most closely associated is that,

Man is the measure of all things, of the reality of those which are, and the unreality of those which are not.

The Greek philosopher Plato interpreted this to mean that what is true and what is false is relative to individuals and what they believe. If I believe that Paris is the capital of France then that is true for me; if you believe Berlin is the capital of France than that is true for you. There is no objective fact of the matter – no truth with a capital “T”, as it were – as to which of us is correct. Note that, on such a crude, relativistic view of truth, it is possible to make something true just by believing it. Plato famously attacks this form of relativism in his dialogue Protagoras.

While this kind of relativism about truth is supposedly widespread today (see morality chapter XX), it is interesting to note that relativism is by no means a recent phenomenon, and that Plato considered it a threat even in Ancient times. Contemporary humanists are often caricatured by their opponents as subscribing to some form of relativism, particularly relativism about moral truth (humanists, it is often said, think that morality boils down to mere subjective taste or preference, that there is therefore no fact of the matter about what is right and wrong, and thus that if a murderer believes murder is morally acceptable, then they are correct). This kind of moral relativism is not, however, a position to which humanists are obliged to subscribe, and very few do subscribe to it (I am not sure I have ever met a humanist who does subscribe to it, in fact).

Socrates (469-399 BC) is widely considered one of the most important philosophers. He wrote nothing, and remains something of an enigma. What we know about him comes from the writings of others – such as Aristophanes, Xenophon, and particularly Plato, within whose dialogues Socrates features as a leading character. As Plato presents him, Socrates is no atheist. Nor did Plato’s Socrates favour an open, democratic society. He recommends a rigid, hierarchical political system in which philosophers rule (though Plato’s shifting characterization of Socrates over time suggests this may just be Plato’s view, not Socrates). Nevertheless, it seems there is still much about Socrates that humanists may rightly admire – including his unwillingness just passively to accept what others take for granted, and his relentless application of reason in his attempts to discover the truth. Socrates’ method of intellectually probing the views of others often had a stinging effect on them, and eventually resulted in him facing charges, including the charge of “corrupting the youth”. Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates is electrifying, and helped make Socrates one of world’s best-known martyrs for the cause of reason and truth.

The philosopher Aristotle (341-271BC) is also significant for humanists – not least because of the manner in which he attempts to develop an ethical theory rooted in a close study of the nature of human beings, and because the focus of his ethics is on how to achieve to a particular kind of happiness or well-being in this life (rather than in some life to come).

But perhaps the most important Ancient Greek philosopher, from the point of view of humanism, is Epicurus (341-271BC). Epicurus was a materialist who believed, like the philosopher Democritus, that matter was made up of invisible parts or atoms existing in empty space, and governed by laws. Human beings too are essentially corporeal, according to Epicurus, possessing no immaterial or immortal soul. According to Epicurus, justice consists in our abiding by the contracts and agreements we make between us not to harm each other.

For Epicurus, philosophy is essentially therapeutic. His aim was the development of a philosophy of life that would allow us to enjoy a happy and tranquil existence free from fear – particularly the fear of death and of the wrath of gods.

While Epicurus took the existence of gods for granted, he supposed they could have no interest in human affairs. They neither rewarded nor punished us, and so there was no need to fear them. Nor should death be feared, thought Epicurus, because once we are dead we no longer exists to experience anything. But then there is nothing in death – no pain or suffering – for us to be fearful of. Epicurus’ saying:

I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind

was often inscribed on the gravestones of his followers, particular though out the Roman Empire. It can often be heard recited at humanist funerals today.

Epicurus placed particular emphasis on friendship and living well. He also believed that pleasure and pain were the only measures of good and bad. As a result, Epicurus has often been misunderstood to be recommending a life of unbridled hedonism, of gluttony and orgies. In fact Epicurus warns against overindulgence and excess.

Epicurus was an extraordinarily influential thinker, his influence extending to ancient Rome, where Cicero, Plutarch and Lucretius embraced many of his ideas, as did the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He is of particular interest to humanists because he develops an approach to leading a good life entirely independently of any concerns about gods or the supernatural.

The Roman Empire

The Ancient Roman Empire also produced a number of thinkers who, to varying degrees, expressed a broadly humanist outlook.

Cicero (106-43BC), for example, was a sceptic, believing that knowledge about the gods was impossible. He also believed that the question of what is human life’s ultimate end or purpose is one that philosophy, not religion, is best-placed to answer. He believed ethical values are independent of institutionalized religion, and are amenable to rational, philosophical enquiry.

The Roman philosopher Seneca (2BC – 65AD) believed that

Religion is recognised by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful REF

Like most modern day humanists, he also insisted that “the time to live is now”.


During the Medieval period, Europe was largely dominated by Christian thought. Almost all artistic and intellectual endeavour was theologically orientated. The questioning of religious orthodoxy was rarely tolerated, and was often met with violence and persecution.

Within the Arab world, however, could be found more liberal intellectual trends. The Arab thinker Averroes (1126-98), was born in Cordoba in Islamic Spain, an area remarkable for its comparative intellectual freedom. Averroes’ clear and accessible commentaries on Aristotle were an important influence on European Christian thinkers who were rediscovering the works of Aristotle, largely lost to Christian Europe since the sixth century. Indeed, the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refers to Aristotle as “the philosopher” and Averroes as “the commentator”.

Averroes argued that, where religious scripture is contradicted by what philosophers such as Aristotle had revealed, scripture should be reinterpreted as allegorical. This comparatively radical and liberal approach to religious texts, in effect giving science and reason the authority to challenge scripture as literally understood, was snuffed out within the Arab world. But Averroes had sown an important, liberalizing seed in Western thought – where discussions of how faith and philosophy might be reconciled were to become increasingly important.

The Renaissance

The Rennaissance (literally “rebirth” in French) was a period of great cultural, artistic and intellectual development spanning the 14th to 17th Centuries, beginning in Florence, in Italy. The movement was partly brought about by a renewed interest in Classical thought. The ideas and arguments of Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers were sought out, and gave enormous impetus to intellectual inquiry, which now broadened out far beyond the boundaries of Christian theology. The visual arts, which had been largely focussed on religious subject matter, now broadened in their scope, becoming much more naturalistically orientated, as well as drawing on classical mythologies in addition to Jewish and Christian ones. Drawing in perspective was developed. Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies of human physiognomy, which informed his artistic portrayal of the human form, nicely illustrates the way in which the study of, and importance of, the human and human culture came much more to the fore during the Renaissance.

There were important religious upheavals too. There was growing criticism of the Catholic Church, which was increasingly perceived to be corrupt, especially in its sale of indulgences, which granted heaven-bound purchasers remission of punishment in purgatory. In 1517, Luther published his “Ninety-Five Theses On The Power And Efficacy Of Indulgences”. The development of the printing press allowed such new and radical ideas to be distributed widely. Luther’s attempts to reform the Catholic Church eventually resulted in the reformation and creation of the Protestantism, bringing to an end the Catholic Church’s religious dominance of Europe.

During the Renaissance, the modern scientific method was being developed, perhaps most notably by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). And of course, the Renaissance saw some famous scientific challenges to religious thought. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a polymath Dominican who defended the Copernican view that the Earth moved around the sun, rather than vice verse. Bruno was interrogated by the Inquisition about both his cosmological and also other unorthodox religious views, and was eventually burned at the stake. One of the most dramatic incidents illustrating growing tensions between scientific and religious thought involved the astronomer and physicist Galileo (1564-1642). Galileo had been warned by the Catholic Church not to assert that Copernicus’ heliocentric model was literally correct (it could be used only as a useful predictive tool). Galileo nevertheless did so, and in a rather provocative way. As a result, Galileo was arrested and threatened with torture and execution by the Holy Inquisition. After Galileo recanted, he was merely imprisoned, a sentence later commuted to house arrest.

A number of modern Catholic commentators insist it would be unfair to characterize the Catholic Church as being anti-science at this time. Some maintain it was Bruno’s theological views, not his cosmological views, that got him into trouble with the Inquisition. However, that claim is not born out by the Vatican’s own archives, which clearly indicate Bruno was interrogated about his cosmological views. Some commentators also maintain Galileo was arrested, not for his scientific views, but merely for his views concerning the interpretation of scripture. But this is disingenuous. Because Galileo maintained the Earth moved around the sun, he had no choice but to say either that scriptural claims to the contrary were simply mistaken (which would, of course, have been a suicidal thing to say), or that those parts of scripture that appeared to claim the Earth did not move would need to be reinterpreted.

In fact, some Catholic theologians, such as Cardinal Bellarmine, who was charged with investigating Galileo, conceded that, were it conclusively proved that the Earth moved, then scripture might have to be reinterpreted. The problem was, Galileo possessed no conclusive proof.

So, to characterize the Catholic Church’s position at that time as wholly entrenched and insensitive to new scientific developments would be to exaggerate somewhat. Nevertheless, it appears the Church was prepared to torture and kill any scientist who was prepared publicly to contradict its Earth-centred cosmology without conclusive scientific proof.

The Church’s current position on whether its treatment of Galileo was wrong is not entirely clear. In 2000, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for, among other things, the Church’s trial of Galileo. On the other hand, in 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI - quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend, seemingly with approval:

At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.

The Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment – sometimes known as the “Age of Reason” – spans from late Seventeenth century to the end of the Eighteenth century. The Enlightenment saw increased criticism of traditional religious beliefs and institutions from more radical religious groups, and further fragmentation of Christianity into further denominations. But while there was criticism of religious belief, this tended to come from the point of view of alternative religious beliefs. Atheistic beliefs were still rarely heard, and in many places to espouse such beliefs was to risk persecution.

In mid-Eighteenth Century France, the Enlightenment “philosophes” Diderot and D’Alembert published their Encyclopaedia, an edited compendium of knowledge which contained many radical liberal, naturalist and sceptical ideas. Diderot was an atheist, and both men were highly critical of organized religion. The book was banned before its completion. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has been characterized in a variety of ways. Diderot and D’Alembert defined the Enlightenened thinker as one who

trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.

But perhaps the best-known definition of Enlightenment comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 wrote a short magazine article titled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant characterizes Enlightenment thus:

[e]mergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!

Some Enlightenment thinkers stand accused of utopianism, of naively supposing that the age of reason would inevitably bring in an age of peace, prosperity and contentment. Enlightenment thought is also accused of being excessively rationalistic, of supposing that society and morality can be given a wholly rational foundation. This, it is now widely held, was a mistake: the rabbit of morality cannot be entirely conjured out of the hat of reason. Many critics of the Enlightenment would add that this was a dangerous mistake: the result of kicking away the old foundations of religious authority and tradition was to leave morality and society without any foundations at all – a recipe for disaster.

However, while some Enlightenment thinkers were indeed utopian, and some, such as Kant, did indeed suppose reason could be founded upon reason alone, notice that neither of these beliefs is entailed by Kant’s characterization of Enlightenment. To believe in the importance of raising Enlightened citizens in Kant’s sense of the term – citizens who dare to think and question, who apply their powers of reason as far as they are able, rather than just passively, uncritically accept what they are told by some religious or other authority – is not to sign up to utopianism or to suppose that morality and society can be given a wholly rational foundation. Modern humanism clearly involves a commitment to Enlightenment in Kant’s sense. That does not mean that today’s humanists are utopians, or that they inevitably overestimate what reason is able to do (yet both charges are regularly levelled at contemporary humanism).

A particularly important Enlightenment thinker, from the point of view of humanism, is the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Hume was an historian and philosopher prepared to use his brilliant mind independently, subjecting even religious beliefs to critical scrutiny. Hume was sceptical about religious and other miracles, and his Dialogues on Natural Religion published after his death, contain some of the most devastating critiques ever devised of the so-called “arguments from design” for the existence of God. Whether Hume was an agnostic or an atheist remains a contentious issue – but he did not believe in God.

The Nineteenth Century

In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species, which explained how new species evolved over many millions of years. Prior to Darwin, it was widely supposed that species could only be created by God. Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers had not possessed an alternative explanation of how species might be created. Darwin explained how purely natural, scientifically investigable mechanisms were capable of producing new species – a very dramatic development. Indeed, that species had indeed evolved in this way was strongly supported by the evidence, which of course flatly contradicted the Biblical account.

The Nineteenth century also saw important developments in Biblical criticism, particularly in Germany. German scholars such as David Strauss (1808 –1874) and Julius Wellhausen (XX), were beginning to reveal the mythical character of much of the Bible. Also in Germany, the theologian and philosopher Feuerbach rejected orthodox religious ideas, insisting that the god of conventional religion was merely the illusory, outward projection of mankind’s inner nature, and Neitzsche railed against Christian morality, accusing it of being life-stunting and born of feelings of hatred and resentment. And of course the German Karl Marx suggested religion was “the opiate of the masses”.

In Britain the philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) developed a radical ethical theory called utilitarianism that defined moral goodness in terms of happiness. According to Bentham, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." One radical feature of utilitarianism is the way in which it dispenses with the need to introduce any sort of supernatural being in order to underpin or account for morality. According to the utilitarian, in order to evaluate the extent to which something is morally right or wrong, we need not focus on anything other what takes place in this, the natural, world. For many religious people, such views were, and are, shockingly beyond the pale. Many of the customs, laws, and institutions of Bentham’s day obviously caused misery to many. Utilitarianism suggests that not only is it desirable to alleviate suffering where we can, it is actually a moral requirement. Utilitarianism thus led, and continues to lead, many utilitarians towards legal and social reform. Bentham’s utilitarianism led him to believe that, because other creatures also suffer, we are also under moral obligations to them. About other animals, Bentham said

the day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.

By no means all contemporary humanists are utilitarians. However, the development of utilitarianism was clearly of importance to the development of modern humanism, not least because it illustrated how an intellectually robust and sophisticated view of morality can be articulated and defended quite independently of any religious belief.

The censorship and persecution of non-believers still existed in Europe. 1826 saw the last victim of the Holy Inquisition executed in Spain (school teacher Cayetano Ripoll was garrotted for supposedly teaching Deist ideas). In 1842, G. J. Holyoake (1817-1906) (who first coined the term ‘secularism’) was the last (and perhaps also the first) person in Britain to be imprisoned on a charge of atheism. However, an increasing number of public figures were prepared publicly to doubt the claims of religion. In Britain, the writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hardy were openly atheist. In 1810, Charles Bradlaugh, joint founder of the National Secular Society in 1866, became Britain’s first openly atheist member of Parliament (though his atheism meant he could not take the Oath of Allegiance, and so was consequently barred from taking his seat for several years)

The Nineteenth century saw the rise of ethical societies, which sprang up in both Europe and the United States. These societies provided a framework within which people could discuss ethical matters and engage in ethical activity – such as charitable work and social and educational programmes. They were freethinkers, encouraging open debate about ethical and religious matters. While many ethical societies described themselves as “religious”, they were often religious only in the sense that they took their ethical commitments seriously - belief in a deity was optional. Felix Adler, founder of The New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876, said, “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.” The first British ethical society – the South Place Ethical Society, which exists to this day - was officially established in 1888, having evolved out of a Unitarian church. Numerous other British ethical societies quickly followed.

The various Nineteenth Century ethical societies developed into one of the cornerstones of the modern humanist movement. In 1896 the British ethical societies came together to form the Union of Ethical Societies, retitled in 1967 as the British Humanist Association (BHA). In 1952, the American Ethical Union, an umbrella organization for the various U.S.-based Ethical Societies, became a founding member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the organization that now represents the global humanist movement.

Twentieth Century

In many countries during the Twentieth century humanism became part of the mainstream. In Europe, religious belief went in to sharp decline. Surveys indicate, for example, that at the end of the Twentieth Century, about 36% of Britons share the values of humanism and the BHA. Across much of Europe it is possible to express atheistic or humanistic beliefs without any great fear of the consequences.

Many prominent Twentieth Century thinkers were humanists, including Bertrand Russell, whose book “Why I am Not a Christian” was hugely influential. At the end of the Twentieth Century, comparatively few philosophers suppose that morality requires some sort of divine foundation (indeed, a recent poll indicates that only 14.6% of professional philosophers are theists). Today’s most prominent and influential ethicist, Peter Singer, is a humanist.

The kind of belief expressed by many religious intellectuals is often increasingly difficult to pin down, their religiousity being far more easily characterized in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. The beliefs of some sophisticated theologians appear scarcely distinguishable from those of some humanists.

Among the world’s faithful, however, such “sophisticated” theological views remain comparatively rare. Religious fundamentalism is rife. In the United States, polls consistently indicate that about a third of citizens believe in the literal truth of The Bible and, consequently, that the universe is just a few thousand years old. Atheists are one of the least trusted minorities in the U.S., with a national poll indicating atheists are the minority group Americans are least willing to let their children marry. Dorothy Edgell, lead researcher of this University of Minnesota study, said: “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good." Misconceptions about what humanists believe, and the discrimination they suffer as a result, even within the world’s leading liberal democracy, obviously need to be addressed.

Even in many comparatively liberal countries, religious beliefs are given a privileged, state-approved, status, and the battle to achieve a level playing field between the religious and non-religious is ongoing. In the United Kingdom, for example, the state funds religious schools that are able to discriminate against both staff and pupils on the basis of their religious beliefs. And every state funded school in England and Wales is legally required to begin each day with a act of collective worship that is "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

In many countries around the world, to reject the faith into which one was born is to risk social ostracism or worse. Apostate Muslims are executed in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania. In Malawi and Nigeria, Christian pastors condemn children for witchcraft, who are then beaten, tortured and sometimes even killed in exorcisms. As a result of powerful Christian lobbying, Uganda is considering introducing the life imprisonment as the minimum sentence for engaging in gay sex. In many parts of the world, religious intolerance is rife, and the fight for even basic rights and freedoms is ongoing.

Both locally and globally, then, there is an enormous number of issues that are of concern, sometimes very grave concern, to humanists – issues on which humanist organizations such as the BHA, Centre for Inquiry (CFI), and the IHEU, continue to campaign.

Humanists do tend to be reformists. Their views often bring them into conflict with the religious – especially the more conservatively religious – on issues such as birth control, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of women, freedom of speech, and an end to religious privilege. This is because what humanists oppose is often (though not always) rooted in religious traditions and institutions and given a religious justification.

However, there are religious people who agree with much or even all of what humanists have to say about such issues – who accept that traditional religious justifications for such discrimination, oppression and privilege are not tenable – and so humanists can and sometimes work co-operatively with religious individuals and organizations to achieve shared goals.

It is not, as some religious people suppose, enmity towards religion that drives the humanist’s reformist ambitions, but rather a positive commitment to approach moral and political issues rationally and fairly. Of course, this commitment does inevitably bring humanists into conflict with religious people on many such issues. But by no means all of them.

It is also worth remembering that humanists are no less opposed to unjust repression and discrimination when carried out by atheist regimes, such as those of the Twnetieth Century dictators Mao and Stalin (both of whom were as ruthlessly committed to eradicating humanist and free-thought as they were religious thought).

A very brief history of the term “humanism”

The term “humanist” was first used to describe a branch of the educational curriculum: the humanities – comprising grammar, poetry, rhetoric and moral philosophy. During the Renaissance, there was, as has been noted, a renewed interest in classical culture and teaching, and an increased focus on the human. This movement was subsequently characterized by Nineteenth Century commentators as “Renaissance humanism”. This variety of humanism is, of course, consistent with mainstream religious belief.

The term “humanism” has since been used in a variety of ways. During the Nineteenth century “humanism” was also sometimes used to refer to a kind of alternative religion – a religion in which humanity took the place of God, and was held to be of ultimate value. Clearly, that is not what I would term “humanism”.

Today, some still use the term “humanism” to mean something like Renaissance humanism, that is to say, a form of humanism consistent with, say, mainstream Christian belief. In the U.S., those who are sceptical about gods tend to place the term “secular” before “humanism” in order to make clear that they are signing up to an alternative to any form of religious belief.

In the UK, on the other hand, the addition of “secular” is generally considered redundant. The term “humanism” is used to refer to the kind of position outlined in my introduction. Had this book first been published in the US, it might well have been titled “Secular Humanism”.

Only 14.6% of professional philosophers are theists

Thursday, December 10, 2009
David Bourget and David Chalmers have released the results of the largest survey of professional philosophers ever conducted. Some interesting results:

72.8% atheism
14.6% theism
12.5% other

49.8% naturalism
25.8% non-naturalism (but not necessarily supernaturalism)
24.2% other

Of course, quite what any of this shows re the truth of any of these beliefs, if anything, can be debated....

nb see this earlier post.

The "Gagging Christians" Xmas competition

We are often told that "secularists" want to prevent religious point of view being expressed in the public sphere, or religious arguments being used in public debate. I recently commented on Jonathan Chaplin's claim that:

Many secular humanists argue as if faith-based ideas should play no role in democratic discourse

What secularists do want is a level-playing field, so that religious points of view are not given a privileged role by the state and/or public institutions.

So secularists are typically against, for example, the state insisting every state-funded school should have an act of collective worship "of a broadly Christian nature", automatic allocation of 26 seats in the House of Lords to those of a particular faith, state funding for religious schools (that discriminate against pupils and employees based on faith), but not, say humanist schools. Yet all these privileges currently exist.

They also object to, e.g. state protection of the right to wear religious symbols at work, when other symbols, such as those indicating political party allegiance, are banned, and e.g. making religious people or organizations exempt from equal opportunities legislation regarding homosexuals. Yet this special status is regularly argued for.

The vast majority of secularists simply want a religiously neutral state. They want the state to protect equally the right of individuals to express religious and non-religious points of view, etc.

The main dispute re "secularism" is, in reality, between secularists wanting a level playing field (with no privilege for religious or atheist points of view), and some religious folk (by no means all) wanting to maintain, and indeed add to, existing privileges for religious points of view.

Nevertheless, some Christians (as I say, not all: I am not making a general anti-religious point here) see themselves as being "persecuted" and "under attack" by the forces of secularism, because secularists make these points. Indeed, some claim (and others at least leave themselves open to be interpreted as claiming that) many secularists think Christians should be "gagged" and Christian points of view entirely removed from public debate.

This, it seems to me, is simply paranoia (and indeed the erecting of a "straw man"). Even some Christians think it's paranoia. If you think it is not paranoia, can you identify, say, even just five self-identified secularist pundits, etc. in the UK who hold and have clearly and unambiguously expressed the view that religious people should not be allowed to express their religious views in public debate?

Maybe they exist. But I can't think of any. Be interested to find some examples. Prove me wrong.

The prize is a signed copy of Really, Really Big Questions (by myself). Please bring this competition to the attention of your anti-secular friends and colleagues.

: Three examples of public figures claiming Christian views are threatened with, or are, being silenced in public debate:

Jonathan Chaplin (again): Many secular humanists argue as if faith-based ideas should play no role in democratic discourse."

Rev George Hargreaves: “A hostile non-Christian liberal elite now dominates all the main political parties and want to destroy what is left of our Christian culture and legacy. They pay lip service to wanting churches to take an active role in community life, and yet, as soon as any Christian says publicly what motivates and focuses their service to others, they are gagged for fear of offending someone." Source.

Roger Trigg: ...There is no hiding from the fact that some of the deepest disagreements , such as those about abortion and euthanasia, can be traced back to religious differences, and the question remains whether they can be mentioned in a debate". (p36 Religion and Public life)

Also, Don Scott's comment on the preceding post on this topic:

"Yes, at the moment it is not illegal to be Christian and politically outspoken but you will denounced as a "fascist" or a "theocrat" for doing so and forced out of public debate."

Some other assorted "Christians gagged" claims:

The American Muslim

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Interesting site.

The Nigerian witch hunters take legal action

CFI Anti-Superstition Campaign in Africa Takes a Surprising Turn
December 04, 2009

Witch Hunter Sues Humanist Activist in Attempt to Quell Criticism

New York, NY December 4, 2009—The Center for Inquiry (CFI), an international organization that fights for science and reason, launched an anti-superstition campaign in May 2009 to highlight and combat the abuse of alleged child witches throughout the African continent. Now witch hunter Helen Ukpabio, head of the Liberty Gospel Church in Nigeria and a frequent target of criticism by CFI, has filed a lawsuit in Nigerian federal court against Leo Igwe, CFI's representative in Nigeria.

A mob of about 150 members from Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Church attacked Igwe and others during a “Child Rights and Witchcraft” event in Calabar, Nigeria on July 29, 2009. At the end of the frightening event, Igwe found his eyeglasses smashed and his bag, phone, camera and a copy of his planned speech stolen. Police finally broke the mob up and arrested one person.

The complaint filed by Ukpabio essentially alleges religious discrimination on the part of Igwe, who has been a tireless, vocal critic of Ukpabio’s claim that many of Nigeria's children and women are witches. “Ukpabio has repeatedly targeted and persecuted the most vulnerable members of society. She is the one who should face justice and answer for her crimes,” said Igwe. “She should be ready to pay damages to the thousands of children who have been tortured, traumatized, abused and abandoned as a result of her misguided ministry.” Igwe said that many homes and households across Nigeria have been damaged by Ukpabio’s witchcraft schemes and other questionable activities.

The suit, scheduled for a hearing on Dec.17, is seeking an injunction preventing Igwe and other humanist groups from holding seminars or workshops aimed at raising consciousness about the dangers associated with the religious belief in witchcraft. The suit aims to erect a legal barrier against rationalist or humanist groups who might criticize, denounce or otherwise interfere with their practice of Christianity and their “deliverance” of people supposedly suffering from possession of an “evil or witchcraft spirit.” The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. These activities include the burning of three children, ages 3 through 6, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.

Ukpabio is seeking damages of 200 billion Nigerian Naira, more than $1.3 billion, for supposedly unlawful and unconstitutional infringement on her rights to belief in “God, Satan, witchcraft, Heaven and Hell fire” and for the alleged unlawful and unconstitutional detention of two members of her church.

Along with the full support of the Center for Inquiry, Igwe has been offered legal representation from Stepping Stones, a charity registered in the UK dedicated to defending alleged witches, primarily in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

CFI’s anti-superstition campaign is continuing strong. The campaign began May 29 of this year with a groundbreaking seminar titled “Witchcraft and its Impact on Development” in Ghana. Campaign organizers say that they hope to educate the public about the dangers of superstitious beliefs while highlighting the abuse of children and exposing the "false prophets" who spread dangerous misinformation.

“The persecution of alleged child witches underscores the importance of our anti-superstition campaign in Africa,” said Norm R. Allen Jr., executive director of African Americans for Humanism and CFI’s Transnational Programs. “Superstition has dire consequences to individuals and societies, and often contributes greatly to gross human rights abuses. Those who continue to view superstition as benign must think again.”

Allen says that plans are underway to lead marches aimed at combating superstition and to work with governments, NGOs, traditional rulers, and women and childrens’ groups to promote rationality and universal human rights.

Igwe remains optimistic and full of resolve. “I am convinced that at the end of the day, reason, justice and human rights will prevail,” he said.

The Center for Inquiry/Transnational is a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York. The Center for Inquiry’s research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and sound public policy. The Center’s Web site is .

Daily Mail plugs my book

The Daily Mail, "Christmas Books" - best of the year's books for children - liked my "intriguing book that encourages children (and adults) to think". (Friday Dec 4th).

So I must be doing something wrong...

You can buy it here half price.

Jonathan Chaplin misses his secular target

Saturday, December 5, 2009
In today's Face to Faith in the Guardian, Jonathan Chaplin says:

Many secular humanists argue as if faith-based ideas should play no role in democratic discourse, religion should be privatized and the public square secularised. They make three main points. None of them stand up.

His piece is a very nice illustration of an ambiguity anti-secularists regularly play on, and which I've noted before.

I know of only two secular humanist thinkers that believe that the expression of religious points of view should not be permitted in the public sphere (say "God is great" in public, or give a religious justification for opposing abortion, and they think someone should immediately start shoving socks in your mouth). This is a tiny minority of secular humanists. It is certainly not the view of this country's main secular humanist organization: the BHA. Call this strong secularism.

On the other hand, pretty much every secular humanist believes that the state, and state-institutions, should be religiously neutral, favouring neither atheism nor theism. The state should protect equally the individual's right publicly to express religious and non-religious points of view. This is the view of the BHA. Call this weak secularism. Many religious people are weak secularists.

Now carefully read Chaplin quote above. Which form of secularism is he attacking - strong or weak? It's not terribly clear, is it? The expressions employed here: "religion privatized" and "public square secularized", could be interpreted in such as way as to fit either form of secularism (whenever you see these expressions, be wary!).

In fact Chaplin's arguments only work against strong secularism, yet he says that what he is attacking is the view of "many" secular humanists.

Chaplin's view is typical of a certain sort of a religious person. They constantly tell each other what secularists think. But they constantly get it wrong. Few secularists are strong secularists. Chaplin is attacking a straw man.

Chaplin is misrepresenting many weak secularists, caricaturing their position as that of strong secularism, which, in truth, hardly anyone holds (though Chaplin probably does not do this knowingly - like Roger Trigg and Andrew Brown, he has simply bought into, and is now perpetuating, a religious myth about what it is that most or many "secularists" believe).

POST SCRIPT: What most secularists actually want is a level playing field, where the state gives religious beliefs equal status alongside other moral, political and other beliefs, not a privileged status, as is the case now. Why should adding a religious dimension to someone's political beliefs mean that their schools get state funded, their Church gets seats in the House of Lords, their religious symbols get special protection, their discrimination against homosexuals, women, etc should be made exempt from equal opportunities etc. legislation? Because they have no good answer to these questions, anti-(weak)secularists rely on caricaturing and misrepresenting their opponents instead.

POST POST SCRIPT: Interestingly, I just discovered Chaplin understands the distinction made here very well, as he actually explains it in this piece. The kind of secularism Chaplin is opposed to, it turns out, is (i) where the State allies itself to e.g. atheism, or (ii) where the state, "while upholding private religious liberty...strives to keep the influence of religious faith out of public debate and public institutions". He says the National Secular Society takes the latter view. But I can't see where they commit themselves to this. The NSS charter and principles don't seem to commit them to it. Of course the NSS will try to limit religious influence by arguing against religious positions in public debate. But that is not to say it thinks the state should start stuffing socks in people's mouths if they give religious arguments in public debate. On the contrary: the NSS defends individual freedom of speech. So again, Chaplin seems off target (though to be fair the NSS's position is to some extent ambiguous - e.g. on one page Muriel Frazer does suggest religious individuals should be permitted to argue religiously, but religious organizations speaking for them is not on. Quite what this means in practice I am not sure).

Chaplin makes it clear he is a weak secularist, in fact. Perhaps, rather than attacking "many" secular humanists, he should say he endorses the secularism espoused by the British Humanist Association (he should read their leaflet on secularism).


Friday, December 4, 2009


Saturday 6th March 2010

UFOs, The Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot

Come hear and question some of the world’s leading experts on notorious monster and alien claims.

Nick Pope ran the British government's UFO project at the Ministry of Defence. Initially sceptical, his investigation into the UFO phenomenon and access to classified government files convinced him that the phenomenon raised important defence and national security issues, especially when the witnesses were military pilots or where UFOs were tracked on radar. Nick is recognised as a leading authority on UFOs and the unexplained.

Adrian Shine is head of the Loch Ness Project, and the world’s leading expert on the monster allegedly lurking in the Loch’s murky depths, and will be casting a sceptical eye over the evidence.

Paul Vella is Britain’s leading expert on Sasquatch, and will be taking a close, sceptical look at the main areas of evidence including photographic, historical records, hair samples, DNA, footprints, but also covers misidentification and hoaxing.

Plus possibly one more leading UFO speaker.

10.45am Registration. Finish not later than 4pm.
Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall.

Just £10 on the door. Free to Friends of CFI UK, PLUS GLHA, SPES, BHA, NEW HUMANIST SUBSCRIBERS.

To book go to and hit button "support cfiuk" and follow instructions. Credit and debit cards welcome. Alternatively send a cheque payable to ‘Center for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, PO Box 49097 Centre for Inquiry London N11 9AX, and include names of those coming, phone number, return address, etc.




A day discussing alternative medicine, with speakers:

SIMON SINGH, author of Trick or Treatment, currently being sued by British Chiropractic Association
ANDY LEWIS, runs Quackometer on the web
PROFESSOR JOHN GARROW, founder member of the charity "HealthWatch" which promotes proper testing of the health claims of all therapies, alternative or orthodox.

Saturday, 30th January 2010

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall.

£10 on the door. Free to Friends of CFI UK, PLUS GLHA, SPES, BHA, NEW HUMANIST SUBSCRIBERS.

To book go to and hit button "support cfiuk" and follow instructions. Credit and debit cards welcome. Alternatively send a cheque payable to ‘Center for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, PO Box 49097 Centre for Inquiry London N11 9AX, and include names of those coming, phone number, return address, etc.

VSI Humanism, chpt 3 PART 2 (from comments)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Evidential problem of evil: conclusion

We have been looking at the evidential problem of evil – which constitutes perhaps the most powerful argument against traditional monotheism. The particular version of it presented here, which is based on an analogy with the problem of good, has been developed by a number of philosophers, including Peter Millican, Steven Cahn and myself.

Of course, it would be silly to claim to have shown there is no God in just a few pages. I certainly don’t make any such. The aim has merely been to illustrate just how serious a threat the evil god challenge presents to the rationality of Theism.

Notice that my focus here has been on God with a capital “G”. The problem of evil may constitute powerful evidence against a good God, and the problem of good powerful evidence against an evil god, but there are many other god hypotheses we might consider, none of which are threatened by these particular arguments. I don’t happen to believe there exists, for example, an omnipotent but morally neutral god. But at least that particular god hypothesis does not run up against the kind of evidence that appears straightforwardly to falsify the evil god and good God hypotheses.

Also notice that the evil god challenge also constitutes a threat to agnosticism regarding God. Surely, agnosticism is not a reasonable position to adopt regarding an evil God. It is obvious there is no such malignant being. But if agnosticism is not reasonable with regard to the evil god hypothesis, why is it any more reasonable with respect to the good God hypothesis?

“Surely it cannot be fairly obvious there is no God?”

Of course, the suggestion that it could be fairly obvious that the God of traditional monotheism does not exist will strike many – including even some atheists – as odd. How could it be fairly obvious that there is no such God if many millions of people – many of them very smart, educated people – believe in God nevertheless?

But of course religion has an extraordinary track record of getting even smart, educated people to believe things that are fairly obviously false. For example, polls consistently indicate that, currently, about one hundred million U.S. citizens, many of whom are reasonably well-educated – some even college-educated – believe that the entire universe is only about six thousand years old. For anyone with a decent level of education, it should, surely, be fairly obvious that the universe is a lot older than that.

When it comes to religion, the fact that millions of smart, educated people believe something is not good evidence that what they believe is not fairly obviously false (even if it is not obvious to them).

“I can’t prove there is a God, but you can’t prove there isn’t.”

When presented with a rational challenge to their belief, Theists sometimes say, ‘Look, I admit I cannot prove there is a God, but you cannot prove that there isn’t. Theism and atheism are “faith positions”. But then it follows that they are equally reasonable or unreasonable.’

But what, exactly, does ‘prove’ mean here? Prove beyond all possible doubt? It may well be true that we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there is no god. But then we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that there are no fairies or unicorns or Santa. It’s just possible these things exist (perhaps there has been a huge and elaborate conspiracy to hide the truth from us). But of course, no one insists that belief in the non-existence of Santa is a ‘faith’ position. Certainly it does not follow that belief in Santa is just as reasonable as belief that there is no Santa.

Perhaps the suggestion is that it is not possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does or does not exist? But that is a very contentious suggestion. Actually, many Theists believe that the existence of God can be established beyond reasonable doubt. And almost everyone accepts that the available evidence establishes beyond reasonable doubt that there is no evil god. But surely, anyone who acknowledges that ought, then, to acknowledge at least the possibility that the evidence might establish beyond reasonable doubt that there is no good God either.

“So how do you atheists explain…?”

If we reject belief in God, how do we respond to one of the questions with which we began chapter two – why does the universe exist? What is our answer? Personally, I don’t happen to have one. This is a profound and baffling puzzle to which I am not sure I have a satisfactory solution.

Some Theists may take this to be an astonishing admission: “If you do not know the answer, they you do not know that our answer is incorrect. Your view is no less a faith position than ours.”

But to admit that one does not know the answer to a question is not to say that certain answers cannot reasonably be ruled out. Suppose Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit. However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is justifiably confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology. It may be that they can be as justifiably sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil god. Which is something even most Theists are justifiably sure about.

An atheist “leap of faith”?

But don’t we all have to make a “leap of faith” at some point – atheists included? Atheists, after all, believe that they inhabit a physical world filled with trees, houses, mountains and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses appear to reveal. But how can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth?. How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way. So atheists cannot justify their belief that their senses are fairly reliable. Their belief that the world they seem to experience is real involves a huge leap of faith.

Now it seems to many Theists that they directly experience God. So why shouldn’t they place their trust in this experience, in the same way atheists place their trust in their perceptual experiences? Neither, it seems can justify their beliefs based on these experiences. Yet we do not normally consider the atheist’s trust in the reliability of his or her senses to be unreasonable. So why should we consider the theist’s trust in the reliability of his or her religious experiences to be any less reasonable?

Further, the Theist might claim that, precisely because they place their faith in their God experience, they don’t have to place their faith in the reliability of their normal perceptual experiences in the way atheists do. If there is a benevolent God of the sort the theist seems to experience, that God will not allow them to be systematically deceived by their senses. If we believe in God, trusting our senses no longer requires a leap of faith. The reliability of our senses is underwritten by our experience of God.

So, the Theist may conclude, at least for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more or less a faith position than is an atheist’s belief in the external world.

This is an ingenious line of argument, and it may contain some truth. It may be true that atheism is a faith position because any belief one holds about how things stand outside of ones own mind is ultimately a faith position.

But that does not entail that theism and atheism are equally reasonable. One difficulty facing someone who believes in the God of traditional monotheism is that, while their belief that they experience such a God might lead them to trust the deliverances of their other senses, those other senses then quickly furnish them with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent being (see the problem of evil above). Their Theistic assumption quickly ends up undermining itself. That does not appear to be true of the assumption that our senses are generally reliable.

“Sophisticated” theology

Some Theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:

The God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. You are working with an outdated and unsophisticated conception of God. “God” is the name I give to whatever is the answer to the question “Why is there anything at all?” – which is something unknowable, ineffable, beyond our understanding. We can say what God is not – that God is not literally a “thing” or “person”, for example. But we cannot say what God is.”

The view that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not, is sometimes termed apophaticism. Apophatic theism has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never say what God is, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong.

At first sight, apophatic theism appears to make atheism impossible. For example, say, “There is no such thing as God”, and the apophatic theist will actually agree with you – “Yes, there is indeed no such thing!”

The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this sort of theism. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled "How to be an Atheist"), Turner says to the atheist:

It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say, “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” REF P19.

Note Turner’s parting suggestion, here, that the issue between the atheist and a theist like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist as someone who isn’t engaged by such questions, who remains steadfastly unamazed and unperplexed by the fact that there is anything at all.

But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).

Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Indeed, even while professing ignorance, they often have an awful lot to say about God, even if it is heavily qualified and couched in the language of analogy and metaphor. For example, Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than that it was caused, or just appeared from nothing. But as the thought that the world is created tends naturally to lead one on to the thought that it has a creator or cause, it looks as if Turner is here gesturing towards something at least analogous to a transcendent agent or cause. In which case, he is gesturing towards something atheists can begin to get their teeth into.

And of course, many apophatic theists also deem this mysterious, transcendent whatever-it-is worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of how, if it is really unknowable, they can possibly be in a position to know that worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards it?

In fact, if Turner is right and the world is created, doesn’t the appalling amount of suffering it contains give us excellent grounds for adding two more characteristics to the list of those apophaticists say their God is not – their God is not worthy of either our worship or gratitude?

Draft of PART of chpt 3. VSI Humanism. For comments please...

Monday, November 30, 2009

The previous chapter provided an overview of several popular arguments for the existence of God, and found them wanting. In this chapter, we will see that there exists, in addition, at least one very powerful argument against the existence of God.

The problems of evil

God, as traditionally conceived by the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has at least three important characteristics. First, God is omnipotent or maximally powerful. God has the ability to create the universe and destroy it again. Being the creator and sustainer of the laws of nature, he is also free to break them by, for example, raising people from the dead or parting the Red Sea. Secondly, God is omniscient. His knowledge is unlimited. He knows even our most private thoughts. Thirdly, God is, supposed supremely benevolent. Indeed, God is often characterized as watching over us as a loving parent watches over his children. God, it is said, is love.

I shall use the term “Theist” with a capital “T” to refer to those who believe in such a.being, and “God” with a capital G as the name of that Being. Small initial “theists”, by contrast, are those who believe in a god or gods, whether or not it happens to be God.

If God has the three characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and supreme benevolence, this raises a very obvious and familiar challenge to Theism, a challenge known as the problem of evil. In fact, there are two problems of evil: the logical problem and the evidential problem.

The logical problem of evil

The logical problem of evil begins with the thought that the claim:

(1) There exists an omnipotent, omniscient and maximally good God

is logically inconsistent with the claim:

(2) Evil exists

By ‘evil’, here, we mean both suffering and morally wrong actions. The argument runs like so: (2) is true, therefore, (1) is false. Why? Because an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent evil, an omniscient God would know it exists, and a supremely benevolent God would want to prevent it. The existence of evil, then, might appear logically to entail that there is no such being.

Note that the quantity of evil that exists is irrelevant to this version of the problem. It requires only that there exist some, no matter how little.

Many Theists maintain the logical problem of evil does not present an insuperable challenge to belief in God. In response , they typically try to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing and maximally good God might allow some evil for the sake of a greater good.

For example, some Theists believe that God gave us free will – the ability freely to choose to do good or evil. As a result of our acting freely, evil exists. However, this evil is more than outweighed by other goods, including the good of our possessing free will. So, though it might sound paradoxical, this is actually a better world than one lacking free will, despite the fact that, as a result of free will, there exists, say, war and murder. That is why the existence of such evils does not entail that there is no God.

The evidential problem of evil

However, there is another, to my mind far more serious, problem of evil facing Theism – the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem rests, not on the thought that the truth of (2) logically entails the falsehood of (1), but on the thought that (2) provides us with good evidence against (1). The quantity of evil does now become relevant. While we might concede that God might allow some evil (for the sake of a greater good), surely there could be no good reason for God to allow quite so much?

We can sharpen the evidential problem by noting that God will presumably not allow gratuitous suffering to exist. Presumably, if God exists, he has good reason to allow every last ounce of it.

I recently watched an episode of the BBC TV series Life. At the end of the programme, one of the cameramen was interviewed, and I was struck that he said. He revealed that, after just a few weeks on the job, he was already considering of giving up wild-life photography because he found it too harrowing. This cameraman was struggling to cope with the extraordinary degree of suffering the creatures he was filming were going through. That kind of suffering – appalling suffering, on a vast, global scale – has of course been going on, not just for a few weeks, but for many hundreds of millions of years, long, long before we humans made our very recent appearance.

When we begin to consider the enormous quantities of suffering that exist - including the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans made our recent appearance – doesn’t it quickly become apparent that it cannot all be accounted for in this way?

It appears, then, that the claim that the God of classical monotheism exists is straightforwardly empirically falsified. Perhaps there is a god or gods. But the God of traditional monotheism appears to be fairly conclusively ruled out, given the available evidence.


Those who believe in God respond to the evidential problem of evil in a variety of ways. Some maintain there are good grounds for supposing that, not only is there a god, this being does indeed have the properties attributed to him by traditional monotheism. So, while there may be evidence against the existence of such a God, it is at least counter-balanced by this evidence for. I return to that suggestion later in this chapter. Theists may also insist that the evidential problem of evil can, to a significant extent, be dealt with. Many theistic explanations of evil have been offered, including the following four examples:

Simple free will solution. God made us free agents with the ability to choose how to act. Having free will, we sometimes choose to do wrong. Suffering can result. However, free will also allows for certain important goods, such as the possibility of morally virtuous action. God could have created a world populated with puppet creatures that always did as he commands. But the behaviour of such puppet beings lacks the dimension of moral responsibility that makes our actions genuinely virtuous. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some evil (such as that done by Hitler). But these evils are more than outweighed by the important– such as possibility of genuinely virtuous action.

The ‘character-building’ solution. According to the theologian John Hick, this world is a ‘vale of soul making’. You will, of course, be familiar with the idea that bad experiences can make us stronger, better people. For example, someone who has suffered a serious and painful illness will sometimes say they don’t regret it, because they learnt a great deal from the experience. By causing us pain and suffering, God furnishes us with important opportunities, including the opportunity to learn important lessons, and to grow and develop morally and spiritually. It is only through suffering that we can eventually become the noble souls God intends us to be.

Second-order goods require first-order evils. God had inevitably to create a certain amount of suffering so that certain important goods could obtain. Take charity, for example. In order for me to be charitable, I must suppose there are others who are in need, and who might benefit from my generosity. Charity is a second order good that require first order evils like neediness and suffering (or at least their appearance) to exist. It is because the second order goods outweigh the first order evils that God permits them.

When offered in response to the evidential problem of evil, such explanations are sometimes called theodicies. Many such theodicies have been developed. Some Theists believe that, even if the evidential problem of evil has not been entirely solved, such theodicies collectively bring the problem down to at least a manageable size, so that we can longer say that that Theism has been straightforwardly empirically falsified.

Still, Theists often acknowledge that it is certainly isn’t easy to explain why God would inflict quite so much pain and suffering on the sentient inhabitants of this planet. So some supplement these various explanations with a further appeal – to mystery. God, they insist, works in mysterious ways. Because God is infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, his divine plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’ But then the fact that the reason for much of the evil that exists is beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no God.

The evil god hypothesis

Of course, most atheists consider these various explanations for moral catastrophes and natural disasters fairly hopeless. It seems to many that the sheer quantity of suffering and moral depravity that exists does constitute excellent evidence that there is no such God. To many, it appears fairly obvious that there is no God.

Could it be fairly obvious that there is no God, even given the appeal to mystery and the various theodicies and other strategies Thesists have developed to defend their belief? My personal view is that, yes, it could.

To see why, consider a rather different belief: that the universe was designed and created by an omnipotent, omniscient being. Only this being is not all-good. Rather, he is supremely evil. His cruelty and malice are without limit. How reasonable a belief is this?

Almost everyone considers the evil god hypothesis absurd. It is obviously false. Why? Well, there is, for a start, a great deal of evidence against it. Surely, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-evil being would not allow quite so many good things into his creation. Why, for example, would such an evil being:

• Create natural beauty, that gives us so much joy?
• Give us children to love who love us unconditionally in return. Evil god despises love, and so is hardly likely to introduce these bundles of joy into his creation.
• Give us healthy bodies so that we can enjoy sports, sex, and so on?
• Allow us to help each other and alleviate each other’s suffering. That, surely, is not the sort of behaviour an evil god would tolerate? He would clamp down on the activity of the selfless Florence Nightingales of this world and, and compel them to cause greater suffering, not remove it.
• Bestow upon at least some people immense health, wealth and happiness?

Don’t these observable features of the universe provide us with overwhelming evidence against the evil god hypothesis? Surely it is fairly obvious that there is no such being, given such evidence? We might call this problem facing the evil god hypothesis the evidential problem of good.

But perhaps we have been too hasty in rejecting belief in an evil god. Notice that we might try to defend belief in an evil god by developing explanations such as these.

Simple free will solution. We are not blind automata, but free agents. As a consequence of evil god having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do good. However, free will allows for certain important evils, such as the possibility of morally depraved actions. God could have created a universe populated with puppet beings that always did evil. But the behaviour of such puppet beings would lack the dimension of moral responsibility that makes actions genuinely evil. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some good (such as that done by Mahatma Gandhi). But these goods are more than outweighed by the important evils – such as genuinely morally evil actions - that free will allows.

The ‘character-destroying solution. This is a vale of soul destruction. Why does evil god pepper our world with beauty? To make the dreariness and ugliness of day to day life seem all the more acute. Why does he give us healthy young bodies? Well, yes, he gives us them for a short time, and then slowly and inexorably takes our health and vitality away, until we end up incontinent, arthritic and decrepit. It is so much more cruel to give someone something wonderful and then take it from them than never to have given it to them at all. And of course, evil god makes sure that even while we enjoy good health, we are filled with anxiety knowing it could all be snatched away by a disease or accident. Why does he give us children whom we love more than life itself? Because this allows evil god to inflict greater tortures on us. We can only be made to agonize and fear for our children because we care about them. The more we care, the more we can be made to suffer.

Second order evils require first order goods. Theists may remind us that God had inevitably to create a reasonable amount of good in order that certain important evils could exist. Take, for example, jealousy. Jealousy is an important vice, but it can only exist if there exist people who have good things worth coveting – such as health, wealth and happiness and material wealth. Jealousy is a so-called second order evil that requires certain first order goods. It is because the second order evil outweighs the first order goods that God allows those goods to exist.

Notice these explanations can be supplemented by a further manoeuvre – an appeal to mystery. Evil god works in mysterious ways. Being infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, God’s diabolical plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’. In which case, the fact that the reason for much of the good that exists does lie beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no such malignant being.

There are some obvious symmetries between the good and evil god hypotheses. These who believe in a good God face the evidential problem of evil. Those who believe in an evil god face the evidential problem of good. Those who believe in a good God may try to deal with the problem of evil by constructing theodicies, such as the free-will and character-building theodicies, and by appealing to mystery. Similarly, those who believe in an evil god may construct mirror theodicies, and also appeal to mystery, in order to deal with the problem of good. Indeed, mirror theodicies can also be constructed for most other theodicies as well.

How reasonable is belief in an evil god, compared belief in the God of traditional monotheism? Almost everyone recognises that, even given these various ingenious defensive manoeuvres, belief in a supremely evil deity remains absurd. I suppose it is possible that such a being exists. But surely it is overwhelmingly unlikely given the available evidence.

But if that is true, why should we consider belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God significantly more reasonable? If the sheer quantity of good we observe in the world really is excellent evidence that there is no evil god, why isn’t the sheer quantity of evil excellent evidence that there is no God?

Those who believe in the god of traditional monotheism face a challenge. In the previous chapter, we saw that some of the most important and popular arguments widely supposed to provide belief in God with at least a fair degree of rational support actually provide no more support for belief in a good God than they do, say, an evil god. We have seen that the problem of good does appear to provide overwhelming empirical evidence against the evil god hypothesis, not withstanding the various mirror theodicies and the appeal to mystery that might be made in its defence. But then, if those who believe in a good God consider their belief to be, if not “proved” then at least not unreasonable, the onus is surely now on them to explain why their belief should be consider significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god.

I don’t say this challenge cannot be met. However, I cannot see how, which is why I consider belief in the God of traditional monotheism to be hardly more reasonable than belief in an evil god, the latter, surely, being very unreasonable indeed.

Miracles and religious experience

Let’s briefly consider some suggestions as to how this challenge to the rationality of Theism might be met. One fairly obvious strategy would be to try to provide arguments for supposing that not only is there a creator god, this being is good. While the arguments from design discussed in the previous chapter may not support the good god hypothesis any more than they do the evil god hypothesis, perhaps other arguments do clearly favour the good god hypothesis?

Obvious candidates are the argument from miracles and the argument from religious experience. People regularly pray that someone should be cured of an otherwise incurable disease, and occasionally these prayers are answered. God supernaturally intervenes to perform a miracle. Isn’t such supernatural activity evidence of the existence of a benevolent god, not a malevolent one? Moreover, when people report religious experiences, they generally report a very positive experience, e.g. an experience of something immeasurably loving and good. Again, doesn’t this provide us with at least some evidence that there is not just a god, but a God?

I am not so sure. If I were an evil god, I would not necessarily want people to know I was evil, particularly if, by pretending to be good, I could actually produce more evil.

For example, if I was an evil god, I might appear to two different populations in a “good” guise and perform supernatural miracles to convince each that I was real. If I then tell one population things that contradict what I tell the other, the result is entirely predictable. There will be conflict. Indeed, it will probably be endless conflict of a particularly vicious sort, given each population now possesses good evidence that the one true God is on their side, and that their opponents are deniers of God’s Truth.

So are religious miracles and experiences better evidence of a good God than an evil god? Surely, a good God, knowing the horrendous moral catastrophes that are likely to result from him revealing himself in this way, would avoid doing so. He would ensure there was no such confusion about which religion was correct. An evil god, by contrast, might well calculate that revealing himself in such a deceptive and confusing manner would create a situation in which moral evil and suffering were likely to flourish. So it is not clear that religious experiences and miracles are better evidence of a good God than an evil god. Indeed, we might argue that their actual distribution of these phenomena actually fits the evil god hypothesis rather better than it fits the good. Perhaps it is more reasonable to believe in an evil god than a good God?

Other theodicies

Are there other theodicies that are more successful in defending Theism, theodicies that cannot be mirrored? Other standard theodicies that can be mirrored include, for example:

Semantic theodicy. The terms “good and “evil”, when applied to god, mean something other than what they mean when applied to mere human beings. God, being a transcendent being, cannot adequately be characterized in such human terms. This explains why an action that would be deemed evil if performed by a human (such as inflicting great suffering on an innocent person) need not be evil if performed by God.

It takes but a moments thought to realize that much the same manoeuvre can be used to explain why an evil good would do things that, if done by a human, would be deemed “good”.

It is also possible to mirror the following popular type of theodicy:

Laws of nature solution. In order for moral agents to have the opportunity to act in the world, and interact with each other in it, the world has to behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature, for example, that determine that when I strike this match, a flame will result. Such laws allow for great goods. For example, they allow me to perform morally good actions - e.g. light a fire to warm a cold friend. However, these same laws of nature also result in earthquakes other natural disasters. These evils are the price paid for greater goods. We might suppose we can imagine a worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world – that are earthquake-free, for example – and so we may wonder why God did not create such a world. But such worlds are, in ways we are unable to foresee, always less good than the actual world. For example, while a world governed by different laws might not have earthquakes, it might, as a consequence, also lack the kind of planetary crust on which mammals can evolve. Such an earthquake-free world would, then, be a world without us – and so a less good world after all.

This theodicy can also be mirrored. In order for there to be such great evils as – deliberate, freely-chosen acts of arson and murder – the world must behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature. As a result of these laws, some goods, e.g. beautiful sunsets, may obtain. They are the price evil god pays for the greater evils. You might think you can envisage worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world. But such worlds will always turn out to be better than the actual world.

Evil and The Fall

So many standard theodicies can be mirrored to deal with the problem of good. However, I believe there is at least one standard theodicy that cannot easily be mirrored. St. Augustine tried to explain the natural evils by supposing that they are a result of the Fall. Adam and Eve inhabited a perfect world untroubled by natural disasters and disease; when they disobeyed God and sinned, they corrupted not only themselves, but nature too. Disease, natural disasters and death are a result of this corruption. So these evils are, in effect, a result of free will. Adam and Eve freely chose to sin, and so do we. As a result, we suffer terribly. The suffering would cease if only we stopped sinning.

It is not clear to me that a mirror version of this Augustinian theodicy can be produced. Attempts to construct an even vaguely coherent reverse story about a reverse Adam and Eve, who, by disobeying their evil creator, bring about a reverse Fall, thereby creating natural goods, runs into all sorts of difficulties. It may be that rather different narrative involving an evil god might be constructed to account for natural goods, but it is hard to see how it could mirror the story of the Fall in sufficient detail to qualify as a reverse theodicy.

So perhaps not every standard theodicy designed to defend belief in a good God can be flipped round to produce a reverse theodicy that might be used to defend belief in an evil god.

However, while Augustine’s theodicy appears not to be reversible, it is particularly weak. Adam and Eve never existed. But then their sin cannot explain contemporary natural disasters. Nor can earthquakes be explained as a consequence of our own sin. Earthquakes are produced by the movement of tectonic plates which, given the laws of nature, are going to cause earthquakes anyway, whether we sin or not. And of course, we know that earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, diseases, and so on were occurring for millions of years before moral agents capable of sinning even existed. How, then, can the immense suffering these events caused the earlier inhabitants of the Earth be a result of sin, or of some sort of Biblical “Fall”?