bookmark_borderAnother anti-atheist campaign ad by Elizabeth Dole

I previously wrote about the North Carolina senate race, and Republicans attacking the Democratic candidate for associating with (shudder) the godless. Apparently they’ve gone one step further and released a TV ad falsely implying that Kay Hagan, the Democrat, is an atheist herself. Hagan, naturally, is enraged at the attack on her Christian faith, and has denounced the smear campaign associating her with nonbelief.

After November 4, when Americans elect a new pastor-in-chief, along with new sets of national deacons and elders, maybe the dust will settle down.

bookmark_borderBound by scripture

Last week I gave one of my talks where about half the audience was Muslim. (This is what happens when the organizers use a bland title such as “Islam and Science.”)

These are always interesting. I don’t go out of my way to criticize Islam, but I forcefully point out the severe weakness of Muslim lands in basic science, and highlight the pseudoscientific nonsense a lot of Muslim talk about science and religion gets bogged down in. The result is invariably that the Muslim part of the audience starts feeling defensive. This is probably not a good thing, but I don’t see how to avoid it.

I often get the “you’re talking about Muslims, not about Islam” reaction. True Islam (whatever that might be) is supposed to flawless, after all. If I’m pointing out mistakes, that must be solely due to Muslims not understanding the divine message properly.

Along those lines, I also occasionally get challenged on whether I have the authority to say what I say. It’s easy to note that I don’t deal with what the Quran and hadith supposedly say; indeed, I make it clear that interpreting Muslim sacred sources is none of my business. I take Islam to be a human phenomenon, and address what Muslims say in the name of Islam. But the more typical Muslim attitude is that True Islam proceeds out of the sacred sources, and that any claim about Islam must therefore be backed up by proof texts and scholastic interpretations in the style of the traditional religious scholars. Since I don’t do this, have no training to do this, and show no interest in doing this, I clearly must have no standing.

I can’t respond to this sort of thing with more than a shrug, and maybe a suggestion that this sort of text-bound reasoning has something to do with stifling scientific accomplishment among Muslims. But I also can’t help but be impressed by the strength of the common Muslim commitment to the Quran, and secondarily the hadith. Their defense mechanism is well-nigh impenetrable. For some, it is as if sacred text-based reasoning is completely authoritative, almost something that defines rationality as they understand it. Stepping outside that way of thinking (never mind asking whether the Quran is all that trustworthy) is hardly conceivable. For others, the authoritative nature of the Quran is something so obvious, so fact-like, that questioning it is no more worthwhile than skepticism about the existence of the moon.

I guess that’s a long way of saying that “dialogue” with devout Muslims, like all True Believers, can be frustrating as well as fascinating. We clearly think very differently, perhaps so radically differently that there really is not much to say.

bookmark_borderTexas SBOE wants IDeology Taught in Texas Schools

I commented in a previous posting about the Texas State Board of Education and how its Chair, a fundamentalist dentist, and other board members are willing water carriers for the Discovery Institute. They are pursuing the latest D.I. ploy of having the “weaknesses” of evolution taught in science classes. This ploy, which is really rather pathetic and smacks of desperation, makes me wonder what the next creationist tactic will be after this one also fails. Will they demand that biology teachers be required to cross their fingers behind their backs and roll their eyes when lecturing about evolution? Anyway, here is a letter to the editor I sent to the Houston Chronicle:

Dear Editor.

Thank you for Alan I. Leshner’s piece (“Board’s actions could put students at a disadvantage,” Chronicle, 10/23) warning of the State Board of Education’s unintelligent designs to put creationism into Texas school curricula. The only problem was that Leshner was far too nice. “intelligent design theory” (ID) is merely the latest incarnation of religious creationism. Time and again ID’s pseudoscientific arguments have been dissected and its religious agenda exposed. Leshner is overgenerous when he says that “of course” students need to hear about both the strengths and the weaknesses of evolution. He is referring to the recent creationist tactic (actually, a rather pathetic ploy) of trying to get the “weaknesses” of evolution taught in science classes. The problem is that these alleged “weaknesses” are figments of the creationist imagination. The “weaknesses” argument has been thoroughly rebutted by responsible scientists. For instance, creationists continue to push their hackneyed, discredited canard about the alleged lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. I have a book that draws extensively from the peer-reviewed scientific literature to list fifteen pages of indisputable examples of transitional fossils. If the Board of Education succeeds in getting ID ideology taught in Texas schools, students will get an education not only in bad science but in dishonesty.

bookmark_borderHis mother was an atheist (horrors)

We’re pretty used to an atheist having a snowball’s chance in hell of success in American politics. Here is something I hadn’t come across before: a “values voter” firmly decided she’s going to vote against Barack Obama because his mother was an atheist and father was a Muslim.

Does this mean there is someone out there spreading “his mother was an atheist” as a smear against Obama? Sigh…

bookmark_borderAdded Links to 2 New Blogs

I’ve added links on the bottom-right frame of the Secular Outpost to two new blogs.

  • The Frame Problem” According to its founder/editor, this blog is “the first blog carnival on the Net dedicated to Scientology, entitled the CarnivUL of The fraudless (or CarnivULT) – inspired by UTI’s the Carnival of the Godless.”
  • The Atheist Spot“: The editor/founder of this blog writes: “Our goal is to help the quality sites and blogs out there be heard, specifically those focused on the atheist (and associated) communities. The idea is similar to digg/reddit, where anyone can submit links to blog posts/stories/videos/comics/news items/etc, and other visitors vote the stories up or down. The key is that we are laser focused on content that is of interest to atheists and those interested in atheism.”

bookmark_borderDoes education have any effect on religious belief?

I’ve been reading Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God. It’s a very interesting book, and I’ll write a short review at some point. But one paragraph of statistics he cited caught my attention:

Sociological studies have consistently shown that the more educated a person is, the less likely he or she is to accept supernatural religious beliefs. For example, a recent Harris poll found that of Americans with no college education, 86 percent believed in the resurrection of Jesus, 77 percent believed in the Virgin Birth, and 74 percent believed in the existence of hell. But belief in such things was noticeably lower among those highly educated Americans possessing postgraduate degrees, of which 64 percent believed in the resurrection of Jesus, 60 percent in the Virgin Birth, and 53 percent in the existence of hell. A recent Gallup poll found that of Americans with no college education, 44 percent consider the Bible to be the actual word of God to be taken literally, but of Americans with graduate degrees, only 11 percent maintained this view of the Bible.

I interpret these numbers to mean that education has practically no causal effect in encouraging skepticism about the supernatural.

That maybe an odd thing for me to say, because these polls, taken at face value, seem to support the more common view among nonbelievers: that education in modern knowledge causes supernatural beliefs to lose plausibility. But I don’t think that these polls support such a claim.

First, there is the perennial correlation-causation problem. That is, education may itself correlate with a different variable that is causally much more significant in reducing intensity of belief. One candidate is wealth and income, or, more broadly, having a more secure position in life. It is well-known that security reduces motivation to look for supernatural sources of help. The poor and those who may seem well-off but are one slip-up away from job loss or health catastrophe are more likely to be religious than those sitting comfortably. Education may lead to a drop in religiosity indirectly, through its effect in promoting better job prospects and higher security in life.

Second, such polls do not account for self-selection. Those of us involved in higher education often observe this. Of our science undergraduates who go onto graduate school, a smaller proportion are religious compared to those who do not go onto a postgraduate degree. But this has very little to do with education changing anyone’s mind. The more secular students who decide to go for a Ph.D. were already more secular when they walked in the door. The more religious students who decided an undergraduate degree was enough already had more conservative, family-church-and-community ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives. At all levels of education, secondary through postgraduate, I expect self-selection effects are very important, probably more so than any causal effect of education.

Third, the polls above measure only conventional supernatural beliefs. There are may supernatural beliefs in the US that correlate positively with education. They just happen to be those that are more paranormal and associated with Eastern religions in character. My conservative Christian students happen to be more suspicious of UFOs and parapsychology and more accepting of creationism; my less Christian-identifying students tend the opposite way. I don’t suppose this effect is huge, but it does muddy the waters. There is a certain amount of shuffling around of supernatural beliefs that is missed by the polls.

And so on and so forth. In the end, if there is a direct causal effect of education promoting nonbelief, I think it is likely to be small. I certainly don’t expect it to have more than marginal significance. After all, look at even the bare poll numbers. 60% of Americans with graduate degrees are reporting belief in the Virgin Birth, with similar numbers for traditional Christian supernatural beliefs. These numbers are huge, even if slightly smaller than the numbers for those without college. You take a belief like the Virgin Birth, which by the standards of modern knowledge is as crazy as belief in witchcraft, add an extra ten years of highly sophisticated training, and all you get is a drop from 77% acceptance to 60%? This would suggest that secular education is remarkably ineffective in promoting a more secular overall view of the world.

bookmark_borderTake the Unbelief Test!

I was looking at an ad on the Amazon site for Daniel Keeran’s book If there is no God, and I saw this blurb for the book:

“Atheism is more than a belief in no god or gods. Take the unbelief test. Do you believe: 1. humans have souls? 2. there is an afterlife? 3. humans have greater intrinsic value than other life forms? 4. objective free moral choice exists in humans apart from genetic or instinctual factors? 5. sexuality has moral limitations beyond mutual consent? 6. a child in the womb has as much intrinsic value as a child outside the womb? 7. there is accountability after death? 8. there is objective meaning to human life?”

There were no directions for scoring your responses to the “unbelief test,” but I took it anyway. Here are my responses:

Do you believe:

(1) humans have souls?

I’m not even clear on what a soul is supposed to be or what work the concept is supposed to do. To say, as my American Heritage Dictionary defines it, that the soul is the “Animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity,” is not terribly helpful. To say that the soul is immaterial only tells me what it is not, not what it is. Further, possession of a soul, so defined, clearly explains nothing. To say that I am alive because I possess an “animating and vital principle” is clearly no better than saying that opium puts you to sleep because it possesses a dormative potency.

(2) there is an afterlife?


(3) humans have greater intrinsic value than other life forms?

Which humans and which other life forms? I think some humans are more valuable than some other life forms, but if I had a choice between saving a lifeboat of cats and saving a lifeboat filled with TV preachers, right-wing radio pundits, and Karl Rove, I’d save the cats and sleep like a baby that night.

(4) Objective free moral choice exists in humans apart from genetic of instinctual factors?

Huh? Is the question asking whether I believe that humans have free moral choice or that all our apparent choices are genetically determined? If this is what it means here is my answer: Of course we have free moral choice. My decision, mentioned above, to save the cats and let the preachers, pundits, and prick drown would be a free moral choice. It would be based upon my beliefs, and my values, and would not be constrained by any other external or internal conditions. Therefore it would be a free choice. However, since my beliefs and my values were not chosen by me, because what seems true or right to me is not under my control, then the fact that my choice is free is compatible with it being causally determined.

(5) sexuality has moral limitations beyond mutual consent?

Of course it does. “Consensual” sex with a child is rape. What about consenting adults? Well, if one or both adults has made a solemn vow of sexual fidelity to a third party, a spouse, say, then that would be a limitation too. Maybe if one or the other is a priest or nun, and so has taken a vow of celibacy, that would be a limitation too. What about two single, unattached adults who mutually, freely, spontaneously, and with full awareness consent to have sex? Is that OK? Sure. Why not?

(6) A child in the womb has as much intrinsic value as one outside the womb?

Of course it does. If it is a child. But that is exactly where there are strong disagreements. Also, a child in the womb, even one with intrinsic value, is inside the body of another person of intrinsic value, and she gets to make decisions about what is going on inside her own body.

(7) there is accountability after death?

See answer to #2.

(8) there is objective meaning to human life?

What is meant by “objective” meaning? I believe, as Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics, that by living a life of virtue and reasonableness in community with other human beings we achieve our highest well-being (eudaimonia) as human organisms, and that is an objective fact. If “objective” meaning means something bestowed by a “higher power,” then I don’t think so.

What is the point of questions like these? Do they indicate that religious people think that atheists must answer “no” to each of these questions? Do they think that only religious people can think that life is meaningful or valuable? What is the best way to disabuse people of these fatuous notions?

bookmark_borderAn Argument for Atheism – Part 4

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. The argument is a chain of reasoning consisting of five inferences. The first inference is a non sequitur, but I have attempted to rescue the argument by making explicit an unstated assumption, and by clarifying the first two premises.

In my last post on this argument (9/08/08), I began to examine the revised first inference:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.

A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.

2a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the universe began to exist.

This beefed-up version of the first inference in Dawkins’ chain of reasoning appears to be logically valid. But it is not clear that the added assumption (A) is true.

One way to ensure that (A) is true is by defining “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed. This way of ensuring the truth of (A) will not work, however, because if “the universe” includes everything that has ever existed, and if God exists, then one of the items included in the collection designated by the term “the universe” is God. But it is logically impossible for person or intelligent being to design and create itself. Thus, on the proposed definition of “the universe”, the God Hypothesis would be a necessary falsehood, and Dawkin’s view that the God Hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis would clearly be mistaken.

Because Dawkins takes seriously, and even advocates, the view that there are multiple universes (TGD, Mariner Books edition, p. 173-174), his use of the phrase “the universe” is ambiguous. When discussing the possibility of multiple universes, Dawkins uses a less ambiguous phrase: “our universe” (TGD, p. 174).

In various passages, it is clear that the expression “the universe” refers to our universe (see TGD p.59, 81-82, and p.169). So, a plausible interpretation of the expression “the uinverse” in the second premise above, is that it means our universe:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.

B. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after our universe began to exist.


2b. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after our universe began to exist.
The logic still appears to be valid, but now the unstated assumption is false, or at least questionable, from the point of view that many different universes exist.

If many different universes exist, some universes might be older than other universes. If so, then it is possible that the evolution of a creative intelligence started in another universe that was in existence millions or billions of years prior to the arrival of our universe. In that case, a creative intelligence could have arisen in some other universe, and then that creative intelligence caused our universe to come into existence.

So, if we interpret the phrase “the universe” to mean “our universe” the first inference in Dawkin’s chain of reasoning is dubious, because it is based on the questionable assumption that our universe is the only universe, or else it is based on the questionable assumption that no other universe existed prior to the origin of our universe.

Another possible interpretation of “the universe” is that it is a reference to the multiverse:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.

C. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the multiverse began to exist.

2c. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the multiverse began to exist.

The logic of this inference appears valid, but now the conclusion of the inference (2c) might not be strong enough to make the argument for atheism successful.

If the multiverse is millions or billions of years older than our universe, then conclusion (2c) would leave open the possibility that a creative intelligence evolved in a universe that existed millions of years before our universe came into existence, and then that creative intelligence designed and created everything in our universe. So, (2c) appears to leave open the possibility that the God Hypothesis is true.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderPurtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 6

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (“Defining Miracles” in In Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997, p.72).

In my last post on this subject (9/3/08), I raised an objection to the first condition:

(1) brought about by the power of God

I had previously eliminated the unclear term “God” from this condition:

(1a) brought about by the power of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

The objection to this condition is that the ordinary use of the word “miracle” does not imply that the event was brought about by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person. The ordinary use of the word “miracle” allows for such events to be brought about by beings that don’t measure up to all three of these perfections, even by deities that lack all three perfections.

Furthermore, If the word “miracle” is defined in a way that excludes polytheistic gods and religions, such as Hellenistic religion, then this appears to beg an important question, and to bias the outcome (to stack the deck in favor of Christianity and other monotheistic religions).

Are these objections sufficient to justify broadening the first condition to allow for miracles to be brought about by lesser beings?

(1d) brought about by the power of a god or spirit

Condition (1d) does a much better job than (1a) of capturing the meaning of the word “miracle” in ordinary usage. However, there is no Commandment Of Analysis that Thou shalt not define a word in a way that departs from ordinary use of that word. The ordinary meaning of a word is simply to be preferred, if for no other reason than to avoid confusion and ambiguity: using a word with a special or technical meaning while readers/listeners interpret the word according to the ordinary meaning, or using a word with a technical meaning, and then unintentionally slipping back to the ordinary meaning later on in a discussion. If there is a rule here, it is something like this: Do not depart from the ordinary meaning of a word, unless you have a good reason to do so.

One possible reason for departing from ordinary usage of the word “miracle” would be to capture the meaning of the word as it is used within a particular theological tradition (such as Christianity or Catholicism) or within a particular scholarly discipline (such as philosophy of religion). Religious and theological traditions may use the word “miracle” in a way that does not line up perfectly with ordinary usage. Philosophers also may develop or stipulate definitions of religious terms for their own intellectual and theoretical purposes.

Since the present context is a discussion or debate in the philosophy of religion, a definition that is determined by a specific religious or theological tradition seems inappropriate. Philosophy of religion does not require that one accept any particular religious assumptions or beliefs. It only requires that one be willing to discuss, analyze, and evaluate religious ideas in an objective manner, constructing and evaluating arguments (and cases) that do not (or at least try not to) assume or presuppose the truth of any specific religious tradition or outlook.

So, does (1a) capture how the word “miracle” is used in the field of philosophy of religion? I don’t think so. Much of the philosophical discussion of miracles has revolved around David Hume’s skeptical arguments about miracles in his book Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hume’s definition of “miracle” does not limit the scope of this concept to events caused by God:

A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent. (Enquiry, Section X, Part I, Paragraph 90, footnote, emphasis in original)

Hume was a skeptic, but his definition is similar to a definition of “miracle” given by the Christian philosopher Samuel Clarke, who was a contemporary of Hume’s:

…a work effected in a manner…different from the common and regular method of providence, by the interposition of God himself, or of some intelligent agent superior to men. (The Works of Samuel Clarke, Vol. II, London, 1738, p.701)

Since Hume and Clarke did not use the word “miracle” in the narrow sense proposed by Purtill, it is unlikely that philosophers of religion have generally adopted this narrower meaning for the purpose of scholarly discussions and debates about miracles, which frequently involve discussion of Hume’s critical examination of miracle claims.

Thus, departing from ordinary usage is not justified by claiming that condition (1a) captures the usage of “miracle” in the discipline of philosophy of religion, nor is this justified by claiming that (1a) reflects the usage in a specific theological or religious tradition. Is there some other reason for departing from ordinary usage?

A plausible reason that comes to mind is that a key objective of defenders of Christianity is to persuade skeptics and doubters that God does intervene in the events of the world from time to time. Proving that there are other sorts of supernatural events and agents who sometimes intervene in the physical world is of much less interest in terms of making a case for Christianity.

If it could be proven that ghosts, for example, do sometimes rattle chains or walk up stairs making the stairs creak at night, this might put an end to my belief in naturalism, but it would not go very far in getting me to believe that there is a God, or that there is a God who is very concerned about what we humans do and believe.

A defender of Christianity might reasonably narrow the definition of “miracle” so that it covers the sort of supernatural events that he/she intends to prove occur, as part of a case for the truth of Christianity. It would, of course, be easier for an apologist to prove that some sort of intelligent beings sometimes bring about supernatural events, but this would not help the case for Christianity very much. So, if a defender of Christianity wants to set the bar higher, and try to prove the much stronger claim that sometimes supernatural events occur that were brought about by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good person, then we skeptics and doubters should be more than happy to let this person make the attempt to prove this claim.

So, while I think condition (1d) captures the ordinary meaning of “miracle” better than condition (1a), it seems reasonable to permit a defender of Christianity to narrow the scope of this concept in order to provide a clearer target for him/her to aim at in an argument with a skeptic, and a more focused issue of disagreement between those points of view.

To be continued…