God Look-a-Likey

Monday, June 29, 2009
If there is a God I imagine he looks and sounds alot like this ...

Those curious numbers and letters in the backgrounds spell out the meaning of life - if you can decode them.


Friday, June 26, 2009
The journal Religious Studies is going to publish this paper. Thanks to everyone who commented - it was very useful. Final version of the paper is available here.

Sign Sense About Science statement on libel law

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Please sign this petition if you can, and encourage others to do so - it's a critical moment: the Government needs to see momentum is building behind this campaign, that it is not going away.

Go here.

Alister McGrath vs Stephen Law: Does The Natural World Point To God?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Debate - With CFI UK Provost Stephen Law and Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion, Dawkins' God, and A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest For God In Science And Theology.

Thursday October 29th, 2009. 7pm.

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn London WC1R 4RL - Main Hall. 7pm. £5 on the door (£3 Humanist organizations) Free to Friends of CFI.

UFO speakers

Friday, June 19, 2009
I am looking for good UK-based speakers knowledgeable about alien-related matters - UFOs, SETI, etc. Can anyone recommend anyone?

No wackos obviously - I need credible people with some genuine expertise...

Gig on Sunday

I am playing with Ropetrick at the Perch pub in Binsey, nr. Oxford (by Port Meadow) this Sunday (21st June), 1 o'clock. It's part of an all-day music thing going on at the pub.

Gig on Thursday night

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I am playing at the Bullingdon Pub (in the Backroom), Cowley Rd Oxford on Thursday night (Ropetrick - last of three bands on, about 10pm-ish I think).

Incidentally, does anyone know how I can contact Christina Odone (religious journalist)? Or any other suggestions whom I should invite to Oxford Lit Fest to debate faith schools with me (Jonathan Sacks cannot do it - I asked)?

For your interest - I have set up a debate between John Polkinghorne and philosopher David Papineau for the Oxford Lit Festival (title: Does the Universe Reveal The Mind of God?). This should be excellent. And also have booked Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman and also maybe someone v famous that I cannot confirm yet (I am really trying hard to sell this, I admit).

More CFI UK events about to be announced too...

God, Poetry and Emotion

Monday, June 15, 2009
[I am repeating this post from earlier, as becoming increasingly relevant to recent discussions of "sophisticated" theology]

Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.

I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:

(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
(iii) Pseudo-profundity

I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) - is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.

But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.

I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:

9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.

9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.

9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:

“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”

And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.

Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).

Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.

I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible - and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.

There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.

Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that? Why?!" The claims just don't work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.

On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what's left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).

It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”

Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.

Are the 'New Atheists' avoiding the 'real arguments'?

Sunday, June 14, 2009
Great article here from Edmund Standing on the "new Atheists" and how they are shot down by sophisticated theologians.

Seems to me Standing has caught Rowan Williams out in a flagrant use of what I call: "now you see it, now you don't".

P.S. "great" should not to be taken to indicate I agree with everything in said article - I don't. But the central point is good, and well made, I think.

The case of the sixth islander

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
The case of the sixth islander

[another extract from a paper I am writing, this time a thought experiment related to the preceding post].

Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.

As the rescued party recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth member of their party shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles - walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had striking and original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Eventually, five years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.

Let’s add some further details to this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the five islanders tell much the same story about the revered sixth member of their party – while differing in style, their accounts are broadly consistent. Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collectively testimony.

Interestingly, the stories about the sixth islander also include a number of details that are clearly awkward or embarrassing for the remaining islanders. Indeed, they all agree that two of the surviving islanders actually betrayed and killed the sixth islander. Moreover, some of the deeds supposedly performed by the sixth islander are clearly at odds with what the survivors believe about him (for example, while believing the sixth islander to be utterly without malice, they also attribute to him actions that are clearly cruel, actions they then have a very hard time explaining). These are details it seems it could hardly be in their interests to invent.

Such is their admiration for their sixth companion and his unorthodox ethical views that the survivors try hard to convince us that both what they say is true, and that it is important that we too should also come to embrace his unorthodox views. Indeed, for the rescued party, the sixth islander is a revered cult figure, a figure they wish us to revere too.

Now suppose we have, as yet, no good independent evidence for the existence of the sixth islander, let alone that he performed the miracles attributed to him by the rescued party. What should be our attitude to these various claims?

Clearly, we would rightly be sceptical about the miraculous parts of the testimony concerning the sixth islander. Their collective testimony is not nearly good enough evidence that such events happened. But what of the sixth islander’s existence? Is it reasonable to believe, solely on the basis of this testimony, that the sixth islander was at least a real person, rather than a delusion, or deliberately invented fiction, or whatever?

Notice that the evidence presented by the five islanders meets three criteria discussed above.

First, we have multiple attestation: not one, but five, individuals claim that the sixth islander existed (moreover, we are dealing with the alleged eye-witnesses themselves, rather than second or third hand reports, so there is no possibility of other having tampered with or amended the story to suit themselves).

Secondly, their reports contain details that are clearly highly embarrassing to (indeed, that seriously incriminate) the tellers. This raises the question – why would the islanders deliberately include such details in a made-up story – a story that e.g. is clearly in tension with what they believe about their hero, and which, indeed, also portrays them as murderous betrayers?

Thirdly, why would they attribute to the sixth islander unorthodox ethical and other views very much discontinuous with accepted wisdom? If, for example, the sixth islander is an invention designed to set them up as chief gurus of a new cult, would they attribute to their mythical leader views unlikely to be easily accepted by others?

Now there’s no doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?

[nb. the following is for Sam's interest]

Sticking to the story despite the threat of death

Another difference between the two scenarios that might be exploited is: Those who made such claims about Jesus were prepared to, and on occasion did, die for their beliefs. No such threats are issued to the six islanders. Some may claim this is a key difference between the two sets of testimony that gives the testimony about Jesus much greater credibility.

Let’s suppose at least some of those with whom the Jesus testimony originated were prepared to die for their belief. That would at least raise the credibility of their collective testimony somewhat. But by how much?

Again, let’s adjust our hypothetical scenario so that the islanders are now threatened with death if they do not renounce their claims about the sixth islander (imagine, if you like, that they are unlucky enough to be rescued by a brutal totalitarian regime highly unsympathetic to such tales). The islanders stick to their story, and are executed as a result. How reasonable is it, now, to suppose that there was a sixth islander?

Still not terribly reasonable, I would suggest.

It is, of course, deeply puzzling why the islanders would be prepared to die for their beliefs if those beliefs were not true. If the islanders made the story up, surely they would have renounced it to save their own skins. But if they did not make it up, and yet the story is not true, then they would have to have collectively been the victims of some sort of deceit or delusion about the miraculous sixth islander. Yet that is scarcely credible either.

And yet – given the highly miraculous nature of much of what they recount about the sixth islander, surely it is still not clear that he existed, let alone performed any of the miracles attributed to him.

The fact that it is deeply puzzling why the rescued party would go to their deaths defending beliefs that they knew not to be true, and no less puzzling how they could collectively have become deceived or deluded about a miraculous sixth islander, still leaves us largely clueless about what really happened.