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If there is one thing that defines humanity, it is our beliefs. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about God, health, death, the government or our purpose in life, among many others. Beliefs can rule our lives. They can be shared and replicated amongst billions. They can persist for thousands of years, passing from parents to children, generation after generation. Beliefs can be sensible, such as the world being round, or certifiably insane, such as a world dominated by lizard people. People will kill, maim and die because of their beliefs.

Beliefs do not require facts. They can exist in our heads, completely separated from reality. Most beliefs are wrong, either completely or in part. Furthermore, most people accept that beliefs can be wrong. All they have to do is to read a newspaper, listen to other people, or turn on the TV. It is ironic then, how convinced so many people are that their own beliefs are perfectly right. They will often cling to them as if their lives depended on them, and no amount of evidence or argument will change their views.

Beliefs are strange. They are simultaneously fragile yet unremittingly tenacious. They are products of our psychological make-up. Where we acquired such mechanisms is hidden in the depths of time.

Why is it that beliefs are so difficult to get rid of? Why is it so rare to hear someone saying “ah, yes, I was wrong about all that”. How often have you heard someone admitting that their most strongly held beliefs were a load of baloney?

Perhaps beliefs are investments. The bigger your personal stake in your belief, the more you are likely to lose: reputation, friends, money, influence. You must, therefore, defend your beliefs at all costs. It could be that the consequences of not having closely held beliefs are too difficult to countenance. Maybe we defend our beliefs because they are held by people we respect and we cannot ever imagine them ever being wrong. Possibly we are fooled by confirmation bias, a well known psychological effect where our brains filter out contradictory our viewpoints. Or it could be that we just don’t like thinking about things so much.

Beliefs should never be sacrosanct. All beliefs should be challenged, allowing the well supported ones to thrive, while the flimsier ones are discarded. Beliefs that need threats to survive are the ones in most need of analysis and criticism. Poorly supported beliefs prevent us from learning and progressing. They can cause conflicts where no conflict should exist. If beliefs were more easily discarded perhaps this world wouldn’t have so many problems.

Have you ever had a set of beliefs that you subsequently relinquished? What caused the rethink? Why didn’t you discard them earlier? How did you feel about losing your beliefs?

The Greatest Show on Earth

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth“. The premise of the book is simple. Dawkins presents the case for evolution in the face of those who fervently believe that is it isn’t so. His thesis uses the metaphor of a crime scene to tie together all the clues, and Dawkins comprehensively shows that there is only one suspect in town – evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, with numerous sources such as comparative anatomy, molecular biology, fossil evidence and continental drift, all pointing to evolution through natural selection as the only reasonable explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Evolution has even been witnessed in numerous laboratory experiments. Dawkins leaves no stone unturned in presenting the case for evolution. It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a child, the simplicity of a teacher and the forcefulness of a barrister who knows he has an open-and-shut case on his hands.

I can’t praise Dawkins’ book highly enough. It’s full of fascinating digressions and factoids and it takes the reader on a rollercoaster trip through space and time as it presents the evidence, often in considerable detail. I don’t personally believe it will matter a jot to the beliefs of ardent creationists, but to the interested layman it will help to explain how intellectually bankrupt their beliefs are.

It was with this frame of mind that I read the transcripts of the Richard Dawkins interview on the Late Late Show (a top chat show on Irish television). I was astounded. As most people know, Dawkins authored a best-selling book on religion in 2006 called The God Delusion. It was a full frontal attack on religion, calling out the nonsense within and attempting to put religion under the microscope and into the sphere of public debate. Ryan Tubridy, the Late Late Show host, interviewed Dawkins a few times about it on radio and it always lead to some lively back-and-forth battles between Dawkins and his detractors. That was in 2006 and 2007. Now in 2009, Dawkins has published a new book on an altogether different subject, yet Tubridy could not resist the temptation to bring the discourse back to his atheism, and to inject sensationalism wherever possible – (“So what is the Vatican then? Toy Town?”, “Do you see God as believable as the Easter Bunny?”, etc.). None of these issues are discussed in Dawkins’ latest book, leading me to the conclusion that Ryan Tubridy didn’t even bother to read it.

Personally, I loved Dawkins’ clear, no nonsense answers but I couldn’t help feeling that, on Tubridy’s part, it was an opportunity missed. Is Richard Dawkins so one-dimensional that the only issue worth talking to him about is his atheism? Dawkins has much to say on the subject of evolution and why it is so important that we understand it. He is deeply passionate about science education, about the philosophy of science, about the promotion of science, about legal challenges to science, about critical thinking. In brief, we could have learned something but instead we were treated to a charade, deliberately intended to scandalise the Irish churchgoing public. This is a huge pity. By conflating Dawkins’ views on evolution with his atheism in this way, Ryan Tubridy may have muddied the waters concerning evolution, a topic that is critical to understand as we rehabilitate science and technology within the Irish education system.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” is only controversial if you are a creationist who has been vaccinated from reality. For the rest of us, it’s a rollicking good read on a vitally relevant subject.

As if the situation in Ireland wasn’t bad enough, we are also now a global laughing stock. Thanks a lot, Dermot Ahern.

The idea of a blasphemy law is mindboggling in this day and age. Who decides what is “grossly abusive or insulting”? A simple drawing of a man’s face is enough to cause major offence in some sections of society, particularly if the two words “Prophet Mohammed” are written underneath it, so if this is the case, ANYTHING is fair game for a law outlawing blasphemy.

What might be art or fair comment to one person might be grossly insulting to another. If the offendee gets to decide, then all free expression is in danger. Let’s remember that some people find a woman’s bare legs an offense against their religious morality.

Because the law makes it an offence to disparage any religion we could be back to book banning in this country again very soon. Up to the 1960’s, the government of Ireland zealously prohibited a wide range of publications in order to protect Catholic Ireland from mortal sin. This new bill is potentially more wide-ranging as it applies to every religion, and it impinges on all forms of expression: film, podcast, music, canvas, you name it.

Any group, including the Raelians and the Church of Scientology will be entitled to call in the lawyers if this bill is passed. Think about it: we are at risk of being sued if we were to scoff at the idea that humans are descended from inhabitants of the planet Venus..

Most religious beliefs come from a time when we knew much less about the world than we do now. Religious beliefs are often highly discriminatory, they are sometimes dangerous and they present a distorted view of reality that often contradicts the available scientific evidence. To my mind, the most serious claim against religions is that they block critical thinking, which is the main purpose of a good education. Our government seriously wants to protect this state of affairs?

So, in the spirit of Mr Ahern’s bill, I would like to propose 3 things to be outlawed forthwith.

1) Father Ted. Did Fr. Dougal not say some awful things about God? In fact, wasn’t the whole series not a piss-take on Catholic Ireland?

2) The Life of Brian. Worshipping sandals, singing while crucified, saying “Jehovah”. We’ve been there before, I seem to remember. It wasn’t very bright then, and it isn’t very bright now either.

3) Tommy Tiernan has been saying awful things about religion for years. Actually, while you are at it, lock all of those bloody comedians up. They are always making jokes about religion…

Ahern and his cabal would do well to realise that this is 2009, not 1979. If this is the standard of thinking in operation by the government, they need to leave office forthwith, lest they embarrass themselves even more.

humanism.png

When you are admitted into hospital in Ireland, one of the first questions you are asked is your religion. The main reason, apparently, is because if you don’t manage to clock out when your stay is over, they want to be able to contact the right cleric to look after your affairs.

This bothers me. First of all, it is assumed that all residents of Ireland must have a religion. The mere idea of people walking around with no religious belief whatsoever seems to be anathema to our public services. It’s as if we ,who profess no religion, are somehow lying and that deep down we believe in a god, but that we are suppressing it. This is not a good assumption. We do not believe because there is no evidence, and plenty of contradictory evidence, despite what some people would have would have us believe. We liken belief in God with belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.  Nobody would ever be accused of living their lives in secret denial of the Tooth Fairy, would they?

Second of all, for many non-religious people in Ireland, religion is something that we have struggled for many years to free ourselves from. Some people have painful memories from the past, others wish to undo the indoctrination of our early youth, and many of us shake our heads at the great reverence and respect shown in our society to what we see as gross irrationality. Why then are we expected to give in to religion when the final paragraphs of our lives are being written? Surely hypocrisy has no part to play in the most serious and honest moment in a person’s life?

Finally, it presents an unfortunate challenge at an unfortunate time for many non-religious people. A purely secular sending off is not open to us, as it is with people who subscribe to a particular creed. If we want to express our dissent from the consensus, then we are obliged to organize these affairs ourselves. Given the fact that there are so many of us nowadays, this is a situation that needs changing.

Organisations such as the Humanist Association of Ireland exist to provide assistance to people during major life occasions. They officiate at births and weddings and other secular ceremonies. They counsel people in their last moments and work with families and friends prior to, during and after death. However, humanist counsellors and chaplains are few and far between, particularly in the city where I live. The only non-religious funeral I have ever attended was a lonely, amateurish and sad affair that cannot have been easy on the spouse of the man who had passed away. Surely singing and poetry and prose; the hug, the handshake and the kind word, is not the sole preserve of the priest and pastor?

Irish society is growing up, so there should be more humanist options available to us to help us celebrate the major stages of our lives. It should be possible to celebrate the big moments properly – the joys, the hopes and the sadness – without the mumbo-jumbo. The non religious – the agnostics, the atheists, the secularists and free-thinkers amongst us – are as entitled to our public moments of elation, contemplation and bitter grief as anyone else. These moments should be facilitated by trained men or women who can ease the pain, organise the occasion and add to the memories.

It is something I would like to explore further.

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

This interview caught my attention on the radio this morning: Richard Dawkins was pitted against David Quinn, a leading Irish Catholic writer. Dawkins has just written a new book called the “God Delusion” (definitely on my reading list).

It didn’t seem however as if Dawkins was terribly prepared for Quinn’s onslaught.

The main arguments coming from Quinn were that physical matter was evidence of God; that atheists could not explain free will (which was also evidence of God); and that atheists were just as responsible for fundamentalism and violence as religious people.

On the question of the existence of matter, just because scientists don’t know everything about the world, it doesn’t mean that “God” is immediately the answer. Quinn, quite unashamedly, invoked a false dilemma, and Dawkins didn’t pick him up on it.

Dawkins completely avoided the question of free will – which was curious because Quinn’s argument seems to be that atheists believe that we humans are completely controlled by our genes, and that we are therefore somehow mechanical in nature. I think he needs to read up on quantum theory, complexity theory, and the unpredictability and emergent effects that arise out of systems as complex as the human brain. It’s not necessary, in my mind, to invoke outside agencies to bring about decisions of free will – the billions of neurons in our brain are well able to yield complex and unpredictable effects when working in concert with each other. Another point about free will is that it appears to me to be a theological concept mainly – it’s never discussed by scientists terribly much. Maybe talking about free will is the equivalent to talking about the colour of the Angel Gabriel’s wings – i.e. a rather meaningless discussion in the first place. In any case, I was a bit surprised that Dawkins steered completely around the question, saying he wasn’t interested in talking about it. In doing so he dug a hole for himself that Quinn was quite happy to shove him in during the final seconds of the interview.

The last piece, on the subject of atheistic morality, Quinn made some good points – particularly regarding atheists who cherry-pick the worst that religion has to offer without balancing this against it’s more benign effects. However, Quinn tried to lump atheists in with some of the worst 20th Century dictators and their followers. He implied that, because atheists do not believe in God, that they often believe in some other weird or cruel world theory that is even more invalid. Shouldn’t a true atheist should be skeptical of everything unless there is proper evidence for it? So, just as an atheist would have problems with Islam or Christiantity, so too should he have problems with eugenics or extreme nationalism or Communist utopianism.

Maybe Dawkins was somewhat unprepared for Quinn’s rather aggressive stance, but he didn’t manage to get his point across very well in the short time allotted. I would have loved to have heard a longer debate on the subject.

It starts from about 8 minutes into the program, and you need Real Player to listen to it.

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