Simon Singh and Andy Lewis on homeopathy

Saturday, January 30, 2010
Simon Singh and Andy Lewis (Quackometer) discuss homeopathy, filmed by myself at the CFI UK Trick or Treatment event (preceded by 10:23)

Postscript - now showing new version kindly edited for CFI UK by Mark Williams.

Age of Sexual Consent

Age of sexual consent by country. Some interesting numbers. Go here.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The Singing Ringing Tree, made in an East German studio in 1957, has had a weird effect on my psyche for the rest of my life. I still feel it's important all children have the crap scared out of them regularly in a surreal and incomprehensible way, and the East (PS er. more Eastern?) Europeans do it best. Also they had no silly moral qualms about stapling doves to a swing.

The Fast Show spoofed it (this might not mean much if you don't remember the original, though the above clip will help). Go here.

Why David Cameron wants a boom in faith schools

Friday, January 29, 2010
The biggest expansion of faith schools since the 19th century would be encouraged by a Tory government, David Cameron signalled yesterday.

Senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church have already expressed a strong interest in running the 'free schools' proposed by the Conservatives.

Read more:

Why I despise the hypocritical non-believers who colonise faith schools

Nice Daily Mail rant...

The church was packed, the guests all in their finery. The baby, adorable in an antique christening robe, lay asleep in his mother's arms.

The vicar sprinkled water over his forehead. The godparents renounced the Devil. The congregation said the Lord's Prayer.

A christening should be an occasion filled emotion. So why was my reaction to attending this - and many others like it, in recent years - not one of joy but of profound distaste?

The answer lies in what the baby's mother, in designer outfit, told me over her third glass of champagne.

'Of course, this is the most ludicrous pantomime. I'm the most vocal atheist imaginable. But who cares? Our son's place at the church school is guaranteed. This Christening will save us hundreds of thousands of pounds.'

Read more:

Fox News most trusted television news network on US.

Thursday, January 28, 2010
This is very depressing....

Fox is the most trusted television news network in the country, according to a new poll out Tuesday.

A Public Policy Polling nationwide survey of 1,151 registered voters Jan. 18-19 found that 49 percent of Americans trusted Fox News, 10 percentage points more than any other network.

Read more.

Draft for comments

Wednesday, January 27, 2010
For OUP humanism book.

This is VERY VERY rought first draft. Many slips I know.


A colleague of mine once told me that, as a pupil of a Catholic school in 1960’s Britain, she once asked in class why the use of contraceptives was morally wrong. She didn’t expressing disagreement with the view – merely asked what the justification for it was. As a result, she was sent to the headmaster, who asked her why she was obsessed with sex. The culture her school fostered, so far as moral and religious education was concerned, was one of deference to authority – of passive, uncritical acceptance of religious dogma. This colleague, no longer Catholic, added that, even today, more than half a century later, she still finds herself feeling guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief. Her upbringing was highly effective not only in censoring her, but in getting her into the habit of censoring herself. That disposition was so-deeply ingrained in her that it survives to this day, long past the point where religious belief ceased.

Many religions have, historically, encouraged such unquestioning, deferential attitudes among the faithful. In some cases, they still do. However, it is not only the religious that have been guilty of straight-jacketing young minds in this way, atheists stand guilty too. Under the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Mao, for example, certain political dogmas had to be accepted without question.

Broadly speaking, humanists favour a liberal approach to moral education, an approach that emphasizes individual moral responsibility. In chapter XX I presented an argument that our individual responsibility for making moral judgements is unavoidable, an inevitable part of the human condition. It is our individual responsibility to make our own moral judgements, rather than attempt to hand that responsibility over to some external authority – such as a religion or political leader – that will make those judgements for us. Like or not, each one of us must shoulder that responsibility ourselves.

But if that is true, then shouldn’t we ensure raise young people in such a way that (i) they recognise they have this individual responsibility, and (ii) ensure they have the kind of intellectual, social, emotional and other skills they will need to make the best judgements they can? These are certainly the hallmarks of a humanist approach.

So humanists are typically opposed to those traditional, religious approaches to moral education that present morality as a set of facts handed down by authority that individuals must more or less unquestioningly accept. But they are no less opposed such “educational” techniques when employed by, for example, atheist totalitarian regimes.

So what alternative do humanists recommend? Many religious people appear to think that the alternative to traditional religious indoctrination is to abandon children to invent their own morality from scratch, tell them that every moral point of view is as valid as every other, and allow them to do whatever they like. However, this would be a caricature of the kind of moral and religious education that most humanists advocate.

Note, first of all, that encouraging children to think and question does not require that we abandon rules and discipline. What humanists advocate in the classroom is freedom of thought, not freedom of action. No doubt children need discipline and they need good habits drilled into them. But even while we enforce rules, we can still allow them the opportunity to question those rules and express disagreement.

Secondly, note that encouraging children to think and question does not mean that we cannot explain to them what we believe, and why we believe it. In fact there is no reason why a faith school promoting a particular religion should not encourage its pupils to think and question. Its teachers may say: “This is what we believe, and these are the reasons why we suppose these beliefs are true. While we might want you to believe it too, we don’t want you to just take our word for it. We are encourage you to think and question and make up your own minds.” Humanists will no doubt want to persuade their children of the truth of their humanist views, but they won’t want children to accept those views passively and unquestioningly.

Thirdly, note that a humanist approach does not involve telling children that every moral point of view is as correct as every other – they are all equally “valid”. In fact, a humanist approach stands in opposition to that kind of moral relativism. For if every moral point of view were as correct as every other, then would be no point in thinking about moral issues, for the view you ended up at would be no more true than the one you started with. Thinking would be a pointless waste of time. But of course, humanists suppose that, far from being a waste of time, thinking and reasoning can help us figure out what really is, and isn’t true.

Philosophy in the classroom

There is no specific humanist “method” of morally educating new citizens. All sorts of techniques might be employed to encourage young people to start thinking about moral issues. We should acknowledge, of course, that the kind and level of educational activities we promote will have to be geared to age and ability.

One sort of particular activity which has been tried in classrooms with some success is “P4C” or “philosophy for children”. In encouraging children to think critically and independently about moral issues, we are, of course encouraging them to think philosophically. There is, as we have seen, a rich and long secular, philosophical tradition on which we might draw in looking for resources to help us morally educate new citizens. However, teaching children philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of educating them about that tradition – about which philosopher said what, and why (such a history of ideas would probably only be suitable for, or even of interest to, much older children). P4C, by contrast, involves bringing children together in groups in which they engage in structured debate some particular philosophical conundrum (often chosen by themselves). This kind of activity has tried across the entire age range, and it has had measurable benefits.

For example, in 2001-2, the psychologist Professor Keith Topping, in conjunction with the University of Dundee, studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of such a philosophy programme at three primary schools in Clackmannanshire. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools without any philosophy programme. This study found that after one year,

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (i.e., the improvements previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school.

Of course this is just one study and its results might be questioned, but there is a growing body of empirical evidence that this kid of philosophical activity does have measurable social, intellectual and emotional benefits for children. It produces not just intellectually, but also socially, emotionally and ethically more aware and sophisticated individuals.

For example, when Buranda State School, a small Australian primary introduced into all its classes a philosophy program along similar lines. It reported “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated… have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.

Similar benefits are now being recognized by British Government school inspectors. For example, a 2001 report on Colby Primary School in Norfolk, said:

A strength is the teaching of philosophy and thinking skills. In these lessons, pupils learn to listen, consider, and respond in a mature way to the ideas of others. This work is taken to a high level and clearly has a positive impact on children’s work across the curriculum, giving them confidence to speak and discuss ideas.

Of course, those who suspect their own religious faith might not survive early exposure to such independent, critical thought are likely to find all sorts of excuses for protecting their own religious beliefs from such scrutiny for as long as possible. “Thinking and questioning is all very well”, they may say, “But not too early and not too much – that’s a bad thing.”

The evidence, however, suggests that it is rather a good thing. Do we really want children to miss out on such educational benefits because we feel we must respect their parents’ right to indoctrinate their offspring mindlessly in a particular religion?

Faith schools

Humanists differ in their attitudes to faith schools. Some believe that faith schools should no longer be tolerated. They may argue that, if we are not going to allow, say, political schools that select on the basis of political beliefs, begin each day with the collective singing of political anthems, have portraits of political leaders on classroom walls, and promote party-political views (which, surely, would constitute a threat to any healthy democracy), then why should we tolerate their religious equivalents (particularly as many religious beliefs have a political dimension).

However, other humanists are prepared to allow faith schools, just so long as those meet certain minimum standards. They may suppose, for example, that even independent faith schools should encourage children to think and question, should expose children to a range of religious and non-religious views (preferably articulated by those who actually hold them), should make it very clear to every pupil that what religious beliefs they hold is a matter of their own free choice. Currently, many British schools fail to meet these standards.

Most humanists will, of course, oppose the state-funding of religious schools. Their secularist commitments lead them to suppose that there is no justification for the state giving religious beliefs a privileged educational status.

A further reason to embrace a humanist approach

Here is a further reason why encouraging a questioning attitude, rather than deference to authority, might be a very good idea. Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, conducted research into the backgrounds of both those who joined in the killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who worked to save lives. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian,

If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.

Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies”.

In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, Samuel and Pearl Oliner report the results of their extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who went along with the Final Solution and those who rescued victims. The found that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on explaining, rather than on punishment and discipline.

[P]arents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.”

[I]t is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.

According to the Oliners, 'reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” The non-rescuers, by contrast, tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”. Oliners also report that, while religious belief was also a factor, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.

If we want to raise the kind of citizens that will resist the slide into the kind of moral catastrophes that marred the 20th Century, it seems that our focus should indeed be in moral education. But not of the traditional, authority-based religious sort. Our focus should be on raising independent, critical thinkers.

New book claims Pope whipped himself as penance

VATICAN CITY—Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, even on vacation, and slept on the floor as acts of penitence and to bring him closer to Christian perfection, according to a new book by the Polish prelate spearheading his sainthood case.

read more.

Of course everyone will now be thinking about Dan Brown's albino monk...

Thanks to Erroll Treslan.

Sign new petition please

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
There is a new joint petition calling for action at, separate to the Keep Libel Laws out of Science petition, and where you can also send a letter urging your MP to support libel law reform.

On Faith - Washington Post

Great writing on Haiti and the problem of evil at the Washington Post. Including a very sharp Dawkins. Go here.

My thanks to Erroll Treslan.

Snowy scene in Northumberland

Monday, January 25, 2010
Trees in snow, Northumberland
From my flickr page.

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People

Saturday, January 23, 2010
Tonight on BBC 4, 9.45pm. Link.

A non-religious Christmas celebration of comedy, science and music recorded live at London's Hammersmith Apollo in December 2009. Stand-up comedian and humanist Robin Ince is joined by a host of leading lights from the world of science, including Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, as well as musicians and top comedians from Mark Steel to Shappi Khorsandi.

Full line up:
Robin Ince, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Mark Steel, Richard Herring, Shappi Khorsandi, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Robyn Hitchcock, Jim Bob and Baba Brinkman.

The Meaning of Life - for comments (about 5k words, conclusion to follow)

Friday, January 22, 2010
GOD, RELIGION AND THE MEANING OF LIFE (for my Oxford University Press Very Short Intro to Humanism) This is a first draft. Comments please. Conclusion is missing.

According to some, questions about the meaning of life are inextricably bound up with questions about God and religion. Without God, it is suggested, humanity amounts to little more than a dirty smudge on a ball of rock lost in an incomprehensively vast universe that will eventually bare no trace of us having ever existed, and which will itself collapse into nothingness. So why bother getting out of bed in the morning? If there is a God, on the other hand, then we inhabit a universe made for us, by a God who loves us, and who has given us a divine purpose. That fills our lives meaning.

But is God, or religious belief, really a necessary condition of our leading meaningful lives? And how is the existence of God supposed to make our lives meaningful? If meaningful lives are possible whether or not there is a God, what makes for a meaningful existence? This chapter examines these and related questions.

What do we mean by a “meaningful life”?

One of the difficulties we face in giving an account of how humanism, or any other view for that matter, can allow for the possibility of a meaningful life is in identifying what constitutes a meaningful life in the first place. It is clear that certain answers won’t do.

First of all, there is obviously more to leading a meaningful life than, say, feeling largely happy and content. Someone continuously injected with happiness-inducing drugs could enjoy such a pleasurable life, but that wouldn’t guarantee a particularly worthwhile or significant existence.

Secondly, there are presumably more ways of leading a meaningful life than just doing morally good works. While leading an exceptionally virtuous existence is one way in which one might, perhaps, have a meaningful existence, it is not the only way. Many great artists, scientists, explorers, musicians, writers and sportsmen and women have, surely, lived rich and meaningful lives, despite not being noticeably more moral than the rest of us (indeed, some have been rather selfish and immoral).

Moreover, it seems that not only is a lifetime spent performing good deeds not necessary for a meaningful existence, neither is it sufficient. Consider a man living under a totalitarian regime who devotes his entire life helping sick children. However, while believing this to be good, he only does it because he fears the terrible consequences of not obeying. Has this individual led a meaningful life? Despite his countless good acts, it is by no means obvious that he has. What this example, illustrates, perhaps, is that, in order for a person’s life to be genuinely meaningful, that person has to exhibit a kind of autonomy. You must be self-directed, rather than just following the instructions of another. The freely-chosen pursuit of your life’s projects is, perhaps, a condition of life meaningfully.

Presumably, someone might bow out thinking their life had been a pointless waste of time when it was in fact highly significant. Conversely, someone might consider their life highly meaningful when in truth it is not. Someone who tirelessly devotes himself to leading a white supremacist movement has not, in truth, led a particularly meaningful existence, whatever they, or indeed their many followers, might happen to think. It appears to be a condition of leading a meaningful life that our projects have some genuine worth, and we can, of course, be gravely mistaken about what is really worthwhile.

Notice that a meaningful life can also end in the failure of its central project. Consider Scott of the Antarctic, who struggled valiantly to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott did not, because of his failure, lead a meaningless life. Indeed, Scott’s life is held up as a shining example of a life well-lived despite his dramatic failure. It was the manner of his failure that gave his life particular significance.

There are, perhaps, certain features a life must possess if it is to be meaningful – a fairly worthwhile project or goal pursued in a self-directed way, for example. But is even this sufficient? Perhaps not, as a lifetime spent pursuing a worthwhile goal by an enthusiastic incompetent is often rather more farcical than it is meaningful.

Is the search for *the* meaning of life a wild goose chase?

The above section illustrates the point that it is notoriously difficult to provide a clear characterization of what makes for a meaningful life.

Part of the difficulty we face, here, perhaps, is that we assume that in order to explain what makes for a meaningful life we must identify some one feature that all and only meaningful lives possess: that feature that makes them meaningful. But why, if meaningful lives are possible, must there be one such feature? Perhaps the search for the meaning of life – this single, elusive, meaning-giving feature – is a wild goose chase. Perhaps lives can be meaningful in a variety of ways. The concept of a meaningful life may be what the philosopher Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. The members of a family may resemble each other, despite there being no one feature they all have in common (e.g. that big nose or those small ears). Wittgenstein supposes the same is true of, for example, those things we call “games”. Activities such as backgammon, solitaire, football, chess and badminton resemble each other to various degrees. But is there one thing all and only games have in common, in virtue of which they are all games? Wittgenstein suggests not:

Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’— For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared …[T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cross-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

If Wittgenstein is correct, the search for the one feature all and only games possess is a wild goose chase. There is no such feature. But of course that does not entail that either there is, after all, no such thing as a game, or that what makes something a game must be some further mysterious characteristic we have yet to identify.

Perhaps we make the same kind of mistake if we assume that, if meaningful lives are possible, then there must be some one feature that all and only the meaningful lives share. Our inability to identify this feature amongst warp and weft of the Earthly features of our lives may then lead us mistakenly to conclude that either our lives lack meaning, or else the elusive meaning-giving feature must be other-worldly.

When we look at lives that are meaningful, and compare them with those that are not, we may find, not a single feature possessed by all of the former and none of the latter, but a great many factors that have an impact on meaningfulness, including some to which we have already alluded: a worthwhile goal, a goal freely-chosen, a goal pursued with some dedication and skill, engagement in activity that helps or enriches the lives of others, and so on. The impression that none of these worldly features are sufficient – that some further, magical, other-worldly ingredient is required if our lives are really to have meaning – may in part be a result of our failing properly to register that the concept of a meaningful life, like that of a game, is a family resemblance concept. Talk about “the” meaning of life may be symptomatic of this confusion.

Is God required for a meaningful life?

While we might struggle to provide a watertight philosophical characterization of what makes for a meaningful life, most of us tend to agree about which lives are meaningful and which are not. There’s a broad consensus that Marie Curie, Socrates, and Scott of the Antarctic led highly significant and meaningful lives, whereas a mindless jobsworth, or someone who has passionately devoted their life entirely to kicking other people in the shins, has led a rather meaningless existence.

However, some Theists argue that, if there is no God, then none of our lives are meaningful – not even the lives of Curie, Socrates or Scott. Let’s now look at three such arguments.

1. A moral argument

One very simple line of argument that may tempt some is: a meaningful life is a morally virtuous life; but morality depends on God; thus there cannot be meaningful lives without God.

We have already seen two reasons why this initial line of argument won’t do.

First, the lives of many great artists, musicians, explorers and scientists have surely been highly meaningful, despite the fact that the individuals in question were not particularly moral – indeed, some were rather selfish and self-obsessed. While moral lives can be meaningful, meaningful lives need not, it seems, be particularly moral. In which case, even if there were no such thing as morality, meaningful lives might still be possible.

Secondly, the above argument in any case just assumes that morality depends on God, a claim we have already seen is very dubious (see chapter 4).

2. The ultimate purpose argument

A second argument for the conclusion that meaningful lives require God focuses on ultimate ends or purposes. Surely, the argument runs, a life has meaning by virtue of its having some sort of final aim or goal. We must be here for some purpose. And only God can supply such an ultimate purpose.

Some religious people, for example, maintain that our ultimate purpose is to love and worship God. They believe that without God, there can be no such purpose, and with such a purpose, life is meaningless.

But is God required in order for us to have a purpose? Not necessarily. Each living organism has a purpose, to reproduce and pass on its genetic material to the next generation. We each exist for a purpose, a purpose supplied by nature, whether or not there is a God.

What this example also brings out, of course, is that merely having a purpose is not, by itself, sufficient to render a life meaningful. Discovering that nature has designed me for no other purpose than to pass on my genetic material to the next generation hardly makes my life seem terribly significant. Indeed, my life is, on this measure, no more significant than that of a worm, which has the exact same purpose.

In reply, it may be said that I am overlooking a crucial difference between purposes: those for which we have evolved and those bestowed on us by some higher, designing intelligence. It is only the latter, they may maintain, that can render a life meaningful. But is this true? No. It is notoriously easy to construct counter-examples involving super-intelligent aliens.

Suppose, for example, that it turns out that humans have been bred on this planet for a reason – to wash the smelly underwear of a highly advanced alien race. The aliens will shortly return to pick us up and take us to their enormous alien laundry. Would this fact, or its discovery, fill our lives with meaning? Hardly.

Perhaps it will be conceded that merely being designed by some higher intelligence for a purpose is not enough to render our lives meaningful. The purpose must be one that we positively embrace and that makes us feel fulfilled. Washing alien undies is neither something we would positively embrace, nor something that would makes us feel particularly fulfilled.

But suppose it did. Suppose our hypothetical aliens have designed us so that we discover we profoundly enjoy washing their underwear. Indeed, once we start work in their laundry, we finally feel fulfilled in a way that we have never felt before. Our sense that there was something “missing” from our lives entirely disappears. We rest each evening with an enormous sense of satisfaction that we are now doing what we were always meant to do. Would this make our lives meaningful? It’s by no means obvious that it would.

In reply, it may be said that I am focussing on a silly purpose, certainly not the sort of purpose God would have for us. God made us for a very specific purpose: to love him. It is this particular purpose that makes our lives meaningful.

But, again, this seems dubious. Suppose a woman wants to love someone who loves her unconditionally in return. It occurs to her that she could have a child expressly for this purpose, and does so. Does the purpose for which this new person is created automatically bestow meaning upon their life? Not obviously. Some of us probably were conceived for such a purpose. Yet few would point to that fact in order to explain why their lives have meaning. I cannot see why God’s creating me for the purpose of loving him would give my life any more meaning.

In fact, isn’t creating human beings solely for a particular purpose actually a rather demeaning and degrading thing to do, as a rule? But then why is God’s doing it any different? It is debatable whether, if there were a God of love, he would even want to create human beings for some particular purpose.

So the question of how our lives can have meaning is not, it seems, easily answered by appealing to divine purpose. In particular, the question of how our possessing a God-given purpose makes our lives meaningful has not, so far as I can see, been adequately explained. Often as not, we are offered, not a clear account of how God’s existence is supposed to make our lives meaningful, but merely a promissory note that, in some mysterious and unfathomable way, it just does.

In short, the suggestion that our lives are made meaningful by virtue of God having created us for a divine purpose appears, on closer examination, to raise at least as many difficulties as those facing non-religious views about what makes life meaningful.

3. A divine judgement argument

Here’s a third argument. It seems lives don’t have meaning just because we judge that they do. Presumably, a life devoted solely to kicking other people in the shins at every available opportunity would not thereby qualify as meaningful, not even if we all thought it did.

But, the Theist might now add, if lives aren’t meaningful simply because we judge them to be so, then they can only be meaningful because God judges them to be so. So a meaningful life requires God after all.

This is a popular argument. Unfortunately, it runs into difficulties similar to those that face the parallel argument that if things aren’t morally right or wrong because we judge them to be so, they must be right or wrong because God judges them to be so (see pages XXX). The Euthyphro dilemma crops up here too. We can now ask our Theist:

Are lives meaningful because God judges them to be so, or does God judge them to be so because he recognizes that they are?

The first answer seems ridiculous. Surely, had God judged that kicking people in the shins at every available opportunity is what makes life meaningful, that wouldn’t make it so. But the second answer – God merely recognizes what makes for a meaningful life – concedes that there are facts about what makes for a meaningful life that obtain anyway, whether or not there is a God to make such judgements. But then these are facts to which humanists are as entitled to help themselves as are Theists. God is not required.

Does meaning require immortality?

We have not, as yet, found a good argument fro supposing a meaningful life requires the existence of God. Let’s now set such arguments to one seide, and consider a slightly different claim: that, whether or not meaningful lives require God, they do at least require that we possess immortal souls. How, Theists sometimes ask, can a life have any meaning or point if it ends in death? True, we may have achievements that outlive us, such as books written, buildings designed, and children well-raised. But those books will eventually be forgotten and those buildings will crumble. Our children will soon wither and die. Indeed, the human race as a whole will eventually disappear entirely without trace. But then, without immortal souls, isn’t our existence all for nothing – a pointless waste of time?

As it stands, this is a poor argument. Notice, first of all, that it is not true of other forms of meaning, such as linguistic meaning, that if that which is supposed bears meaning ceases to exist, then it never had any meaning in the first place. The language I am using to communicate my thoughts to you right now has meaning – if it didn’t, you would not be able to understand me. Yet these words, and indeed this entire language, will eventually disappear without trace. That doesn’t entail that my words are, after all, meaningless. But if languages don’t need to last forever in order to have meaning, why should we suppose lives are any different?

While a longer life might be desirable, it is not necessarily more meaningful. True, if you live longer, you may achieve more, do more good works, etc. But is a long life exhibiting such virtues thereby more meaningful than a shorter version? Presumably not. Nor is it obvious why extending such a life to infinity imbues it with any more meaning.

In fact, it is sometimes in the manner of our death that our lives acquire particular meaning and significance. Someone who deliberately sacrifices their own life to save others is often held up as an example of a person whose life is particularly meaningful (I might add that, if we compare the sacrifice of someone who lays down their life thinking they will be resurrected in heaven, and someone who lays down their life thinking that death is the end, surely it is the latter individual who intends to make the greater sacrifice, and whose action is, for that reason, the more noble and meaningful).

Even when a life is not sacrificed for others, the manner of its end can often be what marks it out as particularly significant. We rightly admire those who face death with courage and dignity. Consider the death of Scott of the Antarctic, for example. Death is often an important episode of the story of our lives, an event that completes the narrative of a life in a satisfying and meaningful way. The fact that we die, and that death really is the end, does not make our lives meaningless. In fact, the finality of death actually gives us an opportunity to make our lives rather more meaningful.

Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism

Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.

It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. And many people, including many non-religious people, maintain that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection can be petty and shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, cosmetic surgery, and so on. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a fairly narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating the bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which those kind of questions were addressed. With the loss of such traditions and practices, we have inevitably slid into selfish, shallow individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate those traditions (and some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).

There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, selfish individualistic culture can cast over young minds.

However, in chapter one we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.

Indeed, as I point out in chapter XX, there is growing empirical evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.

Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should take a step back and consider the big questions. They simply deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to make children religious.

The suggestion that we have, in effect, to choose between religion and shallow and selfish existence is an example the fallacy known as false dilemma. The dilemma is often employed as a sales tactic: “Either you buy the K1000, or you put up with inferior sound quality! You choose!” Salespeople often attempt to railroad us into purchasing their product by presenting us with just two options, when there are others available that may be better. The religious sometimes present us with similar dilemma: “Either you promote religion, or else you end up with a society of shallow individuals who never think about anything but themselves. You choose!” The truth is that there are other alternatives.

In fact, if we really want to encourage young people to think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a better alternative. True, the religious often ask the big questions. For example, the Church of England advertises its Alpha Course by posting questions such as “Is this it?” on the backs of buses, promising those who sign up “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”.

However, when the religious pose such questions, they are presented for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course). Philosophy really does encourage you to think and question and make your own judgement – a tendency, that, in truth, religions have often been very wary of. That claim that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions is not just false, it is particularly ironic when made by religions with a long and sometimes violent history of suppressing independent thought.

Do humanists miss out on something?

It may be that we do miss out on something if we give up religion. Consider belief in Santa Claus. For the child who comes to believe in Santa, the universe appears wonderfully transformed. From within the perspective of their bubble of belief, the world, come December, takes on new meaning and significance - a rosy, magical glow. There is something it is like to inhabit this bubble of belief - to be a true believer in Santa - something its very hard to understand if you have never experienced it yourself.

When the child grows up a bit and the Santa bubble pops, it can be rather distressing for the child: rosy glow surrounding December vanishes leaving the world seeming rather sad and drab by comparison.

There’s no doubt that popping the bubble of religious belief can also be distressing for its occupant. The magic and meaning may appear to drain out of the world, leaving it seeming cold and barren. Isn’t it better to live inside such a religious bubble, if we can?

I don’t believe so. If there is no God, then the magical glow the world seemed to take on when viewed from inside the bubble was always an illusion. Once the bubble has popped, the world might seem a little drabber for a while. But, personally, I would rather see the world as it is, than as I would like it to be.

In fact, isn’t an appreciation of what is really important in life actually likely to be obscured by such a bubble? Compare belief in Santa, the elves in his workshop, the flying reindeer and so on. When the bubble pops, they vanish, but what was always most important come December 25th - love, getting together with our friends and family, and so on - are still all in place. In fact, for us grown ups, wouldn’t belief in Santa - and the accompanying activities of writing to the North Pole, putting out the mince pie and milk - threaten to be a disabling distraction, preventing us from recognizing what is really important?

I believe the same is true of belief in a dimension of Gods, angels, demons, and so on. It is true that, without religious belief, we may miss out on something – e.g. on seeing the world as a divinely-ruled kingdom, or on the comforting promise of everlasting life and of being reunited with loved ones after our death. But we may gain rather more – including a more mature and clear-sighted view of what is actually valuable and significant in life.

Conclusion (to follow)

Thought for the Day, 15 January 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010
Some more on Haiti and the problem of evil, this time from The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser:

The word "theodicy" describes the intellectual attempt to justify the existence of God in the face of human suffering. Coined by Leibniz at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he argued that out of the various possible worlds that God could have created, he might have created the best of these, a world containing less suffering than all the other options available. With this suggestion, Leibniz sought to explain how it's at least logically possible that a merciful God could create a world with the suffering that it has.

And then, in 1755, some years after Leibniz published his famous argument, a massive earthquake hit Lisbon on the morning of the first of November, the popular feast day of All Saints. A 15ft crack opened down the middle of the street. Locals watched the tide disappear only to return as a huge wave that drowned most of the city. 30-40 thousand people were killed.

It was in the face of this terrible disaster that Voltaire came to mount his celebrated attack upon Leibniz in Candide. Voltaire cast Leibniz as the foolish Dr Pangloss, ready to trot out the absurd idea that this is the best of all possible worlds whatever misfortune befell him. The satire was biting. He was claiming that all theologians seem to care about in the face of human misery is getting God off the hook. Theodicy, Voltaire insists, is a moral disgrace and a sick joke.

Well, I have no answer to the question of how God can allow so many innocent people to die in natural disasters, like the earthquakes of Lisbon or Haiti. And indeed, I can quite understand that many will regard these events as proof positive that religious people are living a foolish dream like the idiotic Dr Pangloss.

And yet, I still believe. For there exists a place in me - deeper than my rational self - that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti not with argument but with prayer. On a very basic level, what people find in religion is not so much the answers, but a means of responding to and living with life's hardest questions. And this is why a tragedy like this doesn't, on the whole, make believers suddenly wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary, it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.

What many believers mean by faith is not that we have a firm foundation in rational justification. Those, like Leibniz, who try to claim this are, I believe, rationalizing something that properly exists on another level. Which is why, at a moment like this, I'd prefer to leave the arguments to others. For me, this is a time quietly to light a candle for the people of Haiti and to offer them up to God in my prayers. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

Gunsight story

Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Very odd story about Biblical references stamped on US gunsights.

Coded references to biblical passages are inscribed on gunsights widely used by the US and British military in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has emerged.

The markings include "2COR4:6" and "JN8:12", relating to verses in the books of Corinthians II and John.

Continues here.

Thanks to anticant and Eric. Not particularly sinister, just weird....

Tim Minchin's Storm

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I found this at Andy Lewis's Quackometer via Simon Singh. Both are speaking at the CFI UK event I have organized for 30th Jan at Conway Hall. See immediately preceding post.

Full version of Minchin's poem here.

Pat Robertson voodoo doll on ebay

Here. Thanks to Ekklesia.
Finally! What you've all been asking for! A one of a kind, handmade PAT ROBERTSON VOODOO DOLL.

After an exclusive deal with devil, we are finally able to bring black magic into your very own home! The lucky winner of this auction will attain the soul of Televangelist PAT ROBERTSON in a handheld figurine comprised of the finest straw, cloth, and other organic natural materials!

Ever wanted to cause Pat Robertson a massive headache? give him back pain? jab him in the crotch? Of course you have! Well then BID NOW to own your very own physical representation of the dark, dark soul of Pat Robertson.

Accessories included with the doll are Pat's very own "HOLY" BIBLE and BAG OF MONEY taken from real Americans! WOW!


100% of the profits from the sale of this doll will go to The American Red Cross. To learn more about The Red Cross, VISIT HERE....

PLEASE PUBLICIZE: Mass homeopathy overdose on Sat 30th

At 10:23am on January 30th Jan outside Conway Hall 25 Red Lion Square London WC1R 4RL, many sceptics (and more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide) will be taking part in a mass homeopathic 'overdose' in protest at Boots' continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them. More information here. Assemble 10.00am. Organized by Skeptics in the Pub.

Note that this event is then immediately followed by the CFI UK TRICK OR TREATMENT event (organized by myself) with Simon Singh, John Garrow and Andy Lewis, also at Conway Hall.

Details of the event at London sceptics in the pub site here.

Mr Deity and the evil

Monday, January 18, 2010

Another theistic explanation for natural disasters...

Haiti: Problem of evil and Sentamu vs Robertson

Saturday, January 16, 2010
Letter on NSS Newsline here.

I awoke this morning (Thursday 14 January) to the struggled musings of John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, on the Today programme. He was attempting to reconcile the supposed existence of a loving, omnipotent God with the tragic events in Haiti. The only appropriate response he was able to muster was that he could offer "nothing which makes sense of the horrors". Had he paused at that point, then he would, at least, have been intellectually honest. But, no, he meandered onwards to utter several irrelevant, rambling, and borderline absurd opinions... read on.

Programme available for a short time here. I share the frustration of the author of the letter - what on Earth is Archbishop Sentamu on about (process theodicy?)?

Pat Roberston has a different view on Haiti: "True story...". At least Robertson's explanation is clear.

Humanist Life

Friday, January 15, 2010
Humanist Life is a new BHA website that is well worth following and linking to: Humanist Life.

David Mitchell - don't ban Choudary, tell him to fuck off.

This week the BHA backed plans by British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) to organise a counter demonstration to Islam4UK’s purported Wootton Bassett march, if it should actually go ahead... read more at Humanist Life.

Also at Humanist Life:


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Saturday, 30th January 2010

A day discussing alternative medicine, with speakers:

11am SIMON SINGH, author of Trick or Treatment, currently being sued by British Chiropractic Association.
12am ANDY LEWIS, runs Quackometer on the web.
2pm PROFESSOR JOHN GARROW, founder member of the charity "HealthWatch" which promotes proper testing of the health claims of all therapies, alternative or orthodox.

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall. Lunch 1-2pm. Sandwiches can be bought at venue.

£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.

Bad Faith Awards

Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Every year, New Humanist presents its Bad Faith Award to the individual deemed by readers to have made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of unreason. Last year saw a runaway victory for erstwhile US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as she romped home with a stunning 33 per cent of the vote. The polls for this year’s award opened in November, and once again they produced a clear winner... read more.

Thanks to my Dad.

Oxford under snow

From my flickr site here.

Click on image for larger version.

Francis Bacon on root of superstition

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
(If you spot any errors (in my maths, for example) let me know)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.

Bacon is a pivotal figure in the development of the modern scientific method. Here he puts his finger on a common error, an example of selection bias.

Consider these anecdotes:

“Joan was thinking about Mary, whom she only thinks about rarely, and whom she had not heard from for a year. Later that same day, Joan’s phone rang, and it was Mary! Joan is clearly psychic!”

“It looked as if John would die, but I prayed he would get better, and he did. God answered my prayer!”

Such anecdotes can appear to provide compelling evidence of psychic abilities and supernatural events, particularly when many are collected together in a book or article. But do they supply good evidence of such supernatural phenomena?

Let’s focus on the first anecdote for a moment. Let’s focus on the first anecdote for a moment.

Suppose each of us knows five people we think about rarely – only five times a year, say - and from whom we hear only, say, once a year. Suppose each of us also knows 10 people very well. These aren’t implausible averages, I’d suggest. And they entail that, on average, within roughly any 7 and a bit year period, one such coincidence will happen to one person you know very well, and to ten of the people whom you know very well know very well.

Because such coincidences are dramatic, they make memorable stories. It is hardly surprising, then, that we should hear such stories told and retold even by people whom we know very well and whom we have every reason to suppose are being accurate and honest. But then the fact you have heard a handful of such stories does not provide you with any evidence of psychic powers.

Our mistake is to focus on the few “hits”, the coincidences, and forget about the many “misses” – all those occasions on which people thought about someone they rarely think about whom they haven’t heard from in years, who didn’t then immediately get in touch with them.

We should be similarly wary about the second anecdote. Given the huge numbers of sick people prayed for daily, it’s hardly surprising if a few make astonishing recoveries. We should expect this by chance. If we ignore the “misses” – all those occasions on which sick people were prayed for but they experienced no astonishing recovery, and focus only on the “hits”, the small proportion of occasions the person recovered, we can, again, easily convince ourselves that that we have evidence of the miraculous efficacy of prayer.

Of course, none of this proves that people don’t have psychic powers, or that miracles don’t happen. But it does explain away much of the evidence on which people base their belief in such phenomena.

What does science tell us about God?

Friday, January 8, 2010

What does science tell us about God? from Mark Harvey on Vimeo.

Thanks to Derren Brown's site.

Leo Igwe: contact the embassy, please

Further News from Nigeria

The State Security Service has taken Uche with them away from his home supposedly to their offices.
Leo has asked the person who lives with Uche to go to the offices and ask what is happening.
Leo says that the SSS should be open about what are the reasons for this harassment of Uche and allow him proper legal representation.
The situation is unfolding right now.
Leo says "we are deeply concerned"
He asks all of us to take whatever action we can to make the Nigerian authorites aware that the eyes of the world are on this matter and that we expect that they will be behave properly in providing people with information as to why they are being held and questioned and gioven access t legal representation.
Leo says not to be concerned about any effect this may have on him and his meeting on Monday with the police. He sauds it i important that the authorities in Nigeria are aware of the international concern.
Contact local Nigerian Embassies , organs of Government in Nigeria etc.

Background info here.

Polite but firm communications expressing serious concern and requesting helping in dealing with this unfolding situation urgently now need to be sent, please.

I have emailed and have written a letter to the High Commissioner in London,

His Excellency, Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, High Commissioner
Nigeria High Commission,
9, Northumberland Avenue,
London WC2N 5BX, United Kingdom.

I used this email address as I could find none more suitable:

Let me know if you find a better one.

Snow white Britain from space - fantastic Nasa image

Thursday, January 7, 2010
Britain from space - covered in snow. Thanks to Nasa. Go here.

25 Comparative Religion Blogs and Websites

Links to some good sites and blogs re religion here.

Press statement from Leo Igwe

Some serious allegations from Leo Igwe:



On Tuesday January 5, at about 7.00am some police officers and soldiers led by two crime merchants in my community, Edward Uwah and Ethelbert Ugwu stormed my family compound in Mbaise in Imo state in Southern Nigeria. They arrested me and my aging father. We were detained briefly at the local police station in Ahiazu before we were transfered to the zonal police headquarters in Umuahia. The officers threatened to beat us when we asked them to allow us to clean up and change our clothes. One of the soldiers brought out his gun and threatened to shoot my father when he wanted to make phone calls to alert other family members of our arrest. The police held us throughout the day without giving us food and water. At the zonal police headquarters in Umuahia, a police officer read a petition by Ethelbert Ugwu who alleged that in September 2009 I with my father, three brothers and one Mr Gregory Iwu conspired, murdered and attempted to conceal the murder of one Mr Aloysius Chukwu who died in September last year. According to family sources, Mr Chukwu died in a local hospital after a brief illness. We made statements in response to the allegations and were later released on bail. Since 2007 I have been working to ensure that Daberechi Anomgam and her family get justice following the rape of the 10 year old girl by Edward Uwah(55), a university teacher, in 2006. Since 2007, both Edward and Ethelbert have brought several police actions and framed allegations against me and my family members; against Daberechi and her family and a few members of the community opposed to their criminal schemes. My father, who is over 77 years old and with a failing health(he is diabetic), has been detained six times at the local and zonal police stations in connection with this case. Two of my brothers have been detained three times. And on one occasion in 2008, one of them was beaten and brutalized by soldiers and mobile police officers brought by Ethelbert Ugwu. Both Ethelbert and Edward have filed three civil suits against me and my family members including Daberechi’s father at three different courts claiming damages of over 500 million naira(3.3million dollars). They have written petitions calling for my brothers to be sacked from their jobs and expelled from the college. The police officers in Ahiazu and Zone 9 in Umuahia have aided and abetted these atrocious and criminal acts by their irresponsible handling of the case and their readiness to arrest and detain any one as long as they are given some money. On a particular occasion in 2008, my father was arrested by police officers sent by Edward Uwah as he was leaving the court premises after attending a sitting of one of the civil suits also filed by Edward Uwah. I got the information about 10.00pm the same day. I flew in from Ibadan the following day and on getting to the police station I was also detained. I never knew I was among those accused by Edward Uwa of breaking in and stealing. He alleged that we broken into his house and stole some items, and after that, scattered some juju and charms of the floor! I was released on bail. The petition ended there. Edward never produced any witnesses and the police never charged him for providing them with false information.

As a result of my efforts and those of other humanist and human rights activists and groups in Nigeria and across the world, Edward Uwah is currently standing trial at a local court for indecently assaulting Daberechi. So far, the plot by Ethelbert Ugwu to undermine the prosecution has failed. Last year, he obtained through a backdoor a fiat to prosecute the case against Edward Uwah. When I was informed about this, I got a lawyer to help Daberechi’s family apply for a withdrawal of the fiat. And in November, the Director of Public Prosecution in Imo state cancelled the fiat.

Unfortunately the police have refused to arrest and investigate Ethelbert Ugwu despite several petitions against him at Ahiazu and Zone 9 (Umuahia)police stations. When it comes to this case the police are part of the problem. Because most police officers do not carry out their duties with intergrity. When it comes to police arrest and investigation in Nigeria three things matter most: MONEY!MONEY!! MONEY!!!. In most cases, police officers carry out their investigation to favour whoever ‘mobilises’ them or gives them a bribe. The way you are treated at police stations is determined by how much you pay or are ready to pay the officers whether as a complainant or a suspect. And in my community like in other rural communities in Nigeria, most people are poor and cannot afford to bribe the police. Hence criminal minded individuals are having a field day with police officers and soldiers.

And this nonsense must stop.

Pressure must be brought to bear on police authorities in Nigeria so that they would stop all acts of harassment, intimidation, illegal detention, extortion of money from the members of my family and community including the family members of Daberechi Anomgam. Pressure must be brought on the police authorities so that they can carry out their jobs responsibly and immediately arrest, investigate and prosecute Ethelbert Ugwu, Edward Uwah and their partners in crime including the police officers and soldiers whom they have used over the years to raid my community, assault innocent citizens and obstruct justice.

And I want to state that no amount of intimidation, police action, extortion, harassment, legal suits, trump-up charges, fictitious and malicious allegations, petitions against me and my family members will stop me from fighting for justice for this girl child and for humanity at large

Leo Igwe, Owerri, Imo State, January 7 2010

After 50 Years, UK Ministry Shuts Down UFO Unit

Wednesday, January 6, 2010
From Derren Brown. Reuters report here.

After more than 50 years of service, the ministry has shut down its UFO investigation unit, saying it could no longer justify the cost of running the service.

The ministry said it had found no evidence of a threat to Britain or proof of the existence of extra-terrestrials, despite the public sending thousands of reportings of UFOs to a ministry hotline and email address.

It said it held no opinion on the existence or otherwise of alien life, but added it had "no specific capability for identifying the nature of such sightings." Read the rest here.

Haiti UFO Video - The best bloopers are a click away

Archbishop - we should favour Christian immigrants

According to Radio 5 Live this morning, he former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey says that Christian immigrants should now be preferred. He is signatory to "70 Million Is To Many" a cross-party call for reduced immigration so that UK population does not hit 70 million.

Tom Flynn and Ron Lindsay discuss Christmas

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I lean more towards Ron's position (buy my book!)

Revised chapter - for comments

I have revised the morality chpt somewhat. Especially the italicized section, which is all new.... I also added quotes from Darwin and Margaret Knight.


Among the “Big Questions” humanism addresses are moral questions, questions about what we ought, or ought not to do. Humanists believe in right and wrong. Indeed, many are passionate in their ethical commitments.

However, many religious people question the claim that morality is something those who reject belief in God can even allow for. Three kinds of challenge tend to be raised. They are as follows:

First, how can there be good without God? Surely, in talking about things being morally “right” or “wrong, or “good” or “evil”, we are helping ourselves to an objective, God-given yardstick against which such values might be measured. If there is no God, then there is no such yardstick, and so talk about “right” or “wrong” can amount to little more than expressions of personal preference. Morally speaking, we can all do whatever we like. This kind of view is sometimes summed up with the slogan:

If God does not exist, everything is permitted.

a quotation sometimes mistakenly attributed to Dostoyevsky, and sometimes to his fictional creation Ivan Karamazov in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. There is not, as far as I am aware, any evidence Dostoyevski ever held such view. Dostoyevski does have Ivan express the view, though not in these precise words.

Second, how can we know what is good without God and religion to guide us? Surely, without the moral compass religion provides, we will be all at sea, no longer able to get our moral bearings. Dispense with religion, and moral catastrophe will ensue.

Third, will we be good without belief in God? Surely we behave ourselves only because we believe that there is a God who knows what we are up to, and who will judge us and punish us if we do wrong and reward us if we do good. If people no longer believe in God, then, again, moral chaos will result. It is important people believe God exists, if only to keep them on the straight and narrow.

This chapter begins by taking a closer look at these three challenges.

Can there be good without God?

One of the most popular arguments that, without God, morality is impossible, runs as follows.

Morality cannot come from us. It cannot be our own creation. If it were, that would make morality both arbitrary and relative – which it is not.

Why arbitrary? Well, if prior to our decreeing that anything is right or wrong, there is no right or wrong, our decrees cannot be based on moral reasons. We can decree that torturing the innocent is wrong, or we can decree that it is right – whichever judgement we make must be be, morally speaking, an entirely arbitrary one.

Why relative? Well, if what is morally right or wrong is determined by what we say, then, had we said that torturing the innocent is right, it would have been. Indeed, were we now to decree that torturing children is generally right, it would thereby become right. What is right or wrong is entirely relative to whatever we decree.

But surely morality is not arbitrary and relative in this way? We can’t make torturing innocent people right just by saying so. Such torture is wrong period, not just wrong-because-we-say-so. People who believe that torturing the innocent is generally morally acceptable or even desirable are, surely, mistaken.

But if morality is not our invention, then it must by God’s. Why is torturing the innocent wrong whatever we might happen to say or think about it? If it is not because we say it is wrong, then it must be because God says it is wrong.

The theory that things are morally right or wrong, good or bad, only because God says so is known as the divine command theory. According to the divine command theory, the wrongness of murder consists simply in the fact that God commands us not to do it.

The Euthyphro dilemma

The above argument for the divine command theory is seductive and popular. However it is, on closer examination, a poor argument. The flaw in it was first exposed by the philosopher Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro.

The flaw in the argument becomes clear when we ask:

Are things morally right/wrong good/bad because God says so, or does God say that they are right/wrong good/bad because he recognises that they are?

Which of these two answers should the theist give? If the theist says things are morally right or wrong, good or bad, only because God says so, morality, it turns out, is still arbitrary and relative. Only it is not relative to our whim, but to God’s. Such a theist must now accept that, had God said torturing the innocent was generally morally right, then it would be. And this decree would have been no less morally correct than the decree God actually issued. But of course, this answer is just as counter-intuitive as the suggestion that torturing the innocent would be morally acceptable if we said so. The difficulty with claiming that things are wrong because someone happens to say so arises all over again, only now at the level of God.

In response, some theists insist that God would not say that torturing the innocent is wrong because God is himself morally good and a good God obviously won’t command us to torture innocent people. But of course, according to the divine command theory, to say that God is morally good is just to say that God says he is good, which is something he can say whatever other moral decrees he might issue. So, on the divine command theory, God’s goodness neither prevents him from saying, nor gives him any moral reason not to say, that torturing the innocent is good.

It appears, then, that the first answer – things are morally right/wrong because God says so – is as unacceptable as the claim that things are morally right/wrong because we say so.

What, then, about the second answer: God says things are morally right or wrong because he himself recognizes that they are? God does not make torturing the innocent wrong by virtue of issuing his commands. Torturing the innocent would still be wrong, even if God had not forbidden it. God’s commands are issued, as it were, for informational purposes only.

Some theists, recognizing the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the first answer, plump for the second. However, notice that if the theist opts for the second answer, then the original argument that morality depends on God’s commands collapses. For such a theist now acknowledges that morality does not, after all, depend on what God commands. Torturing the innocent would be objectively morally wrong anyway, whether God commanded us not to do it, or not. But then atheists and agnostics are free to help themselves to this same objective moral yardstick. They are no more obliged to say that morality amounts to subjective preference than is the theist.

None of this is to deny that there is a puzzle about the objectivity of morality – about how it is possible for things to be morally right or wrong independently of how we, or even God, might judge them. My point is that the divine command theory does not provide a genuine solution to this puzzle. It supplies only the illusion of a solution: a convenient carpet under which the problem is swept.

This by no means exhausts all the arguments a theist might offer for the conclusion that there cannot be good without God. Here’s a slightly different approach. Suppose that moral value is non-arbitrary and non-relative. Suppose that there is, as it were, an objective moral standard or yardstick. “God” refers, not to the creator of this yardstick, but to the yardstick itself (or, if you prefer, to one end of it – the good end!). But then to admit that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong is just to admit that God exists.

This is a nice sleight of hand with words. If all that the theist means by “God” is an objective moral standard, then of course, by admitting there is such a moral standard, one thereby admits that God, thus understood, exists. However, this is a very thin understanding of what it is that “God” refers to. Many atheists will happily concede that they believe in “God” if that’s all the term refers to. Theists typically operate with a much thicker notion of “God”. They typically understand “God” to refer, not just to such a moral standard, but also to any number of the following: the creator of the universe; a designer; an intelligence; an agent who knows things, has intentions, and feels emotions such as jealousy, rage, love, etc.; a person in whose image we are made; a worker of miracles; an historically situated human being that died and came back to life; an oracle or revealer of truths; someone offering us the promise of eternal life, a commander of angels, and so on and so forth. To claim that there is an absolute moral standard is not to commit oneself to the truth of any of these other claims, whether they be literally, or merely analogically, understood. But then to accept that there is an absolute moral standard is not to accept that “God” exists, on any thick understanding of the term.

Theists are fond of challenging atheists with the question – so how do you account for the objective, non-relative, non-arbitrary character of morality? This is a tough philosophical question lacking any obvious, easy answer. Many atheists are honest enough to admit this. However, the fact that atheists struggle with this question should not lead anyone to conclude that theists are better placed to answer it. True, many theists have their own pat answer at the ready: “God!” But that answer, on closer examination, runs into all sorts of difficulties.

How are we to know what is right and wrong?

Let’s now turn to the second challenge: How can we know what is morally right and wrong without God and religion to guide us? Suppose there is an objective moral standard – how are we to know in which direction it points us? Surely, whether or not the divine command theory is true, we still need religion and God to inform us about right and wrong? Where do humanists go for moral guidance?

Actually, humanists can and do acknowledge that some people may be more “expert” than others when it comes morality, in the sense that they may possess more moral knowledge, or are may be more reliable judges of right and wrong. Clearly, some texts contain great moral wisdom, and that some individuals have great moral insights from which we might learn. Humanists acknowledge that these valuable resources may also include the teaching of religious books and leaders.

Where the humanist differs from many religious people is in the attitude they take, and encourage others to take, towards these resources. Many religious people insist that one particular group of resources is privileged, and that the core morality it promotes should be accepted more or less without question. Humanists, by contrast, stress the importance of individual moral autonomy.

Of course, humanists don’t suppose we should all be free to do just whatever we like. They are not anarchists. Our society requires laws, a police force, a judiciary, and so on. And children need discipline and good habits drilled into them. Humanists need not deny any of this. But they do believe we should be free to think for ourselves, to make our own moral judgements and (short of inciting mindless violence, etc.) express our own opinions. Our freedom to question and criticize received wisdom should not be curtailed. Humanists are not in favour of policing people’s thoughts, and punishing them for holding the wrong opinions. They reject the view that we should hand over our individual responsibility for making moral judgements to some external authority, such as a political or religious leader.

You might wonder about that. Surely, we often are justified in handing responsibility for making a judgement over to an expert? No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It is usually reasonable just to take the authority’s word for it in such cases.

So why not accept the judgement of, say, a religious authority on some moral question? If they have spent their life studying and thinking deeply about moral issues, why not defer to their expertise?

It would certainly be convenient if we could just defer to authority on moral matters in the same way we defer to doctors and engineers on medical and mechanical matters Unfortunately morality is not like medicine or engineering. If a doctor advises you to give a child a certain dose of medicine, but the advice is flawed and dangerous and the child dies as a result, you are not responsible for the death - the doctor is. But now suppose some religious authority advises you to kill anyone who rejects their religion. You obey. Are you are responsible for those deaths? Assuming you have not been brainwashed, you are. You cannot absolve yourself of responsibility by saying, “But my moral expert told me I should do it.” In the way you can absolve yourself of responsibility by saying “My medical expert told me I should do it.” The responsibility for making moral judgements cannot be handed over to “experts” in the way the responsibility for making medical or engineering judgements can. That responsibility has a boomerang-like quality, try as you might to hand over the responsibility for making moral judgements to others, it always comes back to you.

Of course, the suggestion that we ought to make our own minds up about right and wrong, rather than defer to some religious authority, will strike many as outrageous. “The arrogance!” they may say. “You are playing God. When it comes to answering moral questions, you should defer to religion.”

But actually, like it or not, playing God cannot be avoided. For how am I to know which religious book, which parts of the book, which interpreter of the book, and so on I should pay attention to? Such judgements are unavoidable. Even just sticking with the religious teaching with which I was raised requires that I make them. And they are themselves moral judgements. They involve the question, “Ought I to follow the moral advice I have been given?”

Each individual has inevitably to rely on their own individual moral compass – their own sense of right and wrong – in weighing up to whom they should listen and whether or not to accept the moral advice they are given. Whether we like it or not, each one of us does have to “play God”.

Of course, this is an uncomfortable position for each of us to be in. The responsibility for having to make sometimes profoundly difficult moral judgements is often hard to bear. It would be so much easier if I could just hand it over to some expert. Unfortunately, I can’t. Even if I decide to follow what is said in some holy book or by some priest, I still, nonetheless, make my own judgement.

Will we be good without God?

I now turn to the third of our three challenges: will we be good without belief in God? Many believe that if religious faith is undermined, morality will collapse and the fabric of society will unravel. Humanism is, therefore, a dangerous idea.

That claim is often made, but what evidence is there that it is true? One of the most popular arguments focuses on a correlation – between, on the one hand, a decline in religious belief, particularly since the middle of the Twentieth Century, and a supposed increase in various social ills over the same period – including the incidence of crime, delinquency, sexually transmitted disease, and so on. It is suggested that this correlation is no accident. There is more crime, delinquency and sexually transmitted disease because there is less religion. The latter is the case of the fomer. Religion provided us with a moral compass, and without that compass, we are increasingly losing our way.

But is it true that our society is far less moral then it was back in the 1950’s? Yes, we have rather different moral attitudes. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. In the 1950’s homophobia and racism were rife, and many thought a woman’s place was behind the kitchen sink. We have actually seen some huge moral improvements over the last half-century or so.

Still, there is evidence to suggest that, at least in some respects, we are worse off than we were half a century ago. It appears, for example, that. In the U.K., about six million crimes are now recorded each year. In 1950 the figure was half a million. In the U.S. between 1960 and 1992, citizens experienced a five-fold increase in the rate of violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault). Even taking into account differences in the way crime is reported, it is clear there has been a significant increase. Can’t this increase be put down to a loss of religious belief?

Not easily. In fact while violent crime is up since 1950, it is actually hugely down (fifty times less) compared to a couple of centuries ago, when our society was very religious indeed. So higher levels of crime clearly can have causes other than reduced levels of religiosity, if, indeed, reduced religiosity is a cause at all. In fact there are many obvious changes that have taken place over the last half century or so that might well explain this recent rise in crime. Here’s just one example. During the first half of the Twentieth Century homes were largely occupied during the day and people were less likely to relocate. People tended to know their neighbours and other members of their community very well. As a result, there was far less opportunity for petty crime and burglary. Tightly knit local communities are effective at suppressing crime and delinquency and crime. Their loss is clearly at least as much due to economic factors as it is any decline in religious belief and practice.

So it is by no means obvious that a loss of religious belief is the cause of greater criminality, delinquency, and so on. The mere fact that two things happen at the same time does not establish a causal connection between them (to suppose otherwise is to commit the ad hoc fallacy).

Indeed, a closer look at the evidence begins to suggest that loss of religious belief is not the main cause of the increase in these social ills. For when we look across the world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens actually claim to attend church weekly) – tend to have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), abortion and other measures of societal health, with the least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, among the lowest.

So despite the prevalence of the view, there is remarkably little evidence to suggest that loss of religious belief and practice is the main cause of the West’s alleged “moral malaise”.

Moreover, there is a great deal of evidence against the claim that religious belief is essential for a healthy society. As Francis Fukuyama (the thinker probably best-known for declaring the “End of History”) points out, China also provides an important counter-example to the view that moral order depends on religion:

The dominant cultural force in traditional Chinese society was, of course, Confucianism, which is not a religion at all but rather a rational, secular ethical doctrine. The history of China is replete with instances of moral decline and moral renewal, but none of these is linked particularly to anything a Westerner would call religion. And it is hard to make the case that levels of ordinary morality are lower in Asia than in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion.

Indeed, from the point of view of other cultures, the widespread Western assumption that people won’t be good without God is quite baffling, as the Chinese writer and inventor Lin Yu Tang, here points out:

To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party.

There is also a growing body of scientific evidence that our morality is, to some degree, a product of our natural, evolutionary history. Certain moral attitudes are universal. The world over, people have the same basic moral intuitions about stealing, lying and killing, irrespective of whether or not they are religious. The world over, people are drawn to something like the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. Why?

There is good empirical evidence that our moral intuitions about what we ought, or ought not, to do were, at least in part, written into our genes long before they were written down in any religious book (I recommend Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue as a primer on this topic). Religion is not the causal source of morality. Religions merely codify (and fossilize) the kind of basic morality to which we are naturally disposed anyway (in some cases adding a few additional idiosyncratic prohibitions of their own, e.g. on certain foodstuffs and sexual practices). Even Darwin recognized that our moral intuitions and inclinations are an outcome of our evolved, social nature:

The social instincts acquired by man will from the first have given to him some wish to aid his fellows, some feeling of sympathy, and have compelled him to regard their approbation and disapprobation. Such impulses will have served him at a very early period as a rude rule of right and wrong… The social instincts – the prime principle of man’s moral constitution – with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise”; and this lies at the foundation of morality.

The impulse to behave morally is, in the first instance, natural and instinctive, rather than acquired through exposure to religion.

Of course, there is little doubt that religion has helped some people turn their lives around. I have heard several anecdotes about convicts who have “found God”, and, as a result, have stopped committing crimes and started helping others. There is no doubt that exposure to religion can have such dramatic effects on people’s behaviour, particularly individuals who have hitherto led deeply troubled and destructive lives, though the extent to which it is religion per se that has this redeeming effect, rather than, say exposure to people who show a genuine interest in prisoner and their welfare is debatable (we should also remember that plenty of prisoners have also found the same sort of redemption through philosophy or education; it might even turn out that these alternatives are actually rather more effective in helping prisoners forge a better life).

However, the observation that religion has had such an effect on the behaviour of some troubled individuals provides little support for the view that without widespread religion people won’t be good and civilization is likely to collapse. After all, Big-Brother-style torture and brainwashing would probably also be very effective in controlling criminal behaviour. That fact would hardly support the view that, without widespread torture and brainwashing, people won’t be good and civilization is likely to collapse.

In many religious circles that claim people won’t be good without God has become a mantra, endlessly repeated to the point where everyone assumes it must be true. Yet it is not well-supported by the evidence. Indeed, what evidence there is appears straightforwardly to falsify it.

The “moral capital” move

In order to deal with the, for them, embarrassing observation that across the West atheists and agnostics are generally behaving rather well (at least as well as their religious counterparts), some religious thinkers appeal to the notion of moral capital. They suggest that our religious heritage has produced a reserve of moral capital which today’s humanists are currently drawing on. Eventually, this capital will run out and moral chaos will ensue. We need quickly to replenish that religious moral capital if we are to avoid disaster.

Irving Kristol (so-called "godfather" of neoconservativism) takes this view:

For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.

So does the neoconservative Gerturde Himmelfarb, who claims we are:

…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.

Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork concurs:

We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually…

Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford recently raised the same worry:

...many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital?

This appeal to moral capital provides religious predictors of doom with a convenient explanation for the fact that today’s atheists and agnostics behave at least as well as their religious counterparts. These non-religious folk are living off religious moral capital, capital that is running out, but has not entirely run out yet.

There are at least two serious problems with this kind of appeal to “moral capital”.

First of all, we might ask: what evidence is there to suggest that the “moral capital” explanation is actually correct? There appears to be little. It is invoked, not because there is good evidence to support it, but simply because it provides religious doom-mongers with a convenient carpet under which to sweep evidence against their own claims.

Indeed, notice that the moral capital move appears to make the claim that Western civilization will fall into moral chaos without religion unfalsifiable, at least in the short to medium term. No matter how well-behaved atheists and agnostics continue to be, decade after decade, century after century, all that evidence that Westerners can and will continue to be good without religious belief can be swept aside with the rebuff: “Ah, but that’s just because the religious moral capital has not run out yet.”

Secondly, the moral capital move in any case fails to deal with much of the evidence against the claim that believing in God is a necessary condition of our being good. For example, it spectacularly fails to explain why countries such as China have survived, and indeed often flourished, over millennia without belief in God. It also fails to deal with the growing scientific evidence that the impulse to behave morally is natural and instinctive, and not dependent on exposure to religion.

What is distinctive about humanist morality?

We have been looking at three common challenges to humanism regarding morality. In each case, the challenge has been dealt with. Let’s now consider what a distinctively humanist approach to morality might actually look like.

What is the humanist’s position on, say, same sex marriages, or euthanasia, or abortion, or animal rights? There is no humanist position on these issues, any more than there is a religious position. Humanists disagree on these matters, just as religious believers do.

So what distinguishes the humanist’s moral point of view, if not such specific moral beliefs? Do all humanists sign up to a particular broad theory of morality, for example?

Again, no. True, humanists are often characterized by their opponents as embracing a fairly crude form of utilitarianism, on which the only thing that matters, morally speaking, is maximizing pleasurable experiences and minimizing pain and suffering.

Utilitarianism faces some well-known objections, such as that it appears to entail that it would be right to, say, kill one person to supply donor organs that could save several others – an action almost everyone considers morally wrong. Possibly, these objections can be dealt with, but, even if they cannot, they mean that humanism is refuted. For, as I say, humanist are not obliged to be utilitarians, and in fact many humanists reject utilitarianism.

What is true is that most humanists agree with utilitarians that the consequences of our actions – including the pain or pleasure they cause – are important, morally speaking. A humanist is more likely to give greater moral weight to the consequences of actions than a religious person who believes, say, that morally the right thing to do is always to do what God commands, irrespective of the consequences, and/or that any bad consequences of following God’s commands in this life will ultimately be more than adequately compensated for in the next. As a rule, humanists believe that, if a course of action is going to produce a great deal of suffering, that is a fact of moral significance, a fact that should be taken into account when considering whether this is the action is morally proper.

But to acknowledge that the consequences of our actions – including the extent to which they maximize pleasure and minimize pain – are morally important is not to say these are the only things that are morally important. Humanist are not obliged to be utilitarians.

As we saw in chapter one, there is a rich and long intellectual tradition on which humanists can and do draw in formulating their commitments and arguments – including their moral commitments and arguments. Some find inspiration in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, others in Kant’s duty-based ethics. Many are drawn to something like the following pragmatic justification of their basic moral principles. Moral norms serve certain critical purposes, such as allowing us to live together in relative harmony, facilitating cooperative activity and eliminating harmful conditions. Assuming we want to pursue these goals, there are certain core norms that must be adhered to - which helps to account for the shared set of norms that one finds in almost every culture. For example, virtually all cultures have prohibitions on stealing, lying, breaking promises, and so on. Given human vulnerabilities, including our inability to survive on our own, some rudimentary set of moral norms is indispensible. Margaret Knight (1903-1983) writer and broadcaster offers a humanist justification along these lines:

Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.

If there is no general theory of morality to which humanists must, or do, subscribe, what, then, is distinctive about humanist morality? In fact, what marks out a moral point of view as distinctively humanist is not so much its content as the way in which it is arrived at. In particular, these three features of a humanist moral outlook stand out:

First, as we have already seen, humanists place great importance on a certain kind of moral autonomy. A humanist aims to hold a moral position, not because they have been instructed to, or because someone else to whom they feel an obligation to defer holds it, but because that is the position they have themselves arrived at after careful consideration. This is far more of a task than automatic adherence to a scriptural commandment or the word of a religious leader, which even a child might manage. Humanists emphasize the importance of helping new citizens develop the kind of intellectual and emotional maturity they will need to tackle it.

Second, humanists reject moral justifications based on claims of divinely revealed truth. A humanist obviously won’t appeal to religiously founded doctrines concerning e.g. an after-life, immortal souls, divine reward and punishment, sin, and so on in justifying their moral positions. A humanist might still morally oppose abortion, but they won’t oppose it because they accept, say, the religious doctrine that God attaches an immortal soul to a cell at the moment of conception.

Third, humanists place a great deal of emphasis on the role of reason in making moral judgements. They believe we have a duty to apply our powers of reason as best we can when addressing moral questions. That is not to say that humanists suppose reason alone is capable of determining the answer to any moral conundrum. No doubt that would be na├»ve. But reason still has an important role to play in for example: (i) revealing the unacknowledged consequences of a moral position, (ii) revealing logical inconsistencies in a moral position, (iii) revealing when a moral position is based on faulty reasoning, and (iv) revealing certain scientific facts relevant to a moral issue (for example, revealing that women are as intellectually competent as men, thereby undermining the argument that women are not intellectually sophisticated enough to merit the vote). Much of the moral progress that has been made over the last few centuries was made because individuals – both religious and non-religious – had the courage to apply their own intellects and question the accepted moral wisdom of the day. By engaging their own powers of reason they came to recognize that the contemporary treatment of women, or black people, or homosexuals, was based on faulty reasoning, or was inconsistent with some of their most basic moral beliefs. When it comes to making moral progress, reason is an indispensable tool.