Faith Schools in the UK

When you look at the results of opinion surveys and polls, you might think that Christianity is on its last legs in the UK. So can the non-religious majority happily put it to the back of their minds, and imagine that it really doesn’t matter much anymore? In September 2017, Humanism UK referred on its website to recent findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey, published on the 4th of that month, revealing that 71% of 18-24 year olds say they belong to no religion, while just 3% say they are Church of England and 5% say they are Catholic. Most of us in the UK probably get on with our lives pretty much unaffected by what the religious minority get up to. We might have a beef about bishops in the House of Lords, or the monarch being Defender of the Faith, or Thought For The Day on Radio 4 being always presented from a religious standpoint, but really, is this such a big deal?

Where it is very much a big deal is schools, especially primary schools.

If our task were to devise a way of ensuring that society is divided, we’d be hard pressed to improve on segregating our primary schoolchildren into separate schools based on the religious affiliation of their parents. That way we can bring up generations of young people into adults who mistrust “other” on grounds of religion. If we do a great job, we might even be able to achieve separation of the community along religious /sectarian lines. We could deliver a society where many adults have never had friends who are Muslim, or Roman Catholic, or Church of England, and who regard such people with mistrust or even contempt. It worked extremely well in Northern Ireland, so why not try it in the rest of the UK too?

Crazy? You might have thought so, but it’s the road our Government seems determined to drive down, with ever more determination and vigour.

To understand the issue, we need to consider the phenomenon of how the quality of primary schools in the UK is perceived, on a spectrum of excellent at the top, to poor at the bottom. Primary school children generally can’t travel too far from home to school, so there’s a captive audience. But it’s even more specific than that: admissions relate to catchment area, so the choices of school a child can attend are to a significant extent influenced by the precise location of the family home. Where a primary school is situated in a relatively privileged area, with a catchment of predominantly well-educated middle-class families, it will tend to have better results than another school which draws most of its pupils from lower-income families. It might not be popular to say this, and of course results for individual children do vary widely, but it is the perceived results of a school as a whole which matters here, and the data is incontrovertible: parents who are well-educated tend to be better off, tend to be more proactive about the educational attainment of their children, provide better support and environment at home for learning, and tend on average to produce more academically able children. This is reflected in the overall results of the school. The introduction of SATS, and publication of school league tables, have made academic results highly visible, and a major motivator for parents seeking the “best” school for their children. We observe a sort of self-fulfilling catchment-area polarization based on house price. When better-off families move house, they preferentially relocate into the catchment area of a school with good results, thus pushing up house prices still further; lower income families are priced out, and the cycle is reinforced, with if anything an increasing disparity in perceived performance between good schools and so-called “sink” schools.

What has this to do with religion? At first sight, not much, but look more closely. What we have in England in particular is a large number of Church of England Primary schools, many in relatively well-to-do neighbourhoods, and which have benefitted from this self-reinforcing “good school” reputation. There are two notable consequences:

• The Government identifies the correlation between faith schools and better results, and attributes causation. “If we make more schools into faith schools, we will improve outcomes overall.” This is bizarre and flawed thinking, but can perhaps be better understood if one recognizes that many of our politicians, including the Prime Minister Theresa May, espouse devout Christian faith themselves, so might be open to the accusation that they are seeking to further their own religious views, rather than being wholly objective.

• The C of E quite understandably sees a position of influence in control of schools and their admission policy. They know that keen parents will jump through hoops to get their child into the school they want. The higher the proportion of intake they can require to be from families who fulfil certain criteria for being C of E, the more they can persuade people to change their behaviour to fulfil those criteria. Thus, non-churchgoing parents “discover” a sudden interest in attending church regularly, being checked off on a register each Sunday – often for two years or more – and might even gain extra points by volunteering for additional church duties. It’s a win-win for the church. More adult bums-on-seats on a Sunday, and more young children attending Sunday school, and more acceptance of overt evangelizing to young minds within the school environment. Catch more and more children before they’ve reached the age of reason, and there’s a higher chance you’ll keep them.

I could describe this sort of behaviour as cynical, and manipulative. However, from the standpoint of the church, which must by definition regard its work and its message as good, proper, and worthwhile, it is fair game.

But it can only succeed with the connivance of Government, by
• Encouraging the establishment of more faith schools
• Changing the law to allow schools to discriminate on the basis of the religion of the parents. At present, the law requires new faith schools to admit at least 50% of pupils from the local area, irrespective of the faith or beliefs of the parents. Present proposals would scrap this restriction, and allow wholesale religious segregation.

I find this prospect appalling. Evidence shows that religion-based admission policies not only deliver reduced access for local children to attend their local school, but also lead to greater segregation of society on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. This is an outcome to be deplored and fought against, not encouraged.

If you find this disturbing, and please do what you can to fight the proliferation of faith schools, and to eliminate the right of schools to discriminate their intake on the basis of the religion of the parents.

Make a noise about it. Write to your own MP. Write to the Secretary of State for Education, at present the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP. Join Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) , who are actively campaigning in this direction.

Please consider the above, and make your voice heard.

Politics, Zionism, anti-Semitism : what on earth is going on?

Jeremy Corbyn 02Ken Livingstone

 

We live in very strange times. We are in an election week in UK, when Thursday 5th May will see UK citizens go to the polls to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, English local councils, Police & Crime commissioners, and English Mayors, including notably the new Mayor of London. Perhaps naively one might have expected a barrage of electioneering, with manifestos, election broadcasts, etc.

But the backdrop against which all this pans out is most peculiar indeed. We have a majority Conservative UK Government which seems to be doing its best to get as much wrong as it can, and alienate its “natural” electorate: examples are the March budget and the forced U-turn on benefits for the disabled;  appalling mismanagement of a proposed new contract for junior doctors, resulting in the first all-out strike of health professionals in the history of the NHS; a needless attempt to force all schools to become academies;  a “strike” by parents against a regime of excessive testing of young children; and a woeful performance on safeguarding our steel industry against foreign dumping. And all this in the context of an upcoming vote on EU membership: as I write the outcome looks likely to be in favour of “remain”, but it’s far from certain: conflicting views are strongly held and expressed within both main political parties, leading to a state almost approaching political civil war – inevitably much of the focus and energy of government will be devoted to this over the coming weeks, at the expense of running the country.

With the Tory Government in such disarray, and with its resources spread so thinly,  we ought to be seeing the Labour party in ascendancy – more open goals to shoot at than might ever have been dreamt of. But what do we see instead? A Labour Party riven with its own leadership crisis, which has rumbled on since the disastrous election of Jeremy Corbyn last September – unelectable, yet un-removable. Maybe these should have been bumper times for the Liberal Democrats, but they were almost wiped out in the May 2015 general election: 57 seats down to 8.

It’s in this context we’ve seen a most extraordinary political development – instead of challenging the Government, and campaigning for success in the May elections, Labour has been obsessed with…………………..a debate about anti-Semitism.

Israel peace flag

There’s no doubt that certain figures in the Labour Party have form on this subject, and a wiser leadership would have pre-empted the issue many months ago, so the fact that the issue has come up to bite at this inopportune time is something of  an own-goal. However – and here is my contention- it’s not hard to get this right, and put it to bed.

I have just watched again Sunday’s (1st May) BBC The Big Questions, where a studio audience debated the topic of trying to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Wow! As is usual with such topics, there was a great deal more heat than light, with most people intent on shouting down what they perceived as an opposing and unacceptable view, rather than listening, and attempting to identify and build on common ground. Yet there were good solid points being made. Here is my take on a set of views which most could and should be able to subscribe to. It is in effect three fundamental principles of civilized behaviour.

1                     Hatred and vilification of any group of people on the grounds of who they are is unacceptable: this goes for country of origin, mother tongue, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disablement, congenital disfigurement, and any other characteristic which is not a matter of choice. It goes too for religious affiliation, which is a matter of choice (or at least ought to be!). So by this token anti-Semitism is a complete no-no: it is vilification of people on the grounds that they are ethnically Jewish. There are many other examples, some sadly common, some rarer but nonetheless abhorrent: by far the commonest is misogyny; other common examples are racism expressed as dislike / mistrust  of people with different skin colour, and  dislike/mistrust of “all Muslims”, or “all Hispanics”, or “all atheists”; homophobia is prevalent in many countries of the world, in some cases encoded in the law of the land, and in some (eg USA and UK) propagated by certain religious groups. Albinism, though rare, is a source of severe prejudice eg in Tanzania, where albinos live in fear of their lives.

2                     Challenge, even ridicule, of ideas is not only fair game, it is essential for human progress. This goes for political ideas, government policy, and religious ideology alike. There is no place for blasphemy laws, nor is there a place for governments or regimes to restrict criticism of their political views or policies. Religions must never have a “free pass”- religious views should stand open challenge and scrutiny as for any other ideas and viewpoints. If people find them ridiculous, they should be free to say so, and why. If others espouse them devoutly, they should be free to do so, and defend their views in argument and debate if they so choose.   Satire and a free press are healthy – openness to ridicule and criticism is a bellwether of the robustness and maturity of a political system.

3                     Separation of religion and state is an essential for human progress and harmony. This means that all citizens are free to follow whatever religion they want, without fear or favour. It also guarantees freedom FROM religion – no one religion is given special favoured  status by the state , so that laws and education systems are wholly indifferent to whatever religion any individual or group choose to follow. In this way, for example, a country with a huge majority Muslim population, such as Turkey, should operate with minorities of other religions happily co-existing in mutual respect. Israel, while it remains a democracy which respects the rights of its (approximately 1/3) non-Jewish population, is a far better example of how a country should best be run that say Saudi Arabia, where Islam is both the state religion and the political system of government. History shows us that setting up political boundaries based on the ethnicity or religion of populations is fraught with problems, even disaster. Obvious examples are the partition of India into a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim E & W Pakistan in 1947, and the partition of Ireland into a predominantly Roman Catholic south and a predominantly Protestant north in 1921. If we could go back and try again we would certainly seek to avoid those mistakes. There are interesting tensions in this area now in the USA and UK.  The USA was founded on secular principles, and the constitution has been an enormously powerful agent for tolerance, mutual respect, and prosperity: but even now that is under threat from a Christian right who would seek to dominate , and try to turn the country into a Christian theocracy. The UK, in contrast, is constitutionally religious, with the reigning monarch the ex officio head of the C of E and “Defender of the Faith”; yet in practice it is amongst the most religiously tolerant and diverse countries of the world. Secularism is the de facto way things work in the UK, but that is not without threat from a minority Christian right. Secularism has many battles ahead, but  it is worth fighting for.

I contend that if politicians could just get these three principles firmly on board, they would be much less likely to be trapped into espousing views which might trip up their careers. They would also be able to express clearly and simply what views are to be encouraged within their parties, what views are to be discouraged, and what views are beyond the pale. We might also see a much more constructive approach to reducing racism and religious intolerance, and to the protection of minority views. In summary, more healthy government.

 

Religion: a good thing or a bad thing?

Pope Francis and dove

The question I’m addressing here isn’t “Is religion true” – I offer my views and arguments on that question elsewhere in my blog. The question I want to tackle today, especially in the light of further terrorist atrocities in Brussels this morning, is “Is religion a good thing or a bad thing?”

There are unquestionably some very positive aspects to religion, and some appalling ones. Why should this be? It is clear that evidence for the truth of any particular religion does not exist in any conventionally understood sense of the word “evidence”. I don’t need to base this assertion on my own personal view of the quality of evidence religious people present to support their views. Rather, I observe that as a  consequence of differences of cultural and geographical origins, not all religions are mutually compatible; in fact, many religions contain elements which are fundamentally incompatible with others. This leads to the position of many (or indeed most) religious adherents that their particular religion is true, and that all other religions, which have conflicting dogma, are false. Such statements are made with seemingly equal conviction from many conflicting standpoints, but all fail to convince those of a different religion that theirs is wrong and another is right. It can therefore be asserted with confidence that no objective evidence can be presented for the truth of any particular religion: acceptance of any religion has to be based on faith rather than evidential proof. Indeed, religions commonly recognize this and try to present it as a virtue, imploring people to “have faith”, rather than rely on what can be demonstrated to be true.

Acceptance of a worldview on faith implies a bypassing of the normal processes one uses to decide whether to accept something as true, ie one’s rational judgment. It follows that buying into a religion is like opening your brain to a sort of Trojan horse: corollaries which the religion brings with it also bypass the rationality filter. Once this has happened, one’s humanity, which would normally prevent one behaving badly to others, is at risk of being bypassed too.  If the religion requires abominable behaviour, then abominable behaviour can result. Blaise Pascal recognized this when he said: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Voltaire on absurdities and atrocities

For most people, fortunately, the effects are fairly benign: they survive quite happily with this Trojan horse in place; their natural humanity is robust and persists unscathed, or even enhanced. But for others, the outcome is not so agreeable.

Let’s consider for a moment some of the beneficial effects of religion- this should help explain why it is so popular – why so many people are attracted to it and stick with it – and why societies generally value and support it. I have no wish to be cynical here and talk about religion as a means of exerting power and control over the masses – I will confine myself to more upbeat aspects.

For some people, religion offers great comfort, and helps them in dealing with the inevitable prospect of their own death, and with personal tragedies such as loss of a loved one or the affliction of serious illness, or with dreadful hardship and poverty. It provides some people with answers to difficult and deep questions about the purpose of their existence and the origins of life – answers which they presumably find satisfying and coherent.  Religion inspires some people  to devote their lives to good deeds and the caring for others, much more than they might otherwise have done, which is not only objectively beneficial, but also provides a strong feel-good factor. For huge numbers of people throughout the world, belonging to a religious group provides support, friendship, and a sense of community. Religion can promote a less selfish outlook on life, a consideration for others, and a willingness to give to good causes. Religious groups have engaged, and do engage, in a myriad of activities to help the poor, the lonely and isolated, the needy, the starving, and whole communities when afflicted by natural disasters or wars. Religion has inspired brilliant art, music, architecture – some of the most wonderful and uplifting of all human creativity.

The constraining effects of religion on human predilections and sexual behaviours has also been beneficial in practical terms, reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, for example, over the centuries when there wasn’t much we could do about such things other than abstinence. Religion also could be argued to have a beneficial effect on human relationships by attaching opprobrium to promiscuity and adultery, and virtuousness to fidelity. (I do of course  realize that religious attitude to sexual matters is a double-edged sword , and I will come back to that in a moment).

That might not be an exhaustive list in support of religion, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. But even the most devout would accept that there are risks and downsides, as well as all the good things I’ve just listed, and other benefits I might have missed. So let’s now consider some of the downsides.

What sort of perversion of religion would result in indiscriminate suicide bombings such as the events in Brussels today, 22nd March 2016,  or the twin towers of 9/11, or the gunning down of innocent concert-goers in Paris last November, amongst countless examples I could mention?  Perhaps the key is the word “perversion”. Those intent on  playing a part in Islamic terrorism would not regard it as a perversion at all. Rather, they would see it as a fulfilment of fundamental truth and purpose of their religion, carrying out to the ultimate extent the teachings of their faith. Are those people somehow “outside” their religion, having lost sight of what it should be telling them, or are they the real “insiders”, more true to the tenets of their religion than the millions who behave in a manner most of us would find unthreatening and perfectly tolerable?

To answer that question, we don’t need to look too deeply into the history of religions. The Christian church has a brutal history of oppression and violence – torture and burning of heretics and “witches”, the Spanish Inquisition, support for slavery, anti-Semitism (and arguably some  connivance with the holocaust), religious crusades, etc. In recent times, all that is rather swept under the carpet, as secular morality has tempered Christianity’s excesses to a large extent.  But the content of the Bible hasn’t changed, only the way in which we respond to it. Modern Christianity air-brushes out the nastiest bits, and presents itself as benign and a “force for good”. But not too far under the surface there lurk some rather nasty ideas and attitudes.

For some, the worst that happens is they tend to become a little self-righteous and sanctimonious, imagining their religion makes them superior in some way, which makes them a little less pleasant to know. But some people’s religious convictions are much more harmful. An egregious example is the attitude of many Christians and Muslims to homosexuality – they seize on parts of their religious texts to justify their dislike of “other”, which drives dreadful attitudes and behaviours towards LBGT people.  In many countries this is even translated into the law of the land. Misogyny, with all its ramifications on society and the treatment of women, is another product of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy.

Religion also causes some people to lose a little of their freedom to enjoy their lives fully, because of the religious notion that personal denial is somehow virtuous, and will be rewarded in the “next life”; we have all seen such ideas taken to extremes. And this brings me back to the topic of the Church’s attitude to, or even obsession with, matters sexual. I’ve already conceded its beneficial consequences in the past, in reducing teenage pregnancies, inhibiting the spread of STD’s, and valuing fidelity. But the other side of the coin is hugely negative: repression of sex as part of life’s joy, attaching a sort of “dirtiness” and guilt to natural sexual desires and behaviours (calling masturbation “self-abuse”, for example); propagating the notion that sex for a woman is a “marital duty”, and she must “submit” to her husband’s “demands”; resisting proper sex education and preaching abstinence rather than safe sex for young people, which is shown to produce much worse outcomes in terms of unwanted pregnancies and STD rates, than where a more “liberal” evidence-based approach is followed.

Many of us will be aware that the Roman Catholic Church is at present in the process of beatifying Mother Teresa, yet she was known for withholding palliative relief to those in her care who were dying horrible painful deaths, on the belief that “more suffering brought people closer to God”. To many, she will be “Saint Teresa” – to the rest of us, an evil, sadistic, and misguided woman, responsible for huge amounts of human suffering.

The Roman Catholic Church is also a force for great harm and human misery in its approach to use of condoms. This has a regressive effect on family planning, increasing avoidable poverty, and proscribes one of the cheapest and most effective ways of limiting the spread of HIV and other STD’s.

All that would be bad enough, without religion’s trump card, fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism, you might argue, isn’t a great problem these days – we don’t see too many Christian fundamentalists fire-bombing abortion clinics (a few, maybe, in USA) but “Christian suicide bombers” is not a thing we need to worry about. But Christian fundamentalism does have its bad effects – there is  whole anti-science movement in the USA, preaching Young Earth Creationism, and doing enormous harm to the education and life chances of young Americans.  If you think I’m exaggerating, the data shows that about 40% of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old!

But where the fundamentalist approach is so dangerous is Islam. The core teachings of the Quran support it, and it is all too easy for a culture which holds up its one book as infallible truth, to be followed ahead of everything else, to produce the effects we see across the world today. Genocide of Yazidis by ISIL, religious civil war in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Yemen, Mali, the bombings in Brussels today – the list of slaughter and suffering is almost endless. Islam is in sore need of reform to bring it into line with the modern world, rather than trying to drag it back to the dark ages, but it is not clear where or how that reform can occur. In the meantime, millions of peaceful Muslims are at risk of being vilified and marginalized by association with Islamic extremists. It is very sad and alarming that the rancorous ramblings of Donald Trump have the traction they do.

People – human beings – are doing lots of very bad things in the name of religion -people who have lost their humanity to the Trojan horse of religion. The question I started with was “Is religion a good thing or a bad thing?”. I have to conclude that the bad  vastly outweighs the good.

Can we keep the good bits and discard the bad? Great if we could, but the evidence points the other way. Atheism is not an answer, at least not on its own. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in a God or gods, based on a lack of evidence for any. It has no creed, no doctrine, no rituals, no special book saying what is to be believed, or how to behave. Perhaps the way we should try to go is Humanism – a positive idea that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. Humanism is based on trusting the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe.  By following  a Humanist approach, we can place human welfare and happiness at the centre of ethical decision making. We can be tolerant of the religious beliefs of others, but be very firm indeed about keeping them away from law, schools, and government, and from any attempt to impose them on others of different religious beliefs,  or none.

Is the Bible true?

Is the Bible true

This might at first sight seem a straightforward question. It is certainly an important one, since it is effectively the same as asking “Is Christianity true?” Now, I might be tempted to start this post by citing a few examples where it seems evident that the Bible has got things wrong. It would be fairly trivial to do – and you don’t have to search too hard to find lists of well-known and much-quoted points of apparent error. But I am well aware that for every example I might choose, there are works of apologists which aim to explain them away. I am also aware that if you are a Christian reading this, you might well have studied  the apologetics extensively, and have in your mind what you regard as a refutation for each and every one of those possible examples, or at least a rationalisation which satisfies you. Apologetics is a large and fascinating area of study, and I will of course need to come back to discuss it later on in this post – no attempt to address “Is the Bible true?” can reasonably avoid it.

So, although I will go on to cite some examples of statements in the Bible which I argue are incorrect, I want to address the question of “Is the Bible true?” on a wider front. To anyone who looks at this question honestly and openly, without predisposition to a conclusion that the Bible must be taken as true,  there are a number of possible approaches:

  1. We can consider whether a God necessary to explain the universe, and life on earth. Obviously any answer to this cannot in itself establish the validity or otherwise of the Christian God, but it would shed light on whether a God (or Gods) is (are) required to make our worldview coherent.
  2. We can look at the provenance of world religions, and examine whether we see a number of religions which are irreconcilable with others. If we do, then we must conclude that they cannot all be right. For one to be right, say Christianity, then all those which are incompatible with Christianity must be wrong. In order to hold that view, we would seek evidence to show that Christianity is true and others are wrong – otherwise all we have are many different and competing religions each asserting they have the “truth”, and that all the others, which are based on conflicting dogma, are wrong. It is (I hope) a statement of the obvious to you that a book cannot be used as evidence of itself, ie “It says in the Bible that the Bible is true, therefore the Bible is true” – all holy books can (and mostly do) make a parallel claim. We need to look for external evidence – something separate from the Bible itself. That said, it is surprising that many Christians on social media will indeed quote biblical text as evidence for God, Jesus, the truth of the Bible, or whatever. If you are someone who thinks that might be convincing, you have a problem with your understanding of the way evidence works. For example, “The Boy Who Came back from Heaven” is not evidence that Alex Malarkey did die, visit heaven, and come back, even though the book describes that event and asserts it to be true; and you probably wouldn’t be happy accepting that quoting from Tolkien proves the existence of Gandalf or Middle Earth.
  3. We can consider substantive statements made in the Bible, and examine whether there are any which do not accord with evidence. If it is found that the Bible makes statements which can be shown unequivocally to be false, and which lie at the core of the tenets of the Christian faith, then on an objectively reasonable interpretation of “true”, the argument is over: if we establish that the Bible is wrong in one substantive way, then its veracity overall is called into question. If we proceed to find more and more errors, then even a claim that the Bible is “essentially” true (ie a “true” message but one liberally sprinkled with fable and metaphor, with much of it not meant to be taken literally) is increasingly difficult to sustain. The work of the apologists would become more and more stretched and tenuous.
  4. We can look for substantive statements in the Bible which are mutually contradictory: if we find any internal contradictions, then the premise that the Bible is the “inerrant word of God” collapses. The word “substantive” is important here – if the Bible says in one place (Matthew 27:5) that Judas hanged himself, and elsewhere (Acts 1.18) Judas fell in a field and his intestines spilled out, it is arguable that the differences in the two accounts are not substantive, ie they don’t for me cast doubt on the veracity of the entire Bible. If you study how witness statements differ, even from two people when both have seen a recent event first hand, you’ll understand why I say this. An excellent book on the subject is “The Invisible Gorilla” [1]  If you take nothing else from this post other than read Chabris & Simons’ book, your time won’t have been wasted. Besides being an entertaining read, it might lead to a healthy questioning of how you decide what you will accept as “true”.
  5. We can look to the teachings of the Bible, and see whether they contain anything we cannot reconcile with what we would regard as acceptable behaviour. Since Christians seek to hold up the Bible as the basis of Christian morality, any Biblical teaching which Christians feel they should not or cannot follow would indicate that the Bible is not a true and accurate description of God’s law- in other words, that it would need to be read selectively, with certain parts being disregarded or heavily “interpreted”, to avoid unpalatable conclusions. This means that if “cherry picking” of the Bible is required in order for Christianity to function in the modern world, the Bible as a whole cannot be “true”. More hard work for the apologists!

These are broadly the areas of consideration which I want to use to examine the question “Is the Bible true?”

I should of course declare my starting point: I was brought up as a Christian in the Church of Scotland, went to Sunday school, and belonged to a family who were upstanding members of the kirk. So my starting point was one of religious belief – it’s what I was taught. In fact, Christianity was so much part of the fabric of life, that it was taken as read that it was true, not only in church, but in school and in the home. There were never any discussions around the meal table which even remotely called it into question. My mother, now in her late 90’s, still attends the same church I did as a boy, back in the Scottish town where I was brought up. The family Bible was a large volume bound in black leather, a King James Version. These days I use a much-thumbed New International Version, complete with Concordance and Maps, which I’ve had for over 30 years.

So, with that background, what was the trigger to make me start to question, at about 10 years of age, what grown-ups were telling me about God, and Jesus, and Christianity? Part of the answer I’m sure is in my nature – a tendency to be obstinate and curious (often infuriatingly so, I’m sure); to ask “why” all the time, and to keep asking hard questions and to not be put off by deflection or non-answers,  until I get to the bottom of what is being said. Part of it is probably also a residue of the “Santa Claus” effect: like most young children I had had the credulity of a child, so was aware that I had not so long before been a “Santa believer”, and that it was through applying common sense to the idea that I had seen through it as preposterous. (How big would the sleigh have to be to carry the presents for a whole town, never mind for all the children in the country, or the world? How much time would Santa have to deliver to each house? etc,  etc). Now all that seems very childish, and I imagine that most children would come to the same conclusion about the Santa story, though many would probably be cute enough to keep pretending to believe long after they didn’t, so that the presents would keep coming.  But it had a deeper message for me. Not so much that adults had lied to me: I saw that as quite innocent and benign – not really an attempt to deceive, but to make life for me as a young child more full of wonder and fun. Besides, do parents have a real option with the Santa story? Could you really have your 4 year-old telling his friends “My Daddy says Santa is made up”? No, the real lesson was  ideas can be challenged and evaluated, sometimes just by thinking about them, and it was up to me to do that, and to keep doing that, rather than just accepting what I was told. So I suppose I developed a rebellious attitude, on top of an intense curiosity about the world and how everything worked. All that set the scene for the most important trigger to make me start to question religious teachings, namely the content of what I was being told.

I remember a sermon on God testing Abraham by asking him to kill his only son Isaac. I suppose I was meant to take the lesson about obedience to God, but instead I felt suspicion and revulsion: what sort of God was this that we were meant to respect and obey? I remember a lesson on the Ten Commandments where God was apparently priding himself on being jealous, and threatening to punish successive generations for the sins of their fathers. Whoa, I’m thinking, is this an OK way to carry on? And doesn’t the Bible also say that jealousy is wrong? I was repeatedly told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and a talking snake (yes, a talking snake) tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit. I remember being unimpressed to learn that we are all born sinners, however hard we try to be good; every Sunday, I found I had to pray for forgiveness of my sins – always the same prayer, whether I had spent the previous week being  good, bad, or really naughty. So what’s the point in trying to be good, if we’re all condemned anyway? All sinners, no matter how we’ve actually behaved? And what’s more, anyone could apparently behave as badly as they liked, and provided they “accepted Jesus” everything would be forgiven. To a young mind, it all seemed so arbitrary and unjust. Then the story of Noah and the flood, a popular theme for sermons.  I had two huge problems with that one. Firstly, God was supposed to have created man in his own image, created evil, then drowned the entire population of the earth, except for Noah and his family, for doing what he had set them up to do anyway. Really? And that’s a good and just God? Secondly, there was the preposterousness, the implausibility. Much as I’d seen through the Santa Claus story as a younger child,  I was thinking – a flood, over the WHOLE planet? “All the high mountains were covered”. How much water would that take, and where would it come from? And all the creatures in a wooden boat for 150 days. Think of the quantities of food, the size the ark would have to be – but we’re told it was only 450 feet long – about half a Titanic. What would the carnivorous ones eat? Would the ant-eaters have eaten the two ants, then starved, or would there be a larder of ants, with only a special two designated for survival? The whole thing seemed to me to be either “fairy stories”, or meant to be an allegory of some kind, to make a point. Yet it was being presented to me as a true story. By adults.

I found myself starting to think “What a load of nonsense. Do people actually BELIEVE this stuff?” So I started to read the Bible for myself, with an inquiring mind-set. The more I read, the worse the whole thing seemed to become. I read of a “chosen people” – not so nice if you happened  to be one of the not-chosen people – it seemed to me that this was written from a particular agenda, and not one that I could admire.  I read of God’s genocides, in particular in 1 Samuel 15 where God commands Saul to massacre the Amalekites, including women and children. I found I couldn’t reconcile the supposed Christian message of love and forgiveness with a God who seemed to be a capricious, nasty, genocidal maniac.  At 10 years old, I was well on the way to becoming an atheist, although of course at that time I had never heard the word. But I was struck by what seemed to me preposterously unlikely claims made by Christianity.

So, I was disturbed by what I read in the Bible: I was supposed to be worshipping an omnipotent , omniscient and perfect  being, yet the Bible seemed to show him to be cruel and  bloodthirsty – a being who had engaged in all manner of awfulness. And there was more: what I later came to  recognise as “the problem of evil” which many Christians struggle with: my inability to reconcile  the supposed existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God with a world full of brutality, disease, war, painful suffering of innocent people, and evil such as the holocaust, of which I had heard and read so much, and which had happened only  a few years before I was born: I had seen the shocking images from Auschwitz, and that is something I could never un-see. All things bright and beautiful? No! Many things are bright and beautiful, certainly, but also so much is grim and ugly, such as tribal violence, war, childhood cancers, bilharzia, leprosy,  parasitic wasps,  polio, bubonic plague, famines, malaria, and of course, the way nature works, “red in tooth and claw”.

As I grew up, though these doubts and worries greatly exercised me, I continued to attend church, as I was expected to. I found I couldn’t discuss my concerns meaningfully with anyone, so I internalised them, and continued to read the Bible – seeking some sort of reconciliation between  what I read and what was being presented as Christianity. But as a teenager and student, I grew away from the church, as it seemed to me to have little relevance to real life; I put religion to one side and stopped thinking about it too deeply. I suppose it was the excitement of approaching adulthood and relationships, and the “imperative” of doing well at school and university in order to make my way in the world.  And of course at university, I met a whole new set of people with very different and interesting ideas.

Later on, as parents of a young family, my wife and I became regular attenders at the local parish church in the Cheshire village where we’d settled. Fortunately there was a young curate who was happy to get involved in discussion, rather than just trot out the message, and we got on. I was able to articulate my doubts about Christianity, and to share why I found the whole Christian message unconvincing and conflicted. I attended Bible study classes, and was able to debate more and more, and learn from others, both lay and ordained, how they approached difficult topics. I read my NIV Bible extensively, and brought up in discussion areas which I thought were contradictory, or which I couldn’t reconcile with what made sense as a way to behave. This was important – it meant I wasn’t restricted to passages selected by others;  the whole thing, Old Testament and New Testament, was legitimate to tackle. Others, who professed a strong Christian faith, put their views and arguments, and sought to bring me round.

I was also increasingly aware of very different religious views and practices around the world, and was fascinated to study the origins of religion in general, since most if not all human cultures had developed a religion of some sort, which took a prominent part in their view of how the world worked. It is not hard to see why religions developed as they did: before more scientific explanations became available, the world would be a terrifying place, with threats such as disease, famine, drought, storms, fire, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. Superstitions arose to impose patterns on events, which over time became codified by leaders into ritual. Events were attributed to the moods and actions of supernatural beings, who would need to be appeased. In the absence of rational explanation, attribution to supernatural agency was the obvious recourse,  and if one believed that one’s rituals could affect outcome, they would be comforting and reassuring. So the earliest religions were born: a means to explain the world, and to try to control events. I discuss the origins of religion in more detail elsewhere – seem my post “Religions- what are they all about, and why are they as they are?”[2]

So, with this context, I was wondering why I should be focussing on the truth or otherwise of the Bible, when it seemed to me a geographical accident that I had been brought up as a Christian. A person of the same age living in India would likely have been Hindu or Sikh, or in Indonesia a Muslim. What was special about the Christian faith to make it “right”  – something I’d always been taught to believe – while other religions, adhered to by millions of people, were “wrong”. If the Bible was going to help with that, it hadn’t yet, despite a huge amount of study.

So I got more into reading about the provenance of the Bible – where and when it was written; who the authors were, how they related to the events they were describing; how the process of selecting what texts to include and what to reject was carried out, and by whom;  and what processes of editing, translating, and re-editing had been done. I also looked at the history of Christianity and how it grew from a minor sect to a world religion – of particular interest was the impact of Roman Emperor Constantine’s decisions in the 4th century AD, and how (serendipity) things might have turned out very differently.

The more I delved, the more precarious and flimsy the basis of Christianity appeared to be. Looking for evidence to support Christianity just produced more information to cast doubt, and no evidence to support adopting Christianity ahead of many other belief systems. At this point I had reached a conclusion that of all the competing religious belief systems in the world, none could present a claim for “truth” superior to all the others. My logical conclusion was that “they are all wrong”. I had reached a position of “atheist” – lack of belief in a God or Gods, for want of any evidence to convince me. I should point out that I remained agnostic, ie I was not convinced of a certainty that there is no God. I simply lacked belief, a position open to change if evidence became apparent at any time. But it seemed to me that the Gods of religion were all human constructs, rather than just all of them bar one. So in the seemingly unlikely event that a God that might actually exist, that God probably would be rather different from any that mankind has invented.

Having come to a view about how religion in general, and Christianity in particular, related to the reality of how the world works, the decision whether or not to have my children baptised became an easy one.  I could not honestly make any of the required undertakings and promises,  and my wife,  who had been brought up in a very strict Christian family, did not demur.  Our  children were brought up to think openly, challenge ideas, and make decisions for themselves about  what to believe.

But I found I couldn’t leave it there. I became intrigued by the work of various atheist scientists and authors, such as Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Two books which seemed to articulate and develop my views most eloquently and clearly were “God is Not Great” , Christopher Hitchens [3] and “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins [4]. Suddenly in my 50’s I entered a world where I knew other people had similar views, and expressed them in a way which clarified and extended my thinking.  No longer need I struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.

What I’ve just tried to do in this introduction is to describe my views on Christianity, and the journey which I have followed to get here. If you’re still with me, you’ll understand the context of what I’m going to say, and perhaps will humour me a little more than you otherwise might have.

But now, back to the top and the 5 approaches I suggested I wanted to take, when considering “Is the Bible True?”

1     Is a God necessary to explain the universe, and life on earth?

I have addressed just this question in another post “What about the origin of the universe – doesn’t that need God?”[5], so I’ll be brief here. While it seems intuitive that the universe (something) cannot come from nothing, the bizarre world of quantum mechanics suggests  this is not necessarily so; a fascinating book by Lawrence Krauss [6] explains rather well to the lay reader how this might be so. Nevertheless, we can pursue a line of thought on the basis that something cannot come from nothing. Most physicists now regard the beginning of the universe to have occurred in a “big bang” around 13.8 billion years ago. So what pre-condition or cause existed to allow the big bang to occur?

It is often claimed by theists that the only possible explanation is God, therefore God exists- the “first cause” argument. The immediate problem I have with this idea is infinite regression. If everything needs a pre-condition or cause in order to come into existence, then so does God. If an exemption is allowed for God, it can be allowed for any postulation you care to name. Now the theistic response to the problem of infinite regression is usually along the lines of God always existed, or He exists outside of space and time. In other words, the rules of physics apply except in the case of God, who gets a unique exemption. This sounds to me like another way of saying “Can’t explain, so I’m going to define the explanation to be outside of our scope to explain”. How is this distinct from just saying “it’s magic”?

But even if we go along with this line of theistic argument, the next problem is defining the characteristics of God. If the only thing we can say about God, from the argument of first cause, is that He is the cause or creator of the universe, then the concept of God does not require any meaning beyond just that. In other words, “God” in this sense could just be a phenomenon of physics. A soon as we start to attach attributes to this concept, such as a being who is omniscient and knows about and is interested in the lives of individual people, or a being whose involvement was confined to setting up the laws and preconditions of the universe, or a being who engaged himself in the specifics of design of the universe and everything in it, or whatever, we are anthropomorphising the concept, and attaching whatever attributes we want to in an arbitrary way, without the support of any evidence. Therefore the statement “God must exist, in order for the universe to be created” is actually saying no more than a precondition or cause for the universe must have existed, and I’m choosing to call that “God”.

The objection most often made to this point is to claim that the conditions of the universe we observe are so special they could not have occurred by chance, so that not only must there have been a “God” who caused our universe to come into being, but that this “God” must have applied deliberate design intent. This is sometimes called the “fine tuning” argument – if any of the constants in physics had been even a tiny amount different from its actual value, our universe, and life on earth, would not have been able to exist. The fallacy of this argument can be hard for some to accept, as the refutation is somewhat counter-intuitive. Consider the existence of any one individual who exists. That person is known to exist, so the chances of his existence are 100%. However, if one considers the chances of that particular person coming into existence, viewed from even a few generations before, they are infinitesimally small: one particular sperm, of many millions, fertilised one particular egg, for each and every ancestor. If any one of those occurrences had been slightly different, the specific person would not exist. The same applies to the universe that we observe- it exists, so the chances that it exists are 100%. In other words, the properties of our universe are self-selected by the fact that we exist. If our universe were different, we wouldn’t be here; but we are here, so it wasn’t different. The required physical constants and properties of our universe are inevitable. It must have been like that, or we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Another way of looking at it is to consider a lottery. In the UK it involves picking the right 6 numbers from a possible 59, a chance of about 45 million to 1. So if I take any ticket at random, its chance of being a winner is indeed 45 million to 1. But if I’m  a TV interviewer, talking to the lucky winner who’s proudly holding up his winning ticket, the ticket he’s holding started with the same odds, but now we know its chances of being a winner are 100%. Here we are in the universe we observe, where the chances of us existing are 100%.

None of this suggests we need to invoke a God in order to account for the universe; rather, it suggests that building a God into the explanation introduces a complication without providing any explanatory benefit. So my starting point is that we don’t need a God, whether the Christian God or any other, to explain our existence. While of course this does not show the Bible is untrue, it does for me remove one of the commonest arguments a Christian will use to say “God must exist”.


 

2              Comparing world religions

I have already addressed this topic in another post “Religions- what are they all about, and why are they as they are?”[2] so I’ll try to be a bit more concise here.

Of the many religions in the world today, most are monotheistic and a few are polytheistic. The oldest extant religion is probably Hinduism, from around 2,000BC, followed by Zoroastrianism and Judaism at around 1,800BC. Whichever one you pick, you will observe an early geographical reach. Religions grew up in times when worldwide travel, and communication between cultures, was quite rare. To this day, Hinduism is almost exclusively restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Christianity started in the Middle East and Europe, and originally spread to Africa by the work of Christian missionaries, and to the Americas by European colonisation. Although the world today is much more of a melting pot than it once was, with very significant migration of peoples, a map of the world’s religions today still shows marked geographical distinctions.

It is possible to try to count up the number of gods which mankind has believed in, or still does believe in. The number comes to something over 3,000, though if we count in Hinduism, there is an argument for saying it is many millions. Some Hindus would disagree, arguing that the question is meaningless, and the enormous number of Hindu gods all relate to a single supreme soul (Brahman).

A consequence of the different cultural/geographical origins of religions is that they aren’t mutually compatible; in fact, it is evident that many religions contain elements which are fundamentally irreconcilable with others, despite what Baha’i teachings might seek to claim. A logical conclusion is that they are either all wrong, or only one is right and all the others are wrong. Most religious adherents say that their particular religion is true, and that all other religions, which have conflicting dogma, are false. Often, a person making this claim will cite some aspect of his religion which makes it special and distinct from all others,  in order to sustain the argument that theirs is the right one.  Such views are expressed with seemingly equal conviction from all manner of conflicting standpoints, but none of these religions can present evidence which is able to convince more than a handful of people of a different religion, or no religion, to abandon their view and join theirs. So the compelling evidence of the truth of any one religion is absent – including Christianity.  To assert that “the Bible is true” therefore cannot be made based on evidence; it has to depend on religious faith shared only by Christians.

Another obvious feature of religions is their tendency to schism. Examples which come to mind immediately are the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, and the Roman Catholic/Protestant division in the Christian church. Of course, it is a great deal more complex than that, but these two examples account for a huge amount of vehement discord, sectarian violence, and even wars. Christianity is perhaps the most outstanding example of schism, with an enormous number of sects or denominations – so many, and with new schisms still arising, that it is difficult to count exactly. These sects are basing their views on the same holy book, yet often have very deep levels of disagreement about what it means, and about which parts are important and which parts can be dismissed. This means it is not only different religions each claiming the truth, it is also different sects within particular religions. A classic example current now in the Anglican communion is between the churches of East Africa, which take a harsh homophobic line, based on eg Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”) and the Church of England, which takes an opposite line, based for example on the Matthew 7:2 “Judge not, that you be not judged”. We might be currently observing yet another schism, this time of the Anglican church, demonstrating further that “the Bible is true” cannot reasonably be argued, since it supports  diametrically conflicting sincerely held views: if one part is true, the other is false.

3              Substantive errors in the Bible

Anyone who has looked at the topic will know that the Bible contains various statements that one might term schoolboy errors. For example, in biology and zoology, We have rabbits being deemed unclean and unsuitable to eat because they chew the cud (Leviticus 11:6); bats classed as birds (Leviticus 11:19); and the story of Jonah surviving 3 days in the stomach of a great fish (Jonah 1:17), demonstrating that the author lacked basic knowledge of gastric acids which would quickly digest a human body. There’s lots of this sort of thing if one cares to look, but I wouldn’t try to argue that such factual errors are substantive – they don’t really strike at the core message of Christianity, and anyway, apologists will usually be able to explain them away, for example by arguments about how the original texts were translated.

Another well-known Biblical error is the implied assertion that π =3. If you are used to such things being pointed out, then my quoting 1 Kings 7: 23-26 or 2 Chronicles 4:2-5 won’t impress you much – you might say those calculations aren’t meant to be accurate. But I struggle with this notion. If the Bible quotes inaccurate figures, not meant to be taken literally, how do we know that other parts are accurate? If the Bible were really the inspired word of God, wouldn’t He take the opportunity to reveal some useful and interesting truth, such as the nature of π, rather than include crude numbers which are not even a fair approximation? It would appear more likely that the text reveals the limited mathematical knowledge of the iron-age men who wrote it down: the presence of Biblical mathematical errors suggests against divine authorship. But again, I would find it hard to maintain that such an error in mathematics is substantive and undermines the core message of Christianity.

If the reader is really interested in following up biblical errors, there is a wealth of material readily available which does that, which can be found with a few clicks on Google. There are even books written on the theme, for example,  “Biblical Nonsense: A Review of the Bible for Doubting Christians”, Dr Jason Long. [7], which is a comprehensive approach written from a sceptical point of view. It tackles a wide field, from fairly trivial points of fact, right through to matters of fundamental Christian doctrine.

But here, in addressing “Is The Bible True?” I feel a need to make a distinction between two main Christian perspectives. One is the Christian Fundamentalist approach, and the other I choose to call “Scientific Accommodationism”.  The former holds that the Bible in its entirety  is the literal word of God. The latter seeks to maintain the essence of the Christian message in the Bible, while accepting that science provides by and large a source of real knowledge, which is growing all the time: where science shows unequivocally that the Biblical account is incorrect, then it accepts that such Biblical content cannot be taken literally. It will be very obvious why the distinction between Christian Fundamentalism and Scientific Accommodationism is relevant to addressing “Is The Bible True?”

Aside: I am not attempting here to discuss Intelligent Design, on the basis that ID is a non-Bible based form of creationism, and as such, it is not within the scope of this post to address. I might well get on to writing a separate post on ID, at a future date.

First, let’s look at the proposition that the Bible is true, taken from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint.

3.1 Is the Bible literally true?

In order to take the Christian fundamentalist stance, one must accept the creation story of Genesis as literal truth. The fundamentalist view can be exemplified by the US organisation Answers in Genesis [8], who proffer a Statement of Faith which contains the following wording:

“By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.”

So the creation story of Genesis is held to be literally true, yet it is demonstrable nonsense if read literally: we have the creation of light, night, and day on the first day (Genesis 3). It then gets to the 4th day (Genesis 16) before two “lights” are created – the sun and the moon. As if that weren’t illogical enough, in effect an impossible order for things to occur – there is the matter of the reference to the moon as a “lesser light to govern the night” – showing ignorance that the moon is not a light source but merely reflects sunlight back to earth.  Then we have geocentricity – the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, it is fixed (i.e. immobile) in space, and that it is unique and special compared to all other heavenly bodies. The Biblical assumption of the unique and special nature of the earth as the centre of everything is clear from Genesis, which asserts that other heavenly bodies were not even brought into existence until the fourth day of creation. The idea of the earth’s immobility, with everything else moving around it, is a bit less explicit, but it’s there, for example in Joshua 10:13 where the sun “stopped in the middle of the sky”, in I Chronicles 16:30 where “the world…..cannot be moved”, and in Psalms 96:10 where “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”. There are also many references to the earth “having foundations”. Errors in the understanding of cosmology are not confined to the Old Testament. For example, in Mark 13:25, Jesus says “the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken”: clearly based on a view that the stars are small lights hanging above the earth, in order for “fall” to be meaningful.

Christian fundamentalism also holds that the story of the great flood and Noah’s ark is true, despite its manifest impossibility within the bounds of physics – if all the water in the earth’s atmosphere were to be deposited as rain, it could cover the land to a depth of about an inch. There are other obvious impossibilities with the idea of a global flood, for example the proposition that representatives of  all creatures,  created immutable by God,  were sustained on a wooden vessel about 450 feet long, for nearly half a year. A few simple calculations on the amount of space available for each species, never mind space for food, shows that the idea is ridiculous. There are many other points one could cite to show that the story is utterly implausible: the authors, being located in the Middle East, had no knowledge of the variety and distribution of species across the planet – penguins in Antarctica, kangaroos in Australia, lemurs in Madagascar, and kiwis in new Zealand, just to name a few, could not have been brought to the ark, survived, then been distributed to their particular habitats, without arbitrary and pointless “miracles”: the idea of a global flood is preposterous and not credible. There might well have been significant flood(s) much more locally, for example in Mesopotamia, or (rather controversially the Black Sea) : there are flood stories in various human cultures predating the Bible. Geology too is categorically at odds with the creationists’ global flood model . Though most geologists don’t trouble themselves with discussing what they regard as irrelevant pseudoscience, there is literature on the subject if one cares to look, for example The Rocks Don’t Lie, David R Montgomery [9]. Inevitably, the apologists have piled in to try to rubbish that work [10] and for those without a scientific education and a predisposition to creationism, it might appear plausible. To a rational scientist, though, it is risible.

Then we have the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the proposition that the human species started off with two members, created by God. But we know from modelling genome sequences [11] that our species never had a population less than some thousands: the biblical account of two tiny bottlenecks at Adam & Eve, then at Noah & family, did not occur.

From these few examples alone, one would already have dismissed the literalist view as nonsense, wouldn’t one? Adherence to this fundamentalist view looks crazy,  with its associated rejection of the Theory of Evolution, and belief in Young Earth Creationism . Here is another quote from the Answers in Genesis website [8]:

“The earth is only a few thousand years old. That’s a fact, plainly revealed in God’s Word”

To take the Young Earth Creationist view, it is necessary to reject every branch of science which has anything to say about the age of the earth, including geology, plate tectonics, cosmology, nuclear physics/radio-isotope dating, archaeology, palaeontology, biology /DNA analysis, climatology/ice core studies, even dendrochronology – the list is almost endless. Such a view is, astonishing as it might appear, very commonly held in the USA.  A Gallup poll in 2014 [12]  reported that more than 4 in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form, around 10,000 years ago. This is far out of step with other developed countries, as can be seen in the chart below. It is interesting to explore the reasons for this phenomenon, but not my purpose here. If you do want to read more, please look at my post “How Old is the Earth?” [13]

Belief in evolution by country

Although there is a great deal of Young Earth Creationist and Christian fundamentalist apologetics written to try to sustain their standpoint, as I have shown above,  it is at odds with the evidence anyone can easily access and understand, unless one’s mind is closed against it.

If you are one of the army of Biblical literalists, then any arguments I have presented here, and evidence I have referenced, to demonstrate that the Biblical account of creation is nonsense, that the Biblical flood could never have happened, that the earth is not a few thousand years old but about 4.54 billion years old, and that Evolution is an established scientific fact, will be to no avail – you have forsaken evidence and logic, and abandoned science –yet in all probability drive a car with a GPS satellite navigation system,  use a smart phone and computer, enjoy the benefits of modern medicine such as antibiotics, watch satellite or cable TV, travel around the world in jet aircraft, and have sophisticated heating and electric lighting systems in your home. So science works, except when it conflicts with the literal word of the Bible? Really? Such a view is incoherent and illogical. If you are of this  persuasion,  rejecting overwhelming and compelling evidence that much of content of the Bible is not literally true, then our ways must part here.

For those readers who accept the reality of scientific observation and evidence, you will be with me in accepting that there is straightforward and incontrovertible evidence that the Bible is NOT literally true.

I will now turn to what, numerically at least, is the mainstream Christian view of interpretation of the Bible, which I have chosen to call Scientific Accommodationism.

3.2 Is the Biblical message essentially  true?

Scientific Accommodationism can be summarised as a view that the Bible contains the essential truth of the Christian faith, but contains lots of allegorical material, couched in metaphor and fable; the development of scientific knowledge has shed much light on the way the world works, and this must be taken alongside the Biblical message, rather than seen to be in conflict with it.

The key to addressing this question is to look at what the essence of the Christian message really is. There are countless ways of expressing it, but it comes down, I think, to the following summary:

Essence of Christian message

This is my honest attempt to distil the Christian message into one paragraph, with no attempt to make it sound more or less plausible, or more or less preposterous. If you feel that this misses the point in some way, or is wrong, and you would like to propose a better view, then I would like to hear from you.

Whether or not one subscribes to the Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden story, the core beliefs of Christianity, and core messages of the Bible,  are

  • That man is a unique creation of God, distinct from all other creatures in having been endowed with an immortal soul, independent of the material body, which carries on into eternity when the physical body dies.
  • That through original sin, all mankind is born corrupt, as sinners.
  • God sent his only son Jesus to die on the cross and atone for all the sins of man.
  • A person’s immortal soul is condemned for eternity unless the person accepts Jesus Christ as his saviour. Only through following Jesus Christ can a person find God and have his soul saved from eternal damnation.

Without the concepts of “soul” and “sin”, the entire essence of Christianity falls away.  “Soul” is a thread throughout the Old and New Testaments, for example

Ecclesiastes 12:7 “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God, who gave it”

Mark 8:36 “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”

 

Likewise “original sin”, for example

Acts 13:38 “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you”

Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”

At the time the Bible was written, there was no knowledge of genetics or DNA, and no proposal of human evolution from earlier species, so it was entirely credible, even taken as self-evident, that man was special, unique, and distinct from other creatures. We had self-awareness, language, belief systems, culture, understanding of right and wrong, a capacity to ponder our origins: an apparent “life force” or “spirit” which separated us from “dumb animals”, who were assumed to operate out of instinct, rather than out of thought processes and morality. This “life force” or “spirit” seemed to be intangible, something separate from the physical being, in other words, our “soul”; Christianity offered an answer to the mystery of where it comes from, and what happens to it after we die.

Right from Genesis, the Bible never veers from this view of “soul” and our place above all other creatures.

Genesis 1:26 “Then God said “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over all the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.

I have just mentioned “proposal of human evolution from earlier species”, and it is this which I want to focus on now. The contrast between Christian Fundamentalism and Scientific Accommodationism is brought into stark focus if we consider evolution. To the fundamentalist, as we’ve seen, the process of evolution of species must be rejected as not representing the way life forms  have come to be as they are, and much effort is expended by fundamentalist apologists to make just such a case.

I should draw a distinction here: “evolution” describes a process, while the “Theory of Evolution” (ToE) is a scientific explanation of how and why that process occurs. The fact of evolution, as described by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species” [14], is exemplified in numerous observable ways, and is accepted by the entire scientific world. I exclude here from “scientific world” the considerable quantity of pseudo-scientific apologists’ work which sets out to dispute evolution, as it is not supported by credible research or data, and does not appear in peer-reviewed scientific literature. If you doubt this, read “The Greatest Show on Earth” [15], Richard Dawkins. The Theory of Evolution, Darwin’s explanation of how the process works, is described in detail in “On the Origin of Species” [14], though it has been refined and developed considerably since, for example by the development of DNA analysis. Nevertheless,  Darwin’s basic principle of natural selection has been entirely vindicated over the past 150+ years. [15]. To those who regard “Darwinism” as false, by and large religious fundamentalists, it is worth noting that Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, had separately arrived at the same conclusions; Darwin had been vacillating for many years over whether to publish, and it was Wallace’s imminent intent to publish his own work which stimulated  Darwin into action. If Darwin had paused a bit longer, the religious fundamentalists might well have been aiming their fire on the “evils of  Wallace-ism”

Another point perhaps worth making here is the meaning of “theory”. In fact, “theory” is a homonym, a word (in common with very many in the English language) with more than one meaning. A common usage is a notion, a hunch or a guess. The scientific meaning, which is the sense used in Theory of Evolution, is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena. Any scientific theory must be based on a careful and rational examination of the facts. It is the highest form of scientific account: no “theory” ever becomes a “law”. A scientific law describes what happens (eg the law of gravity), while a theory describes why it occurs.   The meaning of theory is important to recognise, if only to debunk the surprisingly common howler of saying “evolution is only a theory”.

To the Accommodationist, the case for evolution of species is accepted as scientifically proven. This is the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which represents about half of Christians worldwide [16]. Over 65 years ago, Pope Pius XII set out his papal encyclical, “Humani Generis,” in which the Roman Catholic Church’s official position on ToE was declared. The statement said that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and evolution. The present Pope, Pope Francis, has reiterated the same view in 2014. [17]

If you don’t already accept that the evidence for evolution poses an insuperable problem for the Christian Fundamentalists, read my post “Atheism and the Theory of Evolution” [18]. I show that Christian Fundamentalists  are driven into the untenable position of denying incontrovertible evidence from numerous disparate branches of science, in order to hang on to their literalist view. But, somewhat more subtly, evolution also poses a problem for Accommodationists, despite, for example, the view of the Roman Catholic Church. [16], [17]. I want now to go on to explain why I say that.

There are some simplistic assumptions in the typically imagined model of the tree of life, and the position of man. This illustration from the 1870’s by Haeckel is an example, showing a simple tree with man at the pinnacle, as if man were the culmination, the apex, of evolution.

Haeckel tree of life

I should point out that I’m not advocating Haeckel’s ideas – there is a great deal of his work which has been shown to be wrong, particularly what might be termed “scientific racism” which  was picked up and used to justify a racist view of mankind, in a way sometimes targeted unfairly at the work of Darwin. No, what I want to illustrate is a commonly held impression that one can represent the evolution of homo sapiens as the tip of one branch on the tree of life, with the associated implications that  man is the peak of evolution, not subject to further evolutionary process.  With such a model in mind, it is just possible to hold on to the idea that evolution does not contradict the Christian view that homo sapiens is distinct from all other creatures, created in the image of God, endowed with a “soul”, and that it does not contradict the Christian concept of “original sin”.

However, the key point is that we now know that this simplistic model bears little relation to reality. DNA analysis has revealed a much more complex network of interconnections. Speciation, including the speciation of homo sapiens, is far from a clear single track road from one form to the next, all the way to ourselves.  From an origin in Africa nearly 2 million years ago, the ancestors of homo sapiens spread along different paths for long periods – measured in hundreds of thousands of years – then from time to time came together with a mixing of genes. The best known example is Homo Neanderthalis, where whole genome information has been obtained from bone fragments; present best estimates are that the lineages of Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalis spilt around 500,000 years ago, but there has probably been gene mixing much more recently. [19]. Modern non-African humans have an average of 2.5% Neanderthal DNA [19].

This recovery of ancient hominin DNA, first by Svante Pääbo [20] and his team at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, and later by other researchers, has brought other previously unknown populations into the picture of human ancestry.  Famously, a fragment of finger bone  from Denisova Cave, in southern Siberia, revealed a hitherto unknown population (now called Denisovans) who are as different from Homo Sapiens as Homo Neanderthalis. We know from DNA analysis that they make up about 5% of the ancestry of modern Australian Aboriginals. [21]

This work of geneticists provided important clues in how to interpret human DNA, so that it became possible to document more lineages  from the traces of their DNA in living populations.  These are referred to by geneticists as “ghost populations”, and were found to apply generally:  many Africans also carry a legacy of earlier unknown populations, and even ancient genomes contain evidence of ancient  ghost populations. The Denisovan genome bears the traces of ancient mixture, not only from Neanderthals but with another even more divergent group, which could even have been Homo erectus. The more  geneticists study and examine, the more they find evidence of ancient and different populations, different in genome from modern humans, all mixing together in small proportions. [21]

It is clear from the evidence that we do not arise from a single evolutionary path. Our evolutionary history is more like a braided stream [21]. There was no clear single emergence of a unique species Homo Sapiens; rather, a complex mixture of species of hominin, which, over time by merging, absorption, and extinction of other human species,  has led to the single species we recognise today.

The idea of a pinnacle of evolution, ending with man, is also wrong. From what we understand about evolutionary processes of all life forms, they continue to apply. Although time frames are often longer than the period in which we have been studying evolution, which can give an illusion of stasis -rather like staring at the hour hand on a watch for 10 seconds or so – in many case they are not, and they proceed very quickly indeed. An obvious example is pathogens acquiring antibiotic resistance.  It has been difficult to observe evolutionary processes in man, because of the problem of separating genetic and cultural effects, but not impossible. A study of an isolated island population in île aux Coudres, Quebec [22] has demonstrated naturally occurring genetic changes in a human population.

 So we know that the Biblical model of the creation of man as a unique species, distinct from other life forms and in any particular image (of God, or whatever)   is incompatible with the evidence. Man’s “creation” wasn’t an event – it was a gradual process of speciation, merging, and further speciation over many hundreds of thousands of years, and is still continuing today. There was no cut point before which homo sapiens did not exist, and after which, he did – that is not the way evolution works. The colour spectrum chart below illustrates the point graphically.

evolution red to blue change

With this understanding of the real nature of the evolution of man, it is no longer tenable to adhere  to an idea that homo sapiens is in stasis as a species, distinct from all other creatures, and created in the image of God.  Without any cut point before which homo sapiens did not exist, and after which we did, it is not possible pin a notion of endowing man with a “soul” and not other creatures. There is no “origin” per se at which we might attribute “original sin”.

The Biblical idea of the distinct nature of man, in terms of unique attributes of  self-awareness, thought processes, decision making (whether to cheat or not to cheat, steal or not to steal, deceive or not to deceive) are also now known to be false. We know that some animals grieve for their dead, and we know some cheat and lie to get what they want. Moral and immoral behavior is not unique to man[23]  I won’t go into this in any detail here – if you’re interested, an internet search will quickly yield links to many research studies  in this area, but I recommend Marc Bekoff’s work as a good place to start.

I have argued that while a simple model of evolution might just about be argued as compatible with a Biblical view of the origins of man, and the concepts of “soul” and “sin” unique to man,  it is a long way from the reality of how we came to be – a reality that requires extensive and modern understanding of the complex processes and long timescales over which  Homo Sapiens evolved.  Such an understanding is fatal to the concept of the uniqueness of man in stasis made in the image of any god, and to the concept of original sin and the need for salvation of the soul.  Thus the essential message of Christianity, and the Bible, falls away. In other words, the Bible is not true, even when reduced to its essential message.

4              Contradictions in the Bible

The Bible is riven with contradictions. A already alluded to one in my introduction, namely the account of how Judas died: Matthew 27:5 says that Judas hanged himself, and Acts 1.18 says he fell in a field and his intestines spilled out. We can find countless others of this ilk, eg in Matthew 2:1 the infant Jesus is visited by Magi (ie astronomers, or learned men)while in Luke 2:15 it is shepherds. It is easy to go on citing such fairly trivial inconsistencies, and an internet search will quickly produce lists of them. It is arguable that such inconsistencies are not germane to the message of the Bible, and the apologist can usually discount them as such, or even as quirks of translation. It is also arguable, however, that a holy book which purports to be the word of God ought to at least be internally consistent, and the fact that it isn’t gives credence to the view that the Bible is simply a collection of writings of various human authors with the usual human failings of error: if divine inspiration played a part, one might expect such human error to be eliminated.

But what exercises me more about Biblical inconsistencies isn’t these conflicts of narrative account; it is where the contradictions lead to genuine and deep differences of interpretation about what the Bible is telling us.

The point about whether we are all sinners, or some of us can be righteous, is one such.   For example, the idea of all man being condemned by original sin is clearly stated in Romans 3:9 et seq: “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written, there is no-one righteous, not even one

Yet we have

1 John 3:7 “He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous

Job 2:3 “Have you considered my servant Job? He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil

Genesis 7:1 “The Lord said unto Noah ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation’

This contradiction strikes at the heart of the Christian message that we are all condemned as sinners and can only gain salvation through Jesus Christ, since we have examples of Biblical characters being righteous by dint of their own behaviour. The Bible cannot have its cake and eat it, with this sort of basic point of dogma.

A second example concerns what the Bible says about being peaceful. We have Matthew 10:34-36 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Yet in John 14:27 we read “ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”. It requires imaginative mental and linguistic gymnastics to reconcile these two opposing statements.

A third example, hugely relevant to interpretation of scripture in our modern world, is the Bible’s attitude to homosexuality. Most people will be only too well aware of Leviticus 20:13, which I already referred to above: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death”. This passage is cited by many devout Christians as a clear condemnation of homosexual activity, and has been translated in many countries into the law of the land. There over 70 countries with anti-homosexuality laws, some of which are predominantly Christian countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This causes enormous disagreement amongst Christians, and the dispute is presently threatening to cause a schism in the Anglican communion. There are those in North America and Europe who say that we mustn’t interpret the Bible in that way – Leviticus contains all sorts of prohibitions (eating shellfish, wearing clothes made of different kinds of thread) and we don’t take those seriously. They also cite Romans 10:4 “Christ is the end of the law…” and Matthew 7:2 “ Do not judge others…” as justification for a much more liberal approach to homosexuality. Back comes the retort Matthew 5:17 “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them”

Each school of thought thinks that it has the right interpretation of the Bible and the other is wrong. It is not an arcane matter of academia and theology – it directly affects lives and families. It is an egregious example of a contradiction in the Bible’s teachings. Both views cannot be right, and the Bible supports both. Those who seek to argue that “the Bible is true” need to come to terms with this dichotomy.

 

5              Teachings and passages of the Bible we regard as unacceptable

It is often argued by Christians that morality comes from the Bible, and without it, we’d all be engaged in all manner of unspeakable behaviour. I have addressed that particular issue elsewhere [24]. Suffice to say here that we appear to have no difficulty taking a personal view of which Biblical passages must be taken at face value, and which can be ignored; and that though one person’s take on some of these passages  often differs substantially from someone else’s (my example above of the attitude to homosexuality is a case in point) , in most cases the vast majority of people will converge around broadly the same view, that what the Bible says shouldn’t be regarded as a guide to how we ought to behave today.

Here are a few examples

Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

1 Timothy 2:11-13 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent

Deuteronomy 21:18-21  If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you.”

1 Samuel 15:3 et seq (Samuel to Saul) “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”

Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ doing the will of God from your heart”.

These rather well-known passages are examples which show that the Bible cannot be taken at face value, as an acceptable guide to behaviours which we ought to adopt today. Slavery, stoning disobedient children to death, carrying out genocide, hating ones family, and demanding that women keep quiet and never teach a man, aren’t what most Christians today would advocate – but they’re there, written down in the Bible. So in the sense of being a reliable guide to moral and decent behaviour, the Bible fails miserably. That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t contain very sound advice – of course it does. But the reader has to cherry pick – to decide which is good advice and which isn’t, or requires “interpreting”: in that sense, the Bible cannot be regarded as true – some of it unequivocally is not.

6              Summary

I have shown that

  • It is not necessary to invoke a god to explain the world and the universe; in fact, bringing a God or gods into the equation is a complication which brings no explanatory advantage.
  • Comparing world religions leads to the conclusion that none offers evidence in its favour, in comparison to others. There is no evidence ( in the accepted sense of the word) to prefer Christianity to any number of competing religions. Which religion one follows is most often a product of geography, and the prevailing religion of the culture into which one was born and raised.
  • Christian Fundamentalism, or taking the Bible as the literal truth, is incompatible with what science teaches us about how the universe came to be as it is, how the world works, and how life forms have developed.
  • An accommodationist view of the Bible, accepting modern scientific knowledge alongside Biblical teachings, also does not work. The essential Christian message of man as a creation by God in His image, with the unique attributes of an immortal soul and original sin, cannot be reconciled with what we know about how we as a species came to be, namely a gradual process of speciation, merging, and further speciation over many hundreds of thousands of years, still continuing today.
  • The Bible contains many internal contradictions. Whilst many are fairly trivial, some strike at the heart of the Christian message, and drive diametrically opposing interpretations as to what the Bible is saying. It cannot be both contradictory and true.
  • The Bible contains teachings and passages we regard as unacceptable. Since it is not a reliable guide to how we would want to behave, it cannot be taken as true.

If it were a simple matter of looking at those things as an evidential case, then the Bible would be confidently discarded as wrong, unreliable, full of errors, and not a credible basis for a coherent religious faith. There are several reasons that things don’t work like that. One is that many Christians have never studied such matters, and take their view of Christianity from the sermons and teachings of the religious leaders to whom they listen – the vicar, minister, priest, or whatever; they have never taken it upon themselves to read the Bible at any length. Another is indoctrination: for someone who has been indoctrinated with a particular religious viewpoint, especially from a young age,  any point of view which contradicts their firmly held beliefs is likely to be rejected. This quote from Carl Sagan is telling:

Carl Sagan Bamboozled quote

But it would be arrogant and wrong to suggest that Christians only believe either because they don’t really know what the Bible says and so have never wrestled with its errors and contradictions, and/or because they’ve simply been indoctrinated and have closed their minds to other views. Though many do fit that categorization, it ignores the significant number of Christians over the centuries who have been exercised by problems with Biblical text, or matters such as the problem of evil, and have sought to to explain and justify in such a way that the Bible can still be claimed to stand as the “word of God”. Many of those Christians have been highly educated scholars,  and have contributed to  a huge array of writings, which we term Christian apologetics.

If we look back a few hundred years, Christian apologetics might be regarded more as a theological or political exercise, rather than a defence of Christianity per se;  scholars argued and debated the finer points of scripture, often from one side or other of a major schism, for example between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. While most people  were illiterate or semi-literate,  and depended on the spoken words of their local clergyman for their understanding of scripture, there was not too much in the way of populist dissent. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine the Bible holding sway, and Christianity, in the UK for example, being accepted as right, true, and proper : the clergy were erudite, literate, and respected; there was a general culture of deference to authority; the content of every sermon could be selectively chosen , to present a “sanitised” Biblical view without ever needing to address any of the difficult bits; there were no mass media such as TV to expose people to other viewpoints;  and most ordinary people were born, lived and died within a very small local area, with little cross-fertilisation from other cultures.  As Christian missionaries set forth into the wider world, there was an assumption – an insufferably arrogant one as it seems to some people now – that the Christian message was automatically right, and we had a duty to spread it across the world, and “civilise” the “savages” we encountered.

How different all that looks today. We have widespread education and literacy; many of us live in multi-cultural societies, where people of different religions and cultural backgrounds live side by side, exposed to each other’s views and practices; we have TV, radio, and film;  we have opportunity, for those of us in the developed world at least, to travel and experience other cultures; we do not, by and large, have a culture of deference to authority – the reverse seems more the case, as anyone in the public eye is fair game for criticism and exposure for their peccadillos and failings; we have the internet, so that anyone with a PC, or even a tablet or smartphone, can access pretty much the sum of all human knowledge with a few keystrokes; and not least, we have a myriad of voices expressing different views, often taking a strong and principled stance against religion. Many books, including two I have already referred to [3],[4], have been influential in a process of religion becoming questioned, and even discarded, by significant numbers of people.

In such circumstances there is no shortage of motivation for apologists to do their best,  since the validity and even survival of Christianity could be seen to depend on it. The library of Christian apologetics is thus being added to today, and we are observing a battle of ideas. Arguably, the battle is swinging inexorably away from Christianity, whose position as a true and reliable belief system is being discarded by more and more people. These two references relate to the UK: [25][26], but the trend is evident in the USA as well. Here is an excerpt from Pew research as quoted by CNN in 2015: [27]:

Pew US religiosity trend

The arguments I have cited here, showing that the Bible is not true, and that it cannot therefore be a credible basis for a coherent religious faith, are compelling. More and more people are exposed to these arguments, and coming to the same inevitable conclusion.

 

References

  1. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us, Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons
  2. Religions- what are they all about, and why are they as they are? Blog post http://www.jims1world.com/?p=59
  3. God Is Not Great, The Case Against Religion, Christopher Hitchens, 2007
  4. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2006
  5. What about the origin of the universe – doesn’t that need God? Blog post http://www.jims1world.com/?p=89
  6. A Universe From Nothing, Lawrence Krauss, 2012
  7. Biblical Nonsense: A Review of the Bible for Doubting Christians, Dr Jason Long, paperback
  8. https://answersingenesis.org/
  9. The Rocks Don’t Lie, A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, David R Montgomery, 2012
  10. https://answersingenesis.org/geology/basic-geology-disproves-creationism/
  11. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/how-big-was-the-human-population-bottleneck-not-anything-close-to-2/
  12. http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx
  13. How Old is the Earth? http://www.jims1world.com/?p=78
  14. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin, first published 1859
  15. The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins, 2009
  16. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/02/13/the-global-catholic-population/
  17. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/comment , 31 October 2014
  18. Atheism and the Theory of Evolution, http://www.jims1world.com/?p=76
  19. Neanderthals: Facts About Our Extinct Human Relatives, http://www.livescience.com/28036
  20. https://www.ted.com/talks/svante_paeaebo_dna_clues_to_our_inner_neanderthal?language=en
  21. Human evolution is more a muddy delta than a branching tree, https://aeon.co/
  22. Humans Are Still Evolving, http://www.livescience.com/16358-human-evolution-natural-selection.html
  23. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, 2009
  24. Without God there can be no Morality, http://www.jims1world.com/?p=85
  25. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2586596/Just-800-000-worshipers-attend-Church-England-service-average-Sunday.html#ixzz3y6PRI8pO
  26. Religion in the UK: Diversity, Trends, and Decline, http://www.vexen.co.uk/UK/religion.html
  27. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/

Fidei Defensor? A Case for Disestablishment of the Church of England

Justin Welby

For some people, the mere mention of “unelected Bishops in the House of Lords” causes hackles to rise. But for most, establishment or disestablishment of the Church of England is well towards the bottom of the list of issues to be concerned about. But, as I will argue, it matters.

Firstly, there is the serious challenge faced by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, in keeping the Anglican communion from splitting apart. He needs to find a way to reconcile vehemently held opposing views: on one side there’s the American Episcopalian church taking a liberal view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, a sort of Sermon-on-the-Mount “Who am I to judge?” approach; on the other there are the ultra-conservatives, particularly in Africa, to whom homosexuality is an abomination, per Leviticus 20:13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads”. It is hard to imagine two views more opposed, yet Justin Welby has somehow to accommodate both to keep the Anglican communion intact. He invited all 27 Anglican primates from across the world to a summit conference in Canterbury this month (January 2016), in order to try to resolve the crisis. The outcome: the  conference voted  to suspend the entire U.S. Episcopal Church over its embrace of same-sex marriage, which they said has caused “deep pain” and “deeper mistrust” within the communion. This in effect directed the  Archbishop of Canterbury to relegate almost 2 million American Episcopalians to non-voting “associate” status within their own communion, so that they won’t be allowed to participate in decision-making on issues of doctrine, and can’t officially represent the Anglican Communion on interfaith commissions.

With such problems, the Church of England needs to be free to get on with tackling them as it sees fit. But exercising such freedom in this case has resulted in taking a position which directly opposes the law of the land: legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in July 2013. To say that this sits uncomfortably with the C of E being the established church,  is an understatement. The C of E must follow its conscience on this matter, as on others, but it is hamstrung by its status as the established church in England, and the concomitant requirement not to espouse views which run counter to the law. That alone looks to be a powerful  argument for disestablishment.

But as with most matters in politics or religion, it is not as simple as that. Part of the context is the position of the reigning monarch as Defender of the Faith, and Her Majesty the Queen’s well-known strongly held personal religious faith.

You might recall that last September, 9th September 2015 to be precise,  Queen Elizabeth II reached a notable milestone as the longest serving monarch, overtaking her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. There were tributes made that day in the UK parliament. David Cameron and Harriet Harman both made well-judged and respectful statements, with a lovely blend of deference and humour. Yes, Harriet Harman was still standing in as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. (It was a few days B.C – before Corbyn).

I enjoyed listening. While one might take the view that hereditary monarchy is in principle a poor system, hard to justify on any objective basis, in practice it seems to me that the results have been very good indeed for the UK, the Commonwealth, and probably the whole world, over the past 60 years or so. Those like me who are uncomfortable with the principle of choosing a head of state on a hereditary basis, find ourselves hard pressed to propose an alternative which would perform better. Much of this success can be attributed to the admirable way the Queen has conducted herself. There have been times during her reign that things have looked rather rocky for the monarchy, but she has always won through, in large part I believe to the enormous esteem and affection which the British public hold for her personally. It will be interesting indeed to observe whether things will continue in that vein when the Queen eventually gives way to her successor.

However, immediately following the tributes made by the party leaders in parliament, the first back-bencher who took the floor was Sir Gerald Howarth, MP for Aldershot. What he chose to do was celebrate the Queen’s position as Fidei Defensor, and extol what he saw as the virtues of the established Church of England, as key to a Christian heritage that “has made Britain what it is today”.

My immediate reaction was dismay– why would he choose to raise a point about the established church, at a time like this? So I had to draw a breath and ponder. On reflection, I concluded that Sir Gerald saw an opportunity to reinforce what he sees as a positive and virtuous association between the monarchy, the Church of England, and the Government; an opportunity to state what he feels is right and proper, and reinforce his view that “the UK is a Christian country”, and the better for it.

Perhaps he didn’t recognise at all that his point was controversial and divisive to many people, and inappropriate for a moment of celebration and recognition of service.

Whatever his motivation, I feel the need to state vigorously another view, and one which I think will resonate with large numbers of the people of this country, and of which Sir Gerald, and others who share his line of thought, would be well advised to take account.

It is necessary here to understand the history and meaning of Fid Def, or Fidei Defensor. I apologise if I’m teaching granny to suck eggs, but precise meaning is important here. Let’s start with some Latin grammar: Sir Gerald Howarth was entirely right as a statement of fact, that “fidei” is singular. 5th declension genitive singular, in fact. So fidei defensor means Defender of the Faith. It is interesting to note why the male form defensor rather than the female form defensatrix is used- this is not an accident, but rather reflects a deliberate depersonalisation of the title – a nuance unavailable in the case of a male monarch.  If the Queen used the grammatically correct form defensatrix, it would be more likely to be seen as reflecting a personal role in defending the Church of England to the exclusion of other faiths. By using “defensor”, the title is honorific, rather than a personal responsibility- recognition of the fact that she is head of a multi-faith and multi-cultural country and Commonwealth. For example, although the Queen is not the head of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian and Calvinist, she worships there when in Scotland. If she were defensatrix, she would be declaring a position to defend the established Church of England, against all comers: Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Methodists, Congregationalism, the Eastern Orthodox Church; against the many non-Christian religions of growing numbers of her subjects, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism; and against those who profess no religion, such as the British Humanist Association. The Queen is wise not to adopt that position. If Sir Gerald’s remarks in Parliament on 9th September 2015 imply that he thinks she should, or indeed does, then I take issue with him.

The term Fidei Defensor has a long and interesting history. It was first granted to Henry VIII in 1521 by Pope Leo X, in recognition on Henry’s opposition to the reformist ideas of Martin Luther.  Leo X was himself an interesting character, and reported to have said “How well we know what a profitable superstition the fable of Christ has been for us and our predecessors” , at a Good Friday banquet in the Vatican in 1514 (though some dispute that the record is reliable) . With Henry’s matrimonial imbroglios, and the break from Rome in 1530 to establish himself as head of the Church of England, the Fidei Defensor title was revoked by Pope Paul III, and Henry was excommunicated from the Church of Rome. In 1544 the title Fidei Defensor was again conferred on Henry VIII, this time by the English Parliament, with the new meaning of defender of the Anglican faith. During The Protectorate (1653–59), the republican heads of state Oliver and Richard Cromwell did not adopt the title Fidei Defensor, but it was  reintroduced after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II,  and has remained in use ever since.

There is little question that the title Fidei Defensor, from 1544 onwards into the first half of the 20th century, has unequivocally meant defender of the Anglican faith. The large majority of UK citizens were God-fearing church-attending Christians, and there was little cause to question the prevailing religious orthodoxy. If there was religious debate, it focused on the schism between the Protestant and Catholic arms of the Christian church, and for most UK citizens, any religion other than Christianity was little known or understood. There was an arrogance of religious rectitude and certainty, as evidenced by the Christian missionary movement, spreading out across the world to convert “savages”, “heathens”, and “infidels” to Christianity – which of course we British all knew was “right”.

The world is very different now. It is a much smaller place, with international travel commonplace. We have instant access to news and pictures from across the world. We can access information on any subject we choose on the internet. We have large scale resettlement of people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. People in the UK no longer feel they have to pretend to subscribe to a worldview they find unconvincing or flawed. It is acceptable to say things like “I am an atheist”, or even “I think that religions are wrong, and do more harm than good”. Such views have been reinforced enormously by the rise in Islamic terrorism: the 14th anniversary of 9/11 passed just two days after The Queen attained her milestone of longest serving monarch.  Prominent scientists and authors express firmly anti-theistic views: examples are the late Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens, and a current mix of well-known authors, philosophers and physicists, such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and A.C. Grayling.   The place of religion as a means of explaining the world and how it works has withered away, as previously accepted religious explanations have been replaced by rational scientific ones. It is notable that there are no examples of the process going in the other direction.

Libby Purves in her Times column [1] a few months ago referred to remarks of Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who said that in many western countries, it was “an act of courage” to admit to any faith. Believers were, they said, routinely assumed to be “naive, unsophisticated and narrow-minded”, and it is difficult, therefore, for them to argue publicly: there is always a discount instinctively applied to anything an affirmed believer says. Those views are acutely observed. When Alastair Campbell intervened in a 2003 interview to prevent the then Prime Minister Tony Blair from answering a question about his Christianity, saying “We don’t do God,” he was recognizing the electoral harm it could do for a UK politician to be associated with religious belief. It is interesting to compare this situation prevailing in the UK with that in USA, where the constitution is secular. In the USA, the opposite is true: anything said by an affirmed atheist is automatically somewhat suspect. There are even some states in the USA where atheists are barred for public office. So we have the apparently contrary situation where religion is less respected and subscribed to in the UK, with its established church, than it is in the USA, where freedom of, and from, religion is constitutionally protected. An argument that we should maintain the established church in the UK, in order to encourage and support religion, flies directly in the face of this evidence.

I now want to look at some data about the prevalence of religiosity in the UK. The following excerpt is from published work of the academic Vexen Crabtree [2]

The religious make-up of the UK is diverse, complex and multicultural. The 2011 Census shows that minority and alternative religions are steadily growing, as is Islam. Less than half of the British people believe in a God, and from 2009 the annual British Social Attitudes results has revealed that over 50% of us say we’re not religious. A 2014 YouGov poll saw 77% of the British public say they’re not very, or not at all, religious. Comprehensive professional research in 2006, by Tearfund, found that two thirds (66%, or 32.2 million people) in the UK have no connection with any religion or church.

However people continue to put down what they think is their “official” religion on official forms. As a result of this Census Effect in the 2011 National Census, 59.3% of us put their religion down as “Christian”. Half of those who tell pollsters they have no religion nevertheless put one down on the 2011 Census. Even despite this, Christian numbers are substantially down from the 2001 figure of 72%. Religion in Britain has suffered an immense general decline since the 1950s. Between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday. Four in five Britons want religion to be private, not public, and have no place in politics. All indicators show a continued secularization of British society, in line with other European countries such as France.

When Sir Gerald Howarth MP made his remarks about Fidei Defensor in parliament last September, he was not reflecting the views of the wider British public. If he had been arguing from a point of view of his personal faith, then he is entirely free to hold whatever religious views he chooses. If he were arguing from a point of view of tradition, then there is a clear argument to be made that the UK’s development, governance, and institutions over the centuries have indeed been inextricably linked to religion, in particular, Christianity. It is entirely proper to point this out, but it not proper to conclude that this “tradition” must automatically be carried forward into the future. It is also arguable that many aspects of the “tradition” are not wholly admirable: the slave trade, the brutal treatment of religious heretics, the burning of “witches”, religious crusades, and colonial exploitation are some examples. No-one would claim that this is representative of the Christian church in the UK today, thankfully, but if one is to invoke tradition and history as a justification, one must address the whole picture.

However, Sir Gerald did not choose to argue from personal faith, nor from the point of view of tradition. He chose to cite Fidei Defensor , as a basis for saying that Britain is a Christian country, and that we all should get on with accepting that and conforming to the implications. Yet, as I have just demonstrated, Britain is far from being a country of even majority Christian faith. With respect to the established church,  the evidence shows that Church of England attendance is waning almost to insignificance in the UK, with less than 2% of the adult population of England attending a Church of England service on an average Sunday  [3]. Whether one celebrates or deplores such a trend, the argument for maintaining the established status of the Church of England is tenuous at best. When an MP uses it in parliament to justify the notion that Britain’s government should be conducted according to a Christian theocratic  ideal, then it is high time for us to address  disestablishment .

There is more “political form” using the fact that we have an established church as an argument for trying to impose a Christian view on British society, whether it wants it or not. When in April 2014, Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, called on “militant atheists” to “stop imposing ‘politically correct intolerance’ on UK’s Christians”,  he said they should accept that Britain is a Christian country and “get over it”.  He said, and I quote, “I’ve stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban parish councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.”   What Mr Pickles failed to comprehend or acknowledge is that a parish council is a tier of local government, a civil local authority, which is secular: there is no requirement for elected councillors to adhere to any religion. Parish councils comprise members from all sections of society, and of any and all religious views. Holding Christian prayers at the start of council meetings would be divisive, and highly likely to be unacceptable to parish councillors of other faiths, or to atheists. It would in fact be an imposition of “militant Christianity” on a secular body.  It was Mr Pickles, not atheists, who was being intolerant here.  Religious people should be free to follow their religion unfettered, in their own time, but in a liberal democracy it is not acceptable for them to try to insist that people of other faiths, or none, should be constrained to follow it too.

Around the same time as The Queen achieved her milestone as the longest serving monarch, another religious controversy was unfolding across the pond: the Kim Davis affair in Kentucky, USA. If you were  hiding under a rock at the time and don’t know what this was about, I’ll explain briefly. The lady in question is an elected official, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, and responsible inter alia for issuing marriage licences. She had recently converted to Christianity, and announced that her faith forbade her from issuing marriage licences to same sex couples; she said  that “God’s authority” sits above the law of the land. She was instructed by a judge to fulfil her duties. She refused, and being an elected official, couldn’t be sacked; she was found in contempt of court, and jailed. Kim Davis has an extremely chequered personal history, with multiple divorces and marriages of her own, and so could be accused of religious hypocrisy. More importantly, what she was demanding was in effect the right to declare, by personal edict, that Rowan County, Kentucky, is a mini-theocracy not beholden to the laws of the land, but to the religious views of Kim Davis. Despite her clearly illegal action, the case became a cause célèbre for the US Conservative religious right, being held up as an example of “oppression” of Christian religious freedom. Of course, it is not. It is an example of an attempt to impose one person’s religious views on other people, so denying them freedoms and rights to which they are entitled by law.

This has some redolence with Eric Pickles’ view that parish councils should be able to insist on Christian prayers at the start of their meetings, irrespective of the views of non-Christian council members. I note the reference in Mr Pickles’ remarks “We have an established church. Get over it“. If ever we needed a clear argument for disestablishing the Church, this is it.

Disestablishment is desirable – as I have argued, having an established church is not effective in any way as a support to Christian religiosity or observance. If one deplores the decline of Christianity in the UK, as many will do, the monarch’s title Fidei Defensor is not helping the case. It is on the other hand potentially very divisive, in what is now very clearly predominantly not a Christian country.

If disestablishment is a step too difficult in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II, or of too low a priority, then a compromise is possible. It is less than ideal for the many atheists and humanists amongst us, but Charles, Prince of Wales, the present heir apparent, has long ago expressed a preference to change the style and the spirit should he succeed to the throne as expected. He commented in 1994, “I personally would rather see my future role as Defender of Faith, not the Faith”. Fiderum Defensor, perhaps?

 

References

1             “Queen shows Isis the true power of faith” Libby Purves, Times Opinion, 7 September 2015 http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/libbypurves/article4549233.ece

2              “Religion in the UK: Diversity, Trends, and Decline, Vexen Crabtree http://www.vexen.co.uk/UK/religion.html

3              Just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2586596/Just-800-000-worshipers-attend-Church-England-service-average-Sunday.html#ixzz3y6PRI8pO
 

 

 

USA a “Christian Country”: is God in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights?

Dollar Bill In God We Trust

Is God in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights? The short answer is no, neither God or Jesus are mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, nor in the Bill of Rights. Why then is it so often assumed that the Constitution of the USA says it’s a Christian country?

The obvious reason is that the words “under God” are in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the words “In God we Trust” appear on the dollar bill. Ergo, God must be built into the Constitution or the Bill of Rights,  somewhere.

So it’s a puzzling fact that there’s no mention. There are of course a lot of statements from the “Christian Right” that would have you think otherwise. President George W Bush seemed to be of that view, when he said “I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

In fact, Article VI Section (3) of the U.S. Constitution is the only reference to religion in the original Constitution.  It says “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution: but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.” The framers of the Constitution were saying said that there would be no test or requirement with reference to one’s religion in order to hold office – whether  Catholic,  Protestant, or of any other religious affiliation (Christian or otherwise), or of no religion at all.

So what happened to move public opinion, and often legislative practice,  away from this secular intent? How did the USA arrive at  a Pledge of Allegiance which says “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” ?

It’s worth noting that the Pledge of Allegiance post-dates the Constitution by a long way. It was written in August 1892 by a socialist minister (Hmm, “socialist” – isn’t that a dirty word to the Christian right in the USA? ) called Francis Bellamy, and originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country. In its original form it read:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added, and it now read: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

However, in the environment of the cold war, and the perceived threat at that time to America from communism,  President Eisenhower in 1954 encouraged Congress to add “under God,” creating the form of words  which is used today. The wording is latched on to exclusively by the majority Christians, who seek to use the words as affirmation that the US has a Christian constitution – the “God” referred to is assumed to be the Christian God. But those who try this on are actually out of step with the U.S. Constitution. The first amendment of the Bill of Rights says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof: …”

The Supreme Court has previously said that no one shall be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which of course is a correct legal ruling. But that is a long way out of step with majority US public opinion: obloquy and ostracism falls on anyone who refuses.  It is in fact a form of religious discrimination and bigotry. If you’re a Christian, you’ll probably say that’s nonsense. If you belong to any other religion, or are an atheist, you might well take a different view. The problem is that almost all religiously devout people are utterly convinced of the rightness and truth of their own religion, and the wrongness of all the others. How would you feel if the dollar bill displayed “in Allah we Trust”, or the Pledge of Allegiance said “one nation, under Shiva, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all “? I expect you’d think that was an outrage – of course the USA is a Christian country, isn’t it? Always has been. Other religions belong in other countries, where people don’t have access to  the “religious truth” we enjoy; we shouldn’t allow such people to come into the USA and spread their misguided and sometimes evil doctrines. If you do think that way,  have you ever paused to ask yourself why?

In the USA, the best efforts of the founding fathers to create a free and secular country have been largely hijacked by Christianity. The religious views of non-Christians are relegated, and regarded as “alien”. It shows that America has a long way to go to eliminate religious intolerance; in fact, there are many who say things should be pushed hard in the other direction, with increased intolerance of non-Christian views – in effect, towards the establishment of a Christian theocracy. The recent pronouncement of Republican would-be presidential candidate Donald Trump about Muslims has served to inflame the climate of suspicion and fear – an outcome which harms people on all sides and persuasions.

The right answer is to go back to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and read what they actually say.

If you’re a Christian, it’s absolutely fine that you are.  You have every right to follow whatever belief system you prefer – as guaranteed by the Constitution. But what you don’t have the right to do is insist that everyone else follows the same religion as you, that children are taught a Christian world view in school, or that legislation should discriminate in favour of Christianity or against any other belief system.

If you think that’s wrong, you need to make a case why, rather than just assert or assume.

 

We were once the fierce and terrible zealots but now have only shallow gods

Some comments on an article by Andrew Marr (Sunday Times, Published: 27 December 2015)

My comments are in blue bold italics. The original article is in plain text.

andrew marr

We are at war in Syria. And one of the terrible things about wars is that they shrivel the imagination: warring peoples must caricature and exaggerate the idiocy and misdeeds of their enemies, while pumping their own virtues. Cool analysis chokes in the sand. This is not a bad moment, then, to ask what the West can learn from its Islamist enemies.

Cue bulging HM Bateman eyes; fanning of hot cheeks; flutterings of empurpled outrage. Learn from the fanatics? Learn from the fascist “death cult”? Jeepers, there must be something in this bloody paper about Charles Dickens and snow . . .

Well, to be clear, there are plenty of things we don’t need to learn from the self-described Islamic State. We don’t need to learn about roasting captives alive, or beheading the innocent, or the oppression of women, or the fanatical pursuit of religious orthodoxy, or the public murder of homosexuals, or obedient grovelling to demented old men.

We don’t need to learn because we did it all ourselves just a few centuries ago. Yes, and an important point, often ignored by Christians on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, whose model of Christianity is one of benign modernity: goodwill to all men, righteous and high moral standards, and tolerance; a hugely civilizing influence on our world, without which “we’d be savages”.

Do you know why women in Tudor times were burnt at the stake? Because the alternative punishment — disembowelling and hacking apart while still alive — required the victim to be naked and this, not the disembowelling, was ruled unseemly for women. It sounds just the kind of mad thing they’d be debating in the coffee houses of Raqqa.

In medieval France, the punishment for homosexuals was, for the first offence, castration, which clearly didn’t work since it was to be followed for later offences by dismemberment and then burning to death. I’d hope this is a far cry from the attitudes which prevail amongst Christians in the 21st century western developed world, but you don’t have to travel too far, even in 2015, to find Christians who support the death penalty for homosexuality.

We did it all — not just the British, but across Europe. Everything from public murder on the basis of small textual differences to sectarian warfare, the slaughter of “the wrong” civilians and state terror justified in the name of love and peace belongs first to the Christian wars of the early modern period. (an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless)

Like the Muslim version now, those wars provoked vast, history-changing migrations of desperate refugees. These transformed Britain for the better, because we got the Huguenots with their technical and mercantile skills; and on a rather larger scale, it provoked the first great European migration to North America, leading eventually to Donald Trump. (I suspect Andrew’s implication here is that this perhaps wasn’t universally a good thing).

It sometimes seems to me that Britons of the 21st century are being attacked not by something “out there” but by our earlier selves, the angriest Scots and English of the 17th century — as if, ghostlike, our own persecuting, fanatical forebears had returned to modern streets. We went through the Enlightenment, of course, but in key ways this is less a war between parts of the Middle East and parts of the West than a war between 2015 and, say, 1536 (the year William Tyndale went to the stake).

Which is where the learning might come in handy. What is the possible appeal of a return to the values of what most of us would consider the moral Dark Ages? Why do relatively well-educated, often articulate people brought up in the West today fall under the spell of clerics who resemble Luther at his most furious, or John Knox having a spectacularly bad afternoon?

When I was endeavouring to tell the story of the British through our poetry, again and again it struck me that the biggest gap between the British today and the previous thousand years or so was religious belief. For those of us who are atheist, agnostic or merely watery believers, it’s impossible to cross the boundary to understand literal belief. Shakespeare, Donne, Dunbar, Herbert and Milton all took for granted that there was heaven and hell, and that our brief spell on this damp, seasonal, difficult but delightful territory was only one episode in a much larger and more meaningful story.

Surely, that’s why people killed each other and burnt each other to death over what seemed to us to be the vanity of small differences. If you really believe it’s between everlasting damnation and eternal bliss, the pain of a knife can come to seem almost trivial. If the devil’s children are going to burn forever, the difference between cutting their heads off in their forties and allowing them to die of dementia four decades later isn’t existential. (Yes! This paragraph, and the preceding one, bear re-reading, and taking in the implications).

Go back to the poets, however, and you see again what enchanted, brightly coloured, highly dramatic, imaginative lives they led. For a medieval Christian, everything had meaning — plants and trees had symbolic meanings; the lives of animals told exemplary stories; saints haunted the wildwood; and the turning year was itself a daily parable of death and resurrection.

Our culture is often glibly described as essentially Christian. It really isn’t, not in any serious sense. I’m with you here, Andrew, though there is a sense in which our UK culture is Christian, and that’s in the long, tortuous, and often painful path we had to tread to reach this “comfort zone” of largely secular democracy. We have our sanitized and cherry-picked aspects of “nice” Christianity scattered about us, giving us a reference point to a past which was never really as we’d like to imagine it was. We have our cathedrals, the vicarage by the village green, the local stone church spire, the Christian pomp and pageantry of royal occasions, bishops in the House of Lords, Christmas carols, and Easter eggs. We have church marriages, funerals and Christenings and Godparents, often involving people who never see the inside of a church on any other occasion. We have “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4. We have a monarch who heads an established church, and FD (for Fidei Defensor) on our coins (though, interestingly enough, no religious reference on our banknotes, in contrast to “In God We Trust” on the banknotes of the constitutionally secular USA. Indeed, a portrait of Charles Darwin adorns our £10 note, which would probably be an unacceptable affront were it to appear on a dollar bill, in the land of anti-science and Young Earth Creationism).  We have been freed from that enchanted world and scattered out into an almost wholly material civilisation, a city centre in which the only thing left standing is the market. Individually, we aren’t going anywhere except the “care homes” that are anything but homes. Well, OK, Andrew, but that’s a rather bleak analysis, drawing a false dichotomy between empty consumerism and materialism – essentially life without purpose – on the one hand, and religious faith on the other. I’ll come back to this key point at the end.

It’s too thin gruel. Material satisfaction matters. A lot. If you are lucky enough to be close to the top of the tree, then ever-better skiing holidays, larger second homes, whatever takes your fancy . . . well, life’s pretty good. But as Niall Ferguson pointed out on these pages, even white, male, middle-class Americans are going through a period of angry disillusion. And for the vast numbers of people for whom material improvement is small-scale, slow in coming and never as lavish as advertised, then the gruel is cruel.

Islamism can seem to offer a bigger, more dramatic, more meaningful narrative. We simply see the blood and screaming. They see the world throwing up brighter colours and harsher, desert shadows. This excitement is what, to many, the Reformation, and indeed the Counter-Reformation, must have brought. But this is coming at us just as we in the West are scrabbling around for new stories that make more sense than frantic consumption — and mostly, failing. Mostly? There’s the rub.

Some will say, particularly at Christmas, that an obvious answer is to return to our own Christian heritage. Yet for millions of us, putting the faith genie back in the bottle seems impossible: you can’t unwrite Darwin, you can’t unthink Einstein or forget Galileo. Whoa, Andrew. Millions of us? Maybe, but your implication is that the Theory of Evolution (ToE), or the physics of relativity, or a non-earth-centric solar system are insights which have chipped away at a religious faith which would have otherwise remained robust. While it is true that they, in particular the ToE, are in direct conflict with the Christian fundamentalist belief in the literal truth of the Genesis creation story,  this has led to a perverse flourishing of anti-science apologetics, particularly in the USA, and a growth in Young Earth Creationism. About 40% of the adult population of the USA reject the ToE, and adhere instead to a Christian fundamentalism.

In fact, it is arguable that advances in scientific knowledge and understanding, though influential, are not the main factor leading to erosion of religious faith in the UK. There are devout Christians who manage to  reconcile their faith with modern scientific knowledge: our Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is one such example. And for the Roman Catholic Church, the Theory of Evolution has been “accepted” since 1950, with the work of Pope Pius XII. I would argue that the decline in Christian faith observed in the UK is more to do with a cultural shift towards openness and questioning and the valuing of evidence, a widening appreciation of world religions and their essential incompatibility, and a legitimisation of a non-religious worldview, as prominent authors, scientists, and broadcasters have been free to present their views, and have not been shy in doing so.  The Christian establishment has been left without much recourse, in a culture where scientific endeavour and rational assessment of evidence are valued above traditional views and religious faith, which, by definition, is “belief without evidence”.

Whatever analysis is most accurate, though, doesn’t affect your premise: return to a predominance of Christian faith is not a possibility in the UK. The tide is flowing inexorably in the other direction, as evidenced by pretty much every piece of opinion research, trends in church attendances, and by the data in our national census.

Meanwhile, our wonderful science races ahead in blinkers. It doesn’t stop to look around, explain itself or cheer us up. There are rare examples, such as Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow and The Magic of Reality, but he’s a relatively lonely voice. Thankfully not so rare: Lawrence Krauss, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking all work (or worked) to bring science to the “man on the Clapham omnibus”. So too do Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, and that personal hero of mine, David Attenborough, in the world of popular TV documentary.  So millions turn to daft fantasy — turning the Star Wars films into a digitally enhanced Manichaean belief system. Or we cast around for conspiracy theories and extreme politics to explain the world. Yes, some indeed do, but the nutters are relatively few in number.

Eventually, Chewbacca and Chomsky join hands; Darth Vader and the neoliberal Zionist Illuminati clunk around in the shadows.

It’s funny — except that we really are at war. With all its revolting brutality, fascist Islamism knows the blind spots and weaknesses in western culture. There is a sleazy, materialistic shallowness about it that we don’t much enjoy, either. Those bastards really are medieval — that’s the point — but they have found us out. A sleazy, materialistic shallowness? If that were all we had, then yes, we’d have been “found out”, rather as you say. But it’s not all we have – far from it.

An atheist doesn’t base his decisions on some promise of deferred benefit in an afterlife, or some threat of damnation, or on a set of rules written down a couple of thousand years ago, when scientific knowledge was scant by today’s standards. Since the atheist sees such notions as illusory, religion cannot provide “purpose”; rather, it encourages people not to question, but to accept religious dogma instead of striving to better understand the world.

But, and this is the key point, atheism is not synonymous with materialism. For some, it’s true, the pursuit of material wealth and “success” has become an end in itself, but for atheists of a humanistic approach, the universe is full of awe and wonder. The pursuit of knowledge, whether for its own sake, or for the advancement of the human condition, is an inherent good which provides joy, purpose, and pleasure. We also derive joy, purpose and pleasure from helping our fellow human beings, and from our relationships with those we love. This is not to try to claim any special merit or moral high ground – it is more a description of the human condition. A cliché perhaps, but the best things in life cannot be bought, or measured in financial terms. In the end, that is the common ground between the devout and the atheist.

Holy Willie’s Prayer

This is written in lowland Scots dialect, so it’s a bit of a struggle to get at the meaning, especially if you’re not a Scot. It is well worth the effort, though. It was written around 1785, but it captures elegantly the bigotry and hypocrisy exhibited by the religious “holier-than-thou” down the ages. It applies just as much today as it did 230 years ago when it was penned. It reveals that one’s exasperation with religious bigotry and oppression is not just a feature of our modern age. Even in times when Christianity in our western world was near universal, and expressing dissent was a dangerous thing, there were brave people like Robert Burns prepared to ridicule.

 The poem attacks  the bigoted and hypocritical attitude of members of the church (or “Kirk”) by recounting  a fictional self-justifying prayer of an actual person whom Burns knew, an elder of the Kirk, Holy Willie. In the prayer, Holy Willie displays breath-taking hypocrisy, with a complete absence of irony,  by justifying his own misdeeds and asking God’s forbearance and support, while at the same time asking God to judge harshly and punish mercilessly his fellow transgressors. Where have we seen that before?  But Burns is making a wider point than merely the hypocrisy of sanctimonious individuals; in effect the poem is a broadside against the hypocritical Calvinist theology upon which the Kirk was  based (and still is today).

You’ll even find an allusion to “young earth creationism” in verse 3 (“Six thousand years ‘ere my creation”).

Here we go – enjoy!

Holy Willie’s Prayer

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell, 
As it pleases best Thysel', 
Sends aen to Heaven an' ten to Hell, 
For Thy glory, 
And no for onie guid or ill 
They've done afore Thee!
I bless and praise Thy matchless might, 
When thousands Thou hast left in night, 
That I am here afore Thy sight, 
For gifts an' grace 
A burning and a shining light 
To a' this place.
What was I, or my generation, 
That I should get sic exaltation? 
I wha deserv'd most just damnation 
For broken laws, 
Six thousand years 'ere my creation, 
Thro' Adam's cause.
When from my mither's womb I fell,  
Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell, 
To gnash my gums, and weep and wail, 
In burnin lakes, 
Where damned devils roar and yell, 
Chain'd to their stakes.
Yet I am here a chosen sample, 
To show thy grace is great and ample; 
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple, 
Strong as a rock, 
A guide, a buckler, and example, 
To a' Thy flock.
O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear, 
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear, 
An' singing here, an' dancin there, 
Wi' great and sma'; 
For I am keepit by Thy fear 
Free frae them a'.
But yet, O Lord! confess I must, 
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust: 
An' sometimes, too, in worldly trust, 
Vile self gets in; 
But Thou remembers we are dust, 
Defil'd wi' sin.
O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg 
Thy pardon I sincerely beg; 
O may't ne'er be a livin' plague 
To my dishonour, 
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg 
Again upon her.
Besides, I farther maun avow, 
Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow - 
But Lord, that Friday I was fou, 
When I cam near her; 
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true 
Wad never steer her.
Maybe Thou lets this fleshly thorn 
Buffet Thy servant e'en and morn, 
Lest he owre proud and high shou'd turn, 
That he's sae gifted: 
If sae, Thy han' maun e'en be borne, 
Until Thou lift it.
Lord, bless Thy chosen in this place, 
For here Thou has a chosen race! 
But God confound there stuborn face, 
An' blast their name, 
Wha brings Thy elders to disgrace 
An' open shame.
Lord, mind Gaw'n Hamilton's deserts; 
He drinks, an' swears, an' plays at cartes, 
Yet has sae mony takin arts, 
Wi' great an' sma', 
Frae God's ain priest the people's hearts 
He steals awa'.
And when we chasten'd him therefore, 
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore, 
And set the world in a roar 
O' laughing at us; 
Curse Thou his basket and his store, 
Kail an' potatoes.
Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray'r, 
Against that Presbyt'ry o' Ayr; 
Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare 
Upo' their heads; 
Lord visit them, an' dinna spare, 
For their misdeeds.
O Lord my God! that glib-tongu'd Aitken, 
My vera heart an' flesh are quakin, 
To think how we stood sweatin, shakin, 
An' pish'd wi' dread, 
While he, wi' hingin lip an' snakin, 
Held up his head.
Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him, 
Lord, visit them wha did employ him, 
And pass not in Thy mercy by them, 
Nor hear their pray'r, 
But for Thy people's sake destroy them, 
An' dinna spare.
But, Lord, remember me an' mine 
Wi' mercies temporal and divine, 
That I for grace an' gear may shine, 
Excell'd by nane, 
And a' the glory shall be Thine, 
Amen, Amen!

Militant atheism? A view from Lawrence Krauss

Every so often, I come across an article which expresses a view in such an eloquent and convincing way, I read it and re-read it, and think, yes, this is the clarity of thought I want to aspire to. I came across just such an article today, published in

New Yorker page head

I want to record it, and quote from it in the future. So I have uploaded the whole thing verbatim. The only mods I’ve made are to emphasise a couple of parts in bold italics. Here it is. I hope you get as much from it as I did.

September 8, 2015

All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists*

By Lawrence M. Krauss

*Editorial choice of title? Not necessarily the title which Lawrence Krauss might have chosen for his article. It’s more about standing up for science, and not being ashamed of the label “militant atheist” if people want to use it.

As a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist.” Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?

I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. (She was released earlier today.) Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties,” Paul said, on CNN.

The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. (My bold italics) That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe, but what they do.

In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even—in the case of Hobby Lobby—corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. (The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.

The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.

In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. (My bold italics) No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course, and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems. Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world. Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with pre-existing religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine. It’s a strange inconsistency, since scientists often happily disagree with other kinds of beliefs. Astronomers have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrologists, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims. Doctors have no problem condemning the actions of anti-vaccine activists who endanger children. And yet, for reasons of decorum, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science. When they do so, they are being condescending at best, and hypocritical at worst.

This reticence can have significant consequences. Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?

Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth,” is an essential part of living in a free country.

I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—which endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.

Atheism has killed millions!

Now then, now then. It seems we can’t have any discussion about atheism / theism without mentioning Hitler. There’s an idea (sometimes referred to as Godwin’s law) in Internet discussion forums that once “The Hitler Card” is played, the thread is finished, and whoever mentioned Hitler/the Nazis has automatically lost, whatever debate was in progress.

Amusing or irritating, enlightening a debate or derailing it, the Hitler card does get played rather a lot, and usually there is some sort of tennis match with one side citing evidence that Hitler was a Christian, and the other that he was really an atheist. There is actually quite a lot of evidence to show the former, including quotes from his speeches, or even directly from Mein Kampf : “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

Actually, this doesn’t really matter, in the sense that it doesn’t impinge at all on the central point which many theists want to make, which is that atheism has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, through the tyranny of atheists acting out their atheist principles, or, in short, atheism leads to genocide.

The point I want to argue here is not whether Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan or any other leaders, responsible for unspeakable massacres in our human history, were atheists or not. It is a point about causation.

It is hard to argue that not believing in something could cause you to do anything. Does not believing Bigfoot is real cause you to go out raping and pillaging? Does lack of belief in Thor or Poseidon cause Londoners to go on murder sprees every weekend? Of course not. But the theist might respond that we are inherently inclined to do bad things, and only the force of religious belief is restraining us: we take moral guidance from our religion, and behave well as a result. Or, we are inhibited by fear of God’s judgement from behaving as we otherwise would. The Christian idea that we are all born “sinners”, and need to follow Jesus to be saved from our base instincts, is an assertion often made by those adhering to the Christian faith. I address just such a notion in my post “Without God, there can be no morality (subtext: atheists are immoral/ evil/ untrustworthy)”. I show that it does not stand up. If you want to take issue with that, please read my post and offer your arguments against.

Let’s look at the point about causation in some more detail. It is true that Stalin, for example, led a murderous regime while being an avowed atheist: one of many examples that one could cite of atheists killing people. However, if one is seeking to use the Stalin example to argue that atheism leads to genocide, one must establish that Stalin killed people because he was an atheist. It is not hard to establish association: Stalin was an atheist, and Stalin was responsible for mass murder. But association is not the same thing as causation.

There is an amusing website http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations which shows some statistically high correlations between apparently unrelated phenomena. Here’s one example

spurious correlation

It would be hard to make the case that one of these parameters caused the other – that would be silly. But where we feel intuitively that there might be a connection, and where causation would support our point of view, we are not slow to use statistics to “prove” our case. We as humans are expert at seeing patterns and relationships between events. It is part of how we have developed, through evolutionary biology, to survive as a species: it is a more effective survival strategy to see patterns everywhere around, even if it means sometimes thinking there’s one there when there isn’t, than to fail to see a pattern when there is. That, for example, is precisely why we are prone to superstition.

Returning to the theist argument, we could also draw an association between Christianity, and a large number of seriously bad actions over the centuries. However, theists will offer various reasons why these people weren’t “real” Christians (the “No True Scotsman” fallacy), while at the same time arguing that atheism merely being associated with Stalin is sufficient for atheism to be taken as the cause of his actions.

In some ways, Stalin and Hitler reveal remarkable similarities. They were both dictators, both bent on maximizing their political power. A problem faced by any would-be dictator is how to deal effectively with opposition, which would usually include the religious establishment. One strategy is to co-opt it; another is to destroy it ruthlessly. It can be argued that both Stalin and Hitler adopted both approaches as was expedient at the time. Hitler probably wasn’t a devout believer, but he sometimes espoused and used Christianity overtly, for his own purposes. Stalin imposed an atheistic regime, yet later rehabilitated the Russian Orthodox Church, specifically to grow patriotic support for his war effort.

When considering the history of the world’s most egregious murderous regimes, sorting them into theistic and non-theistic does not provide a clear distinction; sorting them into totalitarian and non-totalitarian is much more useful. Murderous regimes are heavily skewed towards totalitarianism.

When you claim there is a God, I don’t believe you” is not totalitarian. Neither is “I see no evidence for the existence of any gods, and until such evidence is presented, I prefer to live my life on the assumption that there are none”. However, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” certainly is totalitarian.

Totalitarianism is all about absolute power. Lord Acton was spot on when he said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” George Orwell captured the concept elegantly in “Animal Farm”. If by chance you haven’t read it, do so.

And if you’re in a debate about religion v atheism, please don’t try the old chestnut that “atheism” or “atheist ideology” has killed millions. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God or gods. It has no creed, no ideology. Trying to find such an ideology is a bit like trying to find The Rules of Not Playing Golf, or trying to join a club of people whose common interest is Not Collecting Stamps.

Now, it’s undeniable that some tyrants and despots who were responsible for the death of millions of people were atheists,  and religious people sometimes argue, in order to show the supposed evils of atheism, that they acted out of atheistic zealotry. Such tyrants might have been motivated in part by some idealistic vision of a society they sought to create, and might have seen existing religious observance in the territory they sought to dominate  as an obstacle to their vision of being the absolute ruler,  (note the key distinction between that, and the notion of an “atheist ideology”), but it is very hard to sustain a view that “stamping out religion” per se would be a significant motivating factor.  The reality is much more a complex mix of power, ego (seeking to impose their vision, demanding a position of absolute personal authority), expansionism,  political one-upmanship against rivals,  pre-emptive attack against a perceived threat, tribalism, and/or some economic /strategic factors.

We can make a similar argument in reverse against those atheists who would seek to show the “evils of religion” by arguing that religious tyrants have killed millions out of religious zealotry. Religion might or might not have been a part of the motivation of such tyrants, but it’s unlikely to be as simple as that. The real picture  is much more probably a complex mix of power, ego, expansionism, religious idealism (seeking to convert/ spread the word),  political one-upmanship against rivals,  pre-emptive attack against a perceived threat, tribalism, and/or some economic /strategic factors – yes, much the same list. But in the case of religious tyranny, there is another factor – identification  with any particular religion, or sect within a religion,  is a “badge of difference”, which can and does provide a motivation or excuse to demonise those of other religious persuasion, and justify  attempts to eliminate or even exterminate. Examples are legion: the hijacking of “Christian” identity was part of the holocaust against the Jews; we saw the horrors of Bosnian genocide in the 1990’s; and sectarian violence between branches of Islam has largely driven the disaster we see today across much of the middle east.

 Religion has undeniably had a part to play in a great deal of human conflict, but if you want to live in a healthy and happy society, then it’s a good idea to work against totalitarianism wherever you find it, whether it has a religious label or not.

 

 

 

 

 

What about the origin of the universe – doesn’t that need God?

Wow! That’s a bit pretentious, isn’t it, trying to comment about such a huge question? I know I’m not going to be able to add anything to the debate, in terms of insights, but that’s not really what this post is about. Rather, it’s my attempt to set out where the debate lines are drawn, and to respond to the sort of claims I read most days on social media, from the “Must be God” battalions.

It seems intuitive that the universe (something) cannot come from nothing. While this is not necessarily so 7, we can pursue a line of thought on the basis that it is the case. Most physicists now regard the beginning of the universe to have occurred in a “big bang” around 13.8 billion years ago. So what pre-condition or cause existed to allow the big bang to occur?

It is often claimed by theists that the only possible explanation is God, therefore God exists- the so-called first cause argument. There are some problems with this claim. The first is the obvious one of infinite regression. On the premise that everything needs a pre-condition or cause in order to come into existence (the premise which theists rely on for the assertion that God must have been the cause), what was the cause or origin of God? The response is usually something along the lines of God always existed, or He exists outside of space and time. In other words, the rules of physics apply except in the case of God, who gets a unique and arbitrary exemption. This sounds to me like another way of saying “Can’t explain, so I’m going to define the explanation to be outside of our scope to explain”. In other words, it’s supernatural, or magic.

Even if we go along with this line of thinking, we encounter the next problem: defining the characteristics of God. If the only thing we can say about God, from the argument of first cause, is that He is the cause or creator of the universe, then the concept of God does not require any meaning beyond just that. In other words, “God” in this sense could just be a phenomenon of physics. A soon as we start to invoke attributes to this concept, such as a being who is omniscient and knows about and is interested in the lives of individual people, or a being whose involvement was confined to setting up the laws and preconditions of the universe, or a being who engaged himself in the specifics of design of the universe and everything in it, or whatever, we are anthropomorphising the concept, and attaching whatever attributes we want to in an arbitrary way, without the support of any evidence. Therefore the statement “God must exist, in order for the universe to be created” is actually saying no more than a precondition or cause for the universe must have existed, and I’m choosing to call that “God”.

A common objection to this point is to claim that the conditions of the universe we observe are so special and unlikely to have occurred or developed by chance, that not only must there have been a “God” who caused our universe to come into being, but that this “God” must have applied deliberate design intent. This is sometimes called the “fine tuning” argument – if any of the constants in physics had been even a tiny amount different from its actual value, our universe, and life on earth, would not have been able to exist. The fallacy of this argument can be hard for some to accept, as the refutation is somewhat counter-intuitive. Consider the existence of any one individual who exists. That person is known to exist, so the chances of his existence are 100%. However, if one considers the chances of that particular person coming into existence, viewed from even a few generations before, they are infinitesimally small: one particular sperm, of many millions, fertilised one particular egg, for each and every ancestor. If any one of those occurrences had been slightly different, the specific person would not exist. The same applies to the universe that we observe- it exists, so the chances of it existing are 100%. In other words, the properties of our universe are self-selected by the fact that we exist. If our universe were different, we wouldn’t be here; but we are here, so it wasn’t different. The required physical constants and properties of our universe are inevitable. It must have been like that, or we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

Finally, the atheist’s objection to the first cause argument is that it is simply a “God of the gaps”: because science hasn’t got a demonstrable answer, backed with empirical evidence, the answer must be “God”. Theists might feel rather confident about this “gap”, since the problem of the origin of the universe appears to be so difficult and not amenable to resolution by scientific method. We’ll see, perhaps not in my lifetime, but we’ll see.

 

 

 

Reference 

7 “A Universe from Nothing”, Lawrence M Krauss, 2012.

How did first life come to be, if there is no God?

Before I launch into this vexed issue, I need to dispose of one point about the origin of life and its relationship to the Theory of Evolution. One charge sometimes made against the ToE, in an attempt to discredit it, is that is doesn’t explain how life started in the first place. Well, no, it doesn’t. Nor does it tell you how to fill in your tax return. It never set out to do so. Anyone who attempts properly to understand what the ToE is about will quickly realise that it addresses the origin of species, and how the tree of life followed from the earliest life forms – not how the earliest life forms arose. This is not a weakness of the Theory of Evolution; it is a description of the scope of the Theory of Evolution. If you use this “argument” in debate about Evolution, all you will be revealing is your ignorance of what the ToE is actually about.

However, the very valid and fundamentally important question remains: how did life on earth start? The beautiful image above, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cannot fail to impress – like Handel’s magnificent oratorio The Messiah, man has created inspirational wonders which grab our emotions. The atheist is just as touched by such things as the devout. But the atheist will always return, in the cold light of day, to the sphere of logic and evidence. Here, a charge often made against a non-theistic viewpoint is that life, even in the simplest life forms, is irreducibly complex, and so could not have sprung into existence by chance chemistry. It required design and intervention, by a complex being: God.

The topic is usually described in terms of abiogenesis, a process by which a living organism arises naturally from non-living matter. No example of abiogenesis has yet been scientifically proven, though several plausible hypotheses exist. Does the lack of an empirically proven example of abiogenesis prove that none could have existed, and that life on earth could not have arisen in that way?

It would seem that many theists would want to say yes, but this is a “God of the Gaps” argument. If anything has not yet been fully resolved by scientific explanation, then the answer must be “God did it”. Over time, the range of issues which science has not explained has narrowed, so there are fewer and fewer “gaps” for religion to fill. But this experience doesn’t prevent the theist using it for whatever “gaps” remain. It is evident that scientific endeavour continues all the time: science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop. To the atheist, the right approach to an area which is not understood fully is to work to understand it better, not to fill in the gaps by making stuff up, or to adopt supernatural explanations from ancient religious texts. The theistic view, that one’s religion / holy book provides all the answers, essentially unchanged since written down centuries ago, looks perverse to the atheist, and likely to close down the search for greater knowledge rather than encourage it.

However, a key objection to the theistic view of the origin of life is the matter of complexity. If one argues that life is too complex to have arisen spontaneously, and needed a “designer”, then by definition the designer would need to be complex. So how did the designer arise? Who designed the designer? This is circular reasoning, and requires the “designer” to be exempt from the very requirements that the theistic view invokes, to claim that life had to be designed in the first place. Therefore it takes the understanding of the origin of life no further forward. To the atheist, the view that life started spontaneously in very simple form, and became more complex over an enormous timescale, is much more reasonable. And the timescale on earth is almost unimaginably long for our minds to comprehend- the earliest stromatolites date from around 3,500,000,000 years ago. I could have written “3.5 billion years”, but writing out the noughts gives a better appreciation of how enormous the timescale actually is. In contrast, the Cambrian explosion, when most major animal phyla appeared, was “only” about 542,000,000 years ago. We, homo sapiens, have been on the planet for about the last 200,000 years6 of that time, a blink of an eye by comparison.

 

Reference

6 http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm

Why morality doesn’t come from religion

Judging by what I see on social media, many religious people seem attached to the notion that their morality comes from their religion, and are not shy to say so. They contend that without religion, mankind would descend to brutality and evil. One corollary of this view is the assertion that atheists, by definition, have no morality, and so are evil and untrustworthy. Another is that the religious person who thinks this way actually believes that without their religion to give them moral guidance, or without fear of God, or fear of the eternal fires awaiting them if they do bad things, they themselves would become evil and untrustworthy.

It is a fascinating and much debated point. Without needing to delve too deeply into the philosophical aspects of morality, it is possible to make a number of points to show that this religious view is quite wrong. Indeed, the converse is true: religions have by and large adopted and codified the moral standards, mores, and practices appropriate to the time they were written, with in most cases a bit of bending to promote the interests or prejudices of those doing the writing. Consider the following:

  1. Many religious texts contain elements which are clearly unacceptable by today’s standards of morality. The Bible has many examples of endorsement of such ideas, eg Leviticus 20:9, Psalm 137, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Samuel 15:3. It is clear that we are able to assess these as unacceptable, and choose not to live by them. This shows that we are applying a moral framework of judgement and interpretation which is external to the Bible itself, rather than blindly following “rules” as written in the Bible. Our moral view sits above the religious text, and allows us to cherry pick which parts we are prepared to accept as “good”, and to discard other parts as inappropriate.
  2. The religious passages which we generally find unacceptable as a guide to the way we should live, such as those mentioned in (1) above, can be seen as justifying what we would regard nowadays as immoral behaviour, while other passages in the same holy book provide what we would regard as sound moral guidance. It is therefore arguable that religion can drive both morally acceptable and morally unacceptable behaviour. There are countless examples of truly awful deeds inspired, according to their perpetrators, by their religious texts. Steven Weinberg had it right when he observed “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion”. When 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”, he had no idea how graphically his words would ring true as in the 21st century, with the rise of Islamic terrorism.
  3. Some religious texts, such as the Bible, are a collection of writings from many authors over different time periods. As such, they contain evident contradictions about what behaviours are approved of and which not. Although great effort has been expended over the centuries to explain and reconcile, to the objective reader it is clear that the Bible does not offer a single unequivocal standard of behaviour to live by. In fact, there is much disagreement amongst well-meaning Christians today about what the Bible is really telling us we should and shouldn’t do. An example very much in the forefront of debate and legislative enlightenment and change at the present time is homosexuality.
  4. Religions as we know them, with codified rules of behaviour, are relatively recent phenomena. Modern homo sapiens has existed as a species for approaching 200,000 years.6 Religious rules such as those provided in the Bible or the Quran have been around a tiny fraction of that time. It is nonsense to propose that prior to that, mankind had no moral standards to live by.
  5. Various human cultures exist without written codified religions, but which demonstrate behaviours which converge on the same general principles of societal morality as are seen in Christianity and other major religions. The strong indication is that moral behaviour is an intrinsic product of human evolutionary biology – in other words, modes of behaviour (such as altruism) which mitigate in favour of success of the human species.
  6. There is a correlation between high levels of moral behaviour and low levels of religiosity. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, where religiosity is low, do not exhibit the sort of evil immoral free-for-all which would be expected if morality depended on religious observance. On the contrary, they are some of the most highly civilised, law-abiding, and enlightened societies in the world.
  7. There is no correlation observed between religiosity and lack of criminal behaviour. In the USA, states which have the highest levels of religiosity also have typically the highest levels of crime, and one might reasonably expect high moral standards to accompany low criminality. Religious people are disproportionately represented within the US prison population, and atheists highly under-represented, in relation to the population at large.

 I hope I’ve made my point. You might be a very good and decent person, and religious at the same time. But please don’t imagine that without your religion, you’d suddenly become evil, or that anyone who doesn’t hold religious views is to be mistrusted and shunned, as morally bankrupt. Don’t be afraid of atheists or atheism.

 

Reference 

6 http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm

 

How old is the earth?

Why should I feel the need to include any comment on this, in a post about religion? There is so much scientific knowledge, in quite separate fields, which disproves any “young earth” ideas. In fact, the science is coherent at an age of the universe of ~13.8 billion years, and an age of the earth of ~4.54 billion years. It doesn’t matter whether you focus on astrophysics/ distance of galaxies, plate tectonics, geology, ice cores, radioisotope dating methods, DNA analysis for life on earth, or whatever, all the data fits together.

Most people worldwide, whether Christian, Muslim, or any other or no religion, and the vast preponderance of scientists, do not have an issue with this, and accept it as proven. So why is it even a question? The answer is the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) movement, exemplified by Answers in Genesis 4, which to a large extent is representative of the whole US Christian fundamentalist movement.

The YEC movement goes back to the work of a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used biblical genealogy to work out his view of the “date of creation”. According to his chronology, it occurred at the beginning of the night which preceded the 23rd of October in the year 710 of the Julian period.  In the margin of his text, Ussher computed the date in the Christian calendar as 4004 B.C. So essentially what we have is an ingenious cleric, who in the absence of any corroborating scientific information, and taking his starting point as the literal truth of the Bible, worked out when the creation described in Genesis 1 & 2 “must have happened”. Over time, and with the development of detailed scientific knowledge in the ensuing centuries, the work of Ussher was consigned to the annals of historical curiosities. Few paid it much attention. Then came the infamous Scopes trial 5 of 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee. It was largely driven by the Christian fundamentalist and presidential candidate William Bryan, who recognised the populist advantage in appealing to an electorate who were brought up to a literal view of the Bible. He sponsored a show trial, to attempt discredit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The particular vehicle was the prosecution of a high-school biology teacher John Scopes for illegally teaching it. Fundamentalists found and used Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation, still published in the margins of their family Bibles.

Since then, despite all evidence to the contrary, the American Fundamentalist movement stuck to this Biblical chronology, and pretty much uniquely in the USA, it gained some traction as Christian Fundamentalist apologists worked to support it, and do what they could to raise doubts on the veracity of real science. Henry Morris in the mid-20th century in the USA devised and promoted a pseudoscientific explanation which he called “creation science”, as a basis for a religious belief in a recent (less than 10,000 years ago) creation by God. Today, astonishingly, surveys show that over 40% of adults in the USA subscribe to this view. The YEC view is scientifically discredited, and does not stand up to any objective scrutiny, even at a basic high-school level. Nevertheless, the YEC movement persists in the USA, and is even gaining some adherents elsewhere.

With so many people in the USA adhering to a YEC view, and propagating it in education, it cannot just be ignored. It is essentially the same battle of ideas as Christian fundamentalism versus evolution. It threatens to produce a generation of scientifically illiterate Americans, which would do them, and America, a great disservice. Many atheists, and enlightened Christians too, enjoin the battle against the Christian fundamentalist scientific illiteracy of YEC whenever they can.

 

 

 

References 

4 https://answersingenesis.org/ 

5 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/evolut.htm

Atheism and the Theory of Evolution

It is impossible to write about one’s perspective as an atheist without addressing the question of evolution. This shouldn’t be the case, as atheism is simply a lack of belief in a God or Gods, and evolution is a scientific theory about the origin of species. Why should they be seen as linked?

The reason is that the theory of evolution has implications on the origin of mankind, which conflict with beliefs fundamental to many religions, in particular, with the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. Those who dispute the veracity of the theory of evolution always* do so because if they accepted evolution as true, they would need to abandon their strongly held religious (usually Biblical) view on creation, especially the on the creation of man. (*If you know of any exceptions, I would like to hear from you). Most religious people do not generally have any dispute with other areas of science, such as the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease, because these are not seen to threaten or conflict with the Biblical account of creation or any other tenets of their religious faith. The Christian Fundamentalist /Young Earth Creationist (YEC) movement in the USA is an exception, which I will address later in this post.

Since atheists do not hold religious beliefs, they have no more motivation to challenge the theory of evolution than they would any other scientific theory, ie on the basis of its soundness. Since the theory of evolution is so well established and confirmed as sound, part of the bedrock of scientific endeavour throughout biological sciences and medicine, you will be hard pressed to find an atheist who does not accept it as true and factual. Indeed, there are many theists who accept it too, and see the Genesis account as metaphorical, or allegorical. It is probably a point of some dismay to Christian fundamentalists that the Roman Catholic Church does not take a stand against evolution. The recent well-publicised views of Pope Francis are not a new departure from RC Church teachings; 65 years ago, in the papal encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII said that evolution and Catholic doctrine were not in conflict. So it is quite wrong to attempt to characterise the issue nowadays as polarised between atheism + evolution on one side, and religion on the other – though of course in the early years after the publication of Darwin’s book [1], there was indeed a profound “religion versus evolution” dichotomy.

 The word “believe” is often used by theists with reference to people’s acceptance of evolution as true. Atheists reject that usage when “believe” has a deliberate connotation of religious faith, with an implication of one’s attitude to it being determined by one’s personal belief system. One would not say one “believes” in the theory of gravity, or the theory of germ causation of disease. One accepts them, or not, depending on whether they provide an accurate and useful description of the way the world works.

Those who seek to dispute the theory of evolution frequently exploit the fact that in common English usage, the word “theory” means a speculative idea or hunch, so they can say “Evolution is only a theory”. This is either deliberately disingenuous, or mistaken, since the meaning of “theory” in science is very different. A scientific theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena. A scientific theory summarises a hypothesis or group of hypotheses which have been supported by repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step, known as a theory, in the scientific method, and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.

Another argument sometimes used to try to dispute evolution is that evolution leads to racism/genocide. While it is quite simple to dispose of such an argument by direct refutation, what is the point being made? Even if I were to concede that evolution does lead to racism/genocide, which I most certainly would not, what would be the consequence? That we should therefore pretend that evolution is not real, and agree to engage in willful ignorance about reality?

In the case of evolution, Darwin first published his book [1] “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, at the age of 50. Darwin was a Christian, and, as would be expected in England in the early 19th century, was brought up to believe in the literal truth of the creation as given in Genesis. He believed that all species were created immutable, by God, and that God created man in his own image, to have dominion over all other life forms. He was in his early 20’s when he set sail on the Beagle, as the ship’s naturalist, in December 1831; the voyage lasted almost five years. Darwin was an avid collector, and thoroughly catalogued and wrote up his findings. It was on the Galapagos Islands that Darwin was struck by observations of how different species of finches on different islands were essentially similar, except for beak size and shape, which were suited to the very different food sources available.

Galapagos finch specimensSimilarly, the island of origin of different species of giant tortoise could be identified by the shape of the carapace, depending on the type of food source available on their particular island. It dawned on Darwin that perhaps not all species were created immutable, and perhaps species might change over time, and new species develop depending on what characteristics were more advantageous for survival in the particular conditions being experienced, such as food source, climate, and predation.

Darwin knew that offspring display some natural variation from their parents, and he knew about selective breeding of domestic animals to achieve desired characteristics. He speculated that if a variation produced for example a finch with a slightly stronger thicker beak, and if this were an advantage in exploiting a food source, then that finch would be more successful, and produce more offspring. Over time, there would be more and more finches with thick beaks. This was the beginning of Darwin’s idea of speciation by natural selection. Once back home in England, Darwin worked for many years amassing and recording his evidence, and developing the detail of his proposition: that species are not immutable, but evolve by natural selection from other species. As a scientist, he could see some specific difficulties with his proposition – areas of lack of explanation, which would in some cases not be resolved until well after his death, with the development for example of DNA analysis. However, he became increasingly convinced that the main thrust of his proposition was compelling, and would have to be published.

But Darwin held back. He was well aware of the implications of his work, and the conflict with the Biblical account of creation; he appreciated full well the implication that man himself was not created by God as a special separate entity, but was part of the natural process of evolution from earlier life forms. He knew this would be seen as utter heresy in the eyes of the Church. His wife was a devout Christian, and he did not want to offend her either. Darwin continued to work for many years, researching and writing, and refining his book, but still declining to publish. He was also troubled by poor health, and by family problems, including the tragic death of one of his children. Darwin was during this time in regular communication with a biologist and professional colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, and they shared information by writing to each other.

In 1858, Darwin received a letter from Wallace, who was in the Far East at the time, in which Wallace set out his ideas on formation of species by natural selection. It was clear to Darwin that Wallace had arrived independently at a proposition virtually the same as his own, though less thoroughly researched and documented. Darwin took the decision to publish his own work, and the first edition of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” [1] was published in 1859. I will skip the detail here about how the work of Wallace and Darwin was introduced to the world of science, and the wider public.

The ensuing controversies are well documented. By and large, a polarisation of views developed between the world of science, which found Darwin’s work compelling and transformational, and the world of Victorian religion, which fought hard to maintain the Biblical idea of creation by God and the special place of man – the idea that man had evolved from earlier hominids (or “apes”) was anathema to the religious establishment of the time, and to say the least, controversial to most ordinary people, who had of course been brought up to accept their particular religion.

Over time, Darwin’s work has been thoroughly examined and tested, as new insights have become available into the detail of its mechanisms. In Darwin’s time, the taxonomic classification of life forms was that provided by Carl Linnaeus. Though his system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in use today, it was based on observation of characteristics, so inevitably contained quite a few errors. With the much more recent work on DNA analysis, many changes have been made to Linnaean taxonomy, and we are now in a position to determine with a high degree of accuracy the relationships between life forms, and to construct a tree of life with good estimates of the timescales. Darwin’s work has been vindicated, and is completely accepted by science. It is not in any scientific sense controversial or in doubt.

Evolution timeline

Evolution timeline, Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver

 

The Biblical account of creation expressed in Genesis, that species were all created immutable, including man, is therefore known to be entirely wrong. Most theologians accept this fact and interpret the Genesis account as allegorical. However, Christian fundamentalists persist with disputing evolution, because evolution and a literal interpretation of Genesis are mutually exclusive.

An example of the rise of Bible-based anti-science is the Answers in Genesis (AiG)[2] movement in USA. Their starting point is a “Statement of Faith” which says

AiG Statement of Faith

This position forces AiG [2] into ever more ludicrous positions in their attempts to undermine science – the “young earth” Biblical account not only conflicts with the Theory of Evolution, but their claim that the earth is less than about 10,000 years old conflicts with just about every branch of science, including geology, plate tectonics, cosmology, nuclear physics/radio-isotope dating, archaeology, palaeontology, biology /DNA analysis, climatology/ice core studies – the list is almost endless.

I will go on the discuss “age of the earth” in another post, but on the topic of the Theory of Evolution, enormous effort is invested, especially in the USA, to try to discredit it. Apologists have used and do use all manner of pseudo-science techniques to convince the unwary or scientifically poorly educated, or those who are keen to latch onto anything which supports their predisposition to a Biblical explanation. For example, the 2nd law of thermodynamics requires the degree of disorder (or entropy) in a system to increase with time, so it is cited as “proof” that evolution cannot be true, and the increasing degree of order evident in life forms must therefore come from an external designer, ie God. This sort of approach is disingenuous and reprehensible, as the apologists know (or should know) full well that the 2nd law of thermodynamics refers to closed systems. The earth is far from a closed system, with a huge external energy source (the sun). To an extent, however, the apologists approach has worked, and what might be termed “creation pseudoscience” (or “creation science” from the Christian fundamentalist movement point of view) has made large inroads in the USA.

As one might expect, wealthy countries (high GDP/head) have greater level of literacy and education, and as mentioned above, lower levels of religiosity. There is a correlation between GDP per head and acceptance of evolution throughout the world. There is one remarkable exception, the USA, which is a stark outlier on the following chart.

Belief in Evolution v GDP per capita

 

Does this matter? The issue is controversial, and raises very strong feelings. To the Christian fundamentalist movement in USA, it certainly does matter. It represents success in promoting the “literal truth” of creation as told in Genesis, with all species created immutable by God, and man created by God in his image, to have dominion over the earth and all other life forms. It represents success in having people reject the Theory of Evolution, with its inimical implications that man is just another part of the natural order of life forms, having evolved over time from earlier life forms (or as Christian fundamentalists might style it, from “apes”).

To many others, whether atheists, or religious people who do accept evolution, the rise of the creationist movement, and the evidence that upwards of 40% of US adults do not accept evolution as true, is an appalling state of affairs – tantamount to a drive back in time to the dark ages -analogous to the religious fundamentalism we observe in Islamic theocracies. It attracts ridicule on the USA from the rest of the developed world, implies a generation of American young people being brought up scientifically ignorant, greatly handicapped should they wish to follow a scientific career, and a population at large who are ill-equipped, through not having an integrated view of science, to understand the world and make informed decisions, eg on vital matters such as climate change. There is an enormous amount of information available which sets out the arguments for the Theory of Evolution, at whatever depth of detail the reader might want. Much of it is written in a style very accessible to anyone not having the benefit of a scientific education, for example The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins , 2009 [3]. For those people who are of a mind to argue against the Theory of Evolution, as many do, for example on social media such as Twitter, they would be well advised first to read 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, Scientific American, 2002 [4]. This exposes the main fallacies trotted out by evolution deniers: if you are going to argue based on any of these points, you’d better have a good understanding of this, or you will risk making yourself look an idiot.

The issue of wilful scientific ignorance matters a great deal, and many atheists will be found actively challenging the anti-evolution Christian fundamentalist movement at every opportunity.

 

 

 

References 

1   “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, Charles Darwin, 1859

2   https://answersingenesis.org/

3   “The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence for Evolution”, Richard Dawkins, 2009 

4   “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense”, Scientific American,  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/15-answers-to-creationist/

 

“Atheism is a religion”

To the atheist, it is hard to believe that this assertion might be made seriously. Would you call “not collecting stamps” a hobby? Or “off” a TV channel? Or “bald” a hair colour? Or “Not owning a car” as a make of motor vehicle? Atheism is not an obscure or complex notion: it is simply a lack of belief in a God or Gods. It is the antithesis of a religion.

Why then might anyone make such an overtly absurd suggestion? Possibilities are

    • A lack of understanding of what atheism is.
  • Insufficient imagination to comprehend a human mind without a religious belief system, so if someone is atheist, it must be a religious belief system.
  • An attempt at deflection in debate: “you have a religion too, so you can’t argue against me having one”.
  • Projection: someone with doubts about the validity of their own religious views might try to accuse the other person of having religious doubts.
  • An attempt to undermine the atheist’s position by creating a straw man, the “atheist religion”, which they can then demolish.
  • Deliberate adoption of a nonsense position, so that anyone arguing from a rational point of view will recognise there is no point in any further discussion, and walk away. The theist can then claim “victory”.

 

If you are tempted to try “atheism is a religion” in a debate, you will be disqualifying yourself from any meaningful consideration, and make yourself look rather foolish.

Life for an atheist must be without meaning or purpose

This is a surprising view to most atheists. Atheists tend to have arrived at their worldview because they engage in and value rational thought and evidence, so are deeply curious about the world. To an atheist, the universe is full of awe, wonder, and joy. We don’t need our minds closed down by dogma – we want to be free to explore and understand. Also, we live this one life to the max, because we aren’t wishing our lives away, or hedging our bets, waiting for an afterlife.

We get joy, purpose and pleasure from helping our fellow human beings, and from our relationships with those we love. We don’t base our decisions on some promise of deferred benefit in an afterlife, or some threat of damnation, or on a set of rules written down a couple of thousand years ago, when scientific knowledge was scant by today’s standards, and social mores were very different – for example, when slavery, ie one person “owning” another person, was commonplace and regarded as perfectly proper.

To the atheist, religion encourages people not to question, but to accept religious dogma instead of striving to better understand the world.

However, many religious people will say that the meaning of their lives is enhanced by their religious faith, and that “pleasing God” adds an extra dimension, or purpose, to existence. If you have sufficient confidence that your God really exists, so that “pleasing God” is meaningful to you, then this could be one of the advantages you enjoy by having a religious faith. However, if you take the view that life is “empty without God” or you say “I live only to please God”, then the atheist will usually find that a rather stifling and limited worldview, and have difficulty comprehending how it adds to the purpose and meaning of existence.

Do atheists hate God?

Why put this picture here? Because it is the epitome of dumb, and illustrates perfectly the sort of arrogant bullshit that appears in print and on our computer screens, and why I need to write this post.

This charge, sometimes made against atheists, is that they know God exists, but hate God. This sounds utterly stupid to an atheist, because he knows perfectly well what he himself thinks; it is not possible to hate something you don’t think exists. Furthermore, how could the person making that charge legitimately claim to know the atheist’s thought processes? He might as well say to an atheist: “you know the world is run by magic gnomes living in a celestial teapot, you just hate them”.

From an atheist perspective, it is hard to see why anyone would make such an assertion. Even having thought about it, I am struggling to explain. The following is the best I can do:

  • It’s a sign of limited imagination or power of thought and debate; a childish attempt to push away any challenge to his own belief system. He can’t muster any cogent argument in support of his beliefs, so he just trots out the meaningless mantra “You know God exists” instead.
  • He is so closed-minded he can’t conceive of a mind-set which doesn’t accept his God: any atheist, from his point of view, must be in denial.
  • He doesn’t actually believe what he says at all; it’s a cynical part of a money-making enterprise, as it gains financial support from gullible followers. In the case of Ray Comfort, that case has been made on many occasions by those who see through his methods.  Here is an example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmvyBhCDrGA

Whatever the motivation, this sort of charge is going to get the same sort of response he’d get if, like a child, he stuck his fingers in his ears and yelled “La la la I can’t hear you”. If the atheist is interested in offering a rejoinder to such nonsense, he might ask “which Gods do you hate, then?”, or “You know Thor exists, you just hate him”; but don’t expect the debate to be very productive.

If atheists don’t believe in God, why do they concern themselves so much with religion?

 This is a very common question. If religious people just got on with their religious beliefs in their own time without impinging on others, and were happy for people of other religions, or none, to do likewise, then atheists would indeed stop challenging. To paraphrase one atheist on Twitter “You can believe that we all have unicorns living in our shoes, for all I care. But as soon as you start telling me how to wear my shoes to avoid upsetting the unicorns, or insist that we include teaching about the unicorns in the school curriculum, then I have a problem with you”.

OK, that might be a rather silly analogy, but it makes the point. As an atheist my view is that society, and in particular laws and education, should be organised on a secular basis. People should have freedom to follow whatever religion they choose, but not to dictate that others must follow it too, or to discriminate against people who follow a different religion, or none. There should be no right to curtail criticism of religion (ie no blasphemy laws) – religion should not enjoy any special protected position. In other words, live and let live – your religion is your business, and I have no desire to interfere, so long as your religion doesn’t interfere with me.

If you are a Christian living in the UK, you would probably be very happy for your child to attend a Christian school, and have a daily act of Christian worship as part of the curriculum. But if you were a Christian living in a locality with a Muslim majority population, you might not be so happy to see your child attend a school where study of the Quran is part of the curriculum. I, as an atheist, would strongly prefer my child’s education to be wholly secular. It is hard for us all to have our ideal, but at least if education is wholly secular, those who want to bring their children up in a particular faith have freedom to do so outside of the school environment. Furthermore, mistrust (or even hatred) of “other” would not be inculcated in young people in schools – from my perspective, a very important point.

Unfortunately, religious tolerance is far from the state of affairs which exists across the world. Many religions see it as their duty to spread their particular religious view to gain as many converts as possible: Christians in particular are charged with a duty to evangelise “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19).

Atheism meme 3

World dominance and imposition of Sharia Law everywhere, is a goal of much of Islam. Most Islamic countries are theocracies, and many are deeply repressive and misogynistic, where personal freedom, especially for women, is very limited. We see terrorism almost anywhere, by religious fanatics, usually but not exclusively Islamic, intent on imposing their distorted worldview on everyone else. In many countries, religious minorities are persecuted, and examples are legion. Homophobia, even draconian laws against homosexuals, are prevalent in many countries, both Christian and Islamic. Even in the USA, virulent homophobia exists, “justified” by interpretation of the Bible. In some states of the USA, atheists are barred from public office. Religious groups seek to interfere / legislate on matters such as abortion – a topic whose huge controversy is driven by religious conservatives. This does not mean that as an atheist, I favour a free-for-all on abortion- far from it. However, if religious views are to play a part in an abortion decision, they should be the religious views of those directly affected, in particular, of the woman concerned.

So long as the religious seek to control, oppress, legislate, or discriminate in the name of their religious beliefs, expect atheists to keep challenging.

Religions- what are they all about, and why are they as they are?

There are many religions in the world today, and many more which were once prevalent which have died out. Some are hugely significant and influential, with many millions of adherents. Some date their origins from a few thousand years ago (eg Judaism), and some are much more recent (eg Mormonism). Most of the main religions in the world today are monotheistic, but some, notably Hinduism, are polytheistic.

Religions tend to be geographical in their reach, and developed in times when worldwide travel, and communication between cultures, was quite rare. To this day, Hinduism is almost exclusively restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Christianity started in the Middle East and Europe, and originally spread to Africa by the work of Christian missionaries, and to the Americas by European colonisation. Although the world today is much more of a melting pot than it once was, with very significant migration of peoples, a map of the world’s religions today still shows marked geographical distinctions.

It is possible to try to count up the number of gods which mankind has believed in, or still does believe in. The number comes to something over 3,000, though if we count in Hinduism, there is an argument for saying it is many millions. Some Hindus would disagree, arguing that the question is meaningless, and the enormous number of Hindu gods all relate to a single supreme soul (Brahman).

 It is evident however, and an inevitable consequence of difference of cultural/geographical origins, that not all religions are mutually compatible; in fact, it is clear that many religions contain elements which are fundamentally incompatible with other religions. A logical conclusion is that they are either all wrong, or only one is right and all the others are wrong. This leads to the position of many (or indeed most) religious adherents that their particular religion is true, and that all other religions, which have conflicting dogma, are false. I have heard said things like this too many times to count: “I have my holy book, I know it is true and inerrant, the word of God. I do not need to concern myself with other belief systems, they are all mistaken.” It is interesting to note, from an atheist’s perspective, that such statements are made with seemingly equal conviction from all manner of conflicting standpoints, most of which are expressed by people who have adopted the religion of the society in which they were brought up – a geographical happenstance. It can even be observed that some followers of ostensibly the same Abrahamic God (Jews, Christians, and Muslims, though many would disagree that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews) plead in prayer for their God to convert, or even destroy, the followers of the other religions.

Another obvious feature of religions is their tendency to schism. Egregious examples are the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, and the Roman Catholic/Protestant division in the Christian church. Of course, it is a great deal more complex than that, but these two examples account for a huge amount of vehement discord, sectarian violence, and even wars. Christianity is perhaps the most outstanding example of schism, with a huge number of sects or denominations – so many, and with new schisms still arising, that it is difficult to count exactly.

Study of the earliest human societies shows that they engaged in rituals, associated with birth, death, the seasons, etc. It is a fundamental part of the human condition – I would argue, with the evolution* of the modern homo sapiens brain and the development of complex language- to wonder, to seek explanations, and to control the environment. (*If you jib at the word evolution here, please bear with me for now, or go and read my post “Atheism and the Theory of Evolution”, which addresses the topic of evolution and why it is held to be false, or at least controversial, by people with certain religious views). Before more scientific explanations became available, the world would be a terrifying place, with all manner of threats such as disease, famine, drought, storms, thunder and lightning, wildfires, volcanoes, earthquakes, wild animals, etc. Superstitions arose to impose patterns on events – if you doubt this, then look to your own tendency to be superstitious – which gradually became codified by leaders into ritual, attributing events to the actions of supernatural beings who would need to be appeased. In the absence of rational explanation, attribution to supernatural agency would be essentially unavoidable, and if one believed that one’s rituals could affect outcome, comforting and reassuring. So the earliest religions were born: a means to explain the world, and to try to control events.

A consequence of the development and formal codifying of religious beliefs and practices was the link between being a religious leader, looked up to and consulted in one’s society, and power and political control. Religions became more mystified and codified, increasingly the preserve of learned and respected individuals; society was by and large divided into the religious elite, with access to power and resources, and the illiterate masses who were told what to believe. The link between political control and religion was established, and remains largely unbroken to this day.

Societies began to identify themselves by their religious belief system, and the power and influence of their leaders depended on its preservation and propagation. There was (and is) a strong vested interest in religious leaders controlling the adherence of the masses. Apostasy and heresy were serious threats, so religions which adopted dogma and practices which were very prescriptive, and strongly discouraged dissenting views, tended to become dominant. Obvious examples are the Islamic death penalty for apostasy, and the brutal and cruel oppression of the Spanish Inquisition, which ran for over 350 years, from 1478 and only abolished as recently as 1834. Fear and reward was incorporated into religious dogma to maintain control, for example in Christianity, the threat of burning for eternity in the fires of hell for failure to follow Jesus, and the promise of eternal bliss in heaven for being a good Christian. Religious text too is well devised to the same end, for example, Psalm 14.1 (The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.), and the very well-known Exodus 20.

Indoctrination of the young, too, is an essential feature of most religions. The Jesuit axiom “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man” makes eminent sense if you want to protect and propagate a belief system in your society. It is no accident that many religions put resources and efforts into the young, such as Sunday schools, and sponsoring faith schools. Consider also the Christian practice of christening a young baby, where parents, family, and Godparents make solemn promises to bring the child up in the Christian faith.

If we look back even a hundred years or so, almost everyone adhered to one religion or other – societies were generally constructed with religious belief as one of their main pillars, ie what was taken to be good and proper. Education included a religious element. People with atheistic views were well advised to keep them pretty much to themselves, as progression and acceptance in life, society, and career assumed religious conformity. The 1944 Education Act in the UK[1] prescribed a compulsory act of worship in schools, and remains the law today (though more honoured now in the breach than in the practice). But with the rise in scientific knowledge and awareness, and people’s increased knowledge of other religions across the world, religious orthodoxy in western developed countries became more and more questioned and challenged. It became more acceptable to express views such as “I am an atheist”, or even “religions are wrong, and harmful”. Prominent scientists and authors began to express firmly anti-theistic views (Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and A.C. Grayling are some of the best known examples). Where religious explanations were countered by rational scientific ones, tensions and controversies arose: in some cases religions retreated onto narrower ground (eg Christianity in the UK and W. Europe), and in others eg (Islam, Fundamentalist Christianity in the USA) the battle lines between religious explanations and rational scientific ones became drawn ever more starkly.

religion_wealth_corelation

The Gallup Religiosity Index, 2012

By and large, religiosity today is lowest in wealthiest countries, particularly in Europe, though USA is an outlier in the statistics. As reported for 2012 data, the least religious countries[2] are Estonia (16% considering religion important in their lives), Sweden (16.5%), and Denmark (18%). For comparison, the figure for UK is 26.5%, and for USA, 65%.

It is interesting also to study the trend of religiosity with time. The statistics point to a general decline in religious adherence and belief, though in the least developed countries, religion remains almost universal. In Bangladesh and Niger, for example, virtually 100% of people[2] consider religion important in their lives. In the USA, where religious adherence[2] is very high compared to other developed wealthy countries, a general decline is observed: the chart here represents this by percentage of people regularly attending worship in the USA, over the 20 years from 1994.

Decline in US church attendance 1994-2014

 

To my atheistic perspective, the above is a reasonable, if highly simplified, summary of how religions came to be and why they are as they are, why theocracies exist, and why religion is a source of so much conflict between peoples. If you are reading this as someone with religious faith, you will probably regard it as completely wrong and unsatisfactory. You might even take the view that human morality comes from religion, so an atheist like me must be an immoral and untrustworthy person. If you do, please read my post “Without God, there can be no morality (subtext: atheists are immoral/ evil/ untrustworthy).

You might well say I ignore evidence that your holy book is inspired by God, or the evidence of God’s works all around us. If so, we differ in our interpretation of what constitutes evidence: for me, evidence means “an available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid”. Everything I have yet seen which is cited as “evidence” by theists does not satisfy that definition, nor stand up to even a modest degree of logical scrutiny. I have not been short of counter arguments being proposed to me: I had an upbringing in the Christian church (yes, I’m an apostate); I have done much searching; I have engaged in  theological debate with devout and deep-thinking clergymen and lay individuals; and I have studied the Bible in great depth – a great deal more depth, it would appear, than many of the Christians with whom I have discussed such matters. What it comes down to in the end is that a theistic view has had to depend on religious faith, which by definition is “Belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”.  My conclusion, for the reasons I have argued in this post, is that religions and their Gods are human constructs, and I see no reason to be convinced of the veracity of any particular religion over any other. If you follow a particular religion, and are convinced that yours is true, then my response is “Show me evidence, or I don’t buy it”.

 

 

 

References 

[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/7-8/31/contents/enacted

 

[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Religion/Secularism-and-atheism/Population-considering-religion-important