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A local evangelical minister slipped a message in the door today, announcing that there would be a kiddies’ show in the green by the house next week, while I’m out at work. Games, fun and bible stories for all the family. This kind of stuff makes my blood boil.

I’m not easily upset by many things, so I’m trying to understand why this stuff is such an affront to me.

1) It feels dishonest that people would dress up good ol’ bible-bashing with games and parties. Really what they want to do is to convert kids to their thinking when they are young and impressionable, so the whole fun and games thing is merely a device – a cloak – to enable them to reach out to children. To me, that’s just grubby.

2) There is a respect problem here. Surely parents should decide what is acceptable for their children, and what beliefs their children should have? This is a naked attempt to gain influence when none is invited.

3) There seems to be a pushiness about evangelicalism that requires them to go out and convert others to their ways. This only puts people’s back up, not because “Satan” is trying to lead us in another direction, but because we are entitled to our own personal views being considered and appreciated. Maybe “we” are right and “they” are wrong, but it’s not something that seems to be considered by them. They give the impression of talking, but not listening.

4) Evangelicanism feeds on human frailties and vulnerabilities. The tactic seems to be to catch people at a low ebb in their life, or to catch people who are too trusting for their own good. To me, this just feels wrong. Similar tactics have been used in other parts of the world by other ideologies, with sometimes devastating results. It’s so much about emotion, and less so about logic and reason.

Finally, (and possibly most importantly)…

5) Anyone with a modicum of scientific understanding of the world would realise that Evangelicalism is based on utterly false premises. Something is very wrong with a world-view that repudiates evolution and believes in a 6,000 year old Earth, the creation of the world in literally 6 days, the absolute inerrancy of the bible, the division of humanity into sinners and saved, and this utopian idea that all will be well if we follow the Bible. It’s a view that belongs in the Dark Ages, and yet it’s a view that is gaining currency in the supposedly enlightened developed world. It deserves to be lumped into the same bucket as astrology, crystals, faith-healing and soothsaying should be.

I guess those are the main reasons I feel annoyed about this. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’m off base in some of my criticisms, but I do genuinely feel, given the complexities of this world and the challenges that we face, that all we need are people throwing religion into our face and telling us that all will be ok if we submit to the Law of Jesus Christ.

Please, blog to your heart’s content on the Internet, minister as you wish to your congregations, do good things for charity, pray to your god in whatever way you wish. But keep our kids out of it.

The Phoenix lander alighting on the surface of Mars

Later today (or early tomorrow morning depending on your current time zone), the Phoenix probe lands on Mars to investigate if life, or traces of ancient life, exists in Mars’ polar wastes. There is a fascinating video on APOD today showing the probe entering Mars’ atmosphere and unfurling its instruments.

It is possible that today may mark one of the greatest discoveries in human history – finding life on another planet. But what are the repercussions, really?

From a religious perspective, there appears to be two possibilities: many of the moderate religions would be relatively open to the idea that the universe is teeming with life, a view bolstered by the Vatican astronomer recently. The fundamentalist religions would appear to have a problem, having accepted that the Earth is the ultimate focus of God’s work. It’s unlikely though that any of them will collapse, inoculated as they are against logic and evidence-based thinking. A bit of word-smithing will usually suffice for most of their congregations and to hell with those throwing stones from the outside. In other words: business as usual.

From a scientific perspective, the discovery on life should not come as a surprise. Over the last 400 years, a stong body of evidence has been built up that we are not so important, or unique, in the greater scheme of things. Given the vastness of the universe, and the ability of life forms to survive even in the most inhospitable of conditions on Earth, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would only bolster this viewpoint. Philosophically, the existence of life would be uncontroversial enough. What’s far more interesting would be the questions that this discovery would pose. What is the composition of the DNA? Would the chemical composition be different? What are the origins of life on Mars? Where else might we look for life? What would the implications be were we to bring samples back to earth? What would this tell us about the creation of artificial life in the lab? To put it mildly, the discovery would have the effect of reshaping and redirecting the research agenda in the 21st Century.

From a man-in-the-street perspective, it would be enlightening, a topic of conversation. I’m not sure if it would change anyone’s life irreperably, as we have now become so used to the announcement of impressive scientific discoveries in our lives. It would be a flitting moment of celebrity, until the media find something else to absorb their attention.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is moot and the more probable event of life not being found will be the result. In any case I’d welcome any views you might have.

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.

Semantic Drift posted an article from Salon magazine about how the Bush Administration has been hiring graduates from the ultra-conservative Regent College, founded by Pat Robertson.

“U.S. News and World Report, which does the definitive ranking of colleges, lists Regent as a tier-four school, which is the lowest score it gives. It’s not a hard school to get into. You have to renounce Satan and draw a pirate on a matchbook. This is for the people who couldn’t get into the University of Phoenix.”

It seems that in Washington these days, your religious conviction trumps lesser talents such as brainpower and ability.

I would have fallen off the seat laughing if it were not so discomfiting. Anyhoo – it’s worth a read.

Hmm. “Faith Based Politics”. Anyone for a “Faith Based Car”? Or, perhaps, a “Faith Based Nuclear Power Station”? Thought not.

The Wisdom of Crowds is an enlightening book, particularly at the beginning where he spells out his thesis: that, under certain defined conditions, the views of many can often trump the views of one single person, no matter how influential or how much of an expert that person may be.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The book justifies the opinion that forecasting and estimating are better performed by many people from different backgrounds instead of just a single elite. These types of problems, referred to as “cognition” problems, are commonplace – who is going to win the 3.40 at Newmarket, what will our sales be for the next quarter, when will the project be completed, etc.

He then tackles more complex problems, called “coordination” problems and “cooperation” problems, and arrives at a similar conclusion that, left unhindered, crowds of diverse people, acting independently, can arrive at an elegant solution to very complex problems.

In some ways, the book is nothing new. Adam Smith promoted the basic idea over 200 years ago when he talked about the “invisible hand” guiding the market and economists and politicians have been discussing this ever since. Surowiecki asserts that some of the rules of the free market have applications way beyond finance – the inner workings of the Google search engine and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) are examples that are mentioned.

But, you might be saying, what about stock-market bubbles, group-think, decision by committee, mass-hysteria, riots and all the things that one would attribute negatively to crowds? His view is that crowds work best when a highly diverse group of individuals are able to make independent choices with levels of influence minimised as much as possible. In this way the maximum amount of information can be gleaned from the environment and an aggregation process can then happen which may yield a good answer to the problem at hand. Influence and persuasion are seen as disrupting factors in this process.

If you are looking for a “how to” manual, then the book will be somewhat disappointing. For instance, many business managers face challenges in getting groups to come together to make good decisions. This book provides some tantalising evidence that group decision making is indeed superior, but the reader is left to figure out for themselves how to apply it to their own particular situation.

The book is very readible. It contains a large body of fascinating research material and conveys the conclusions elegantly.

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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