Category Archives: Religion

New Year, Old Struggle

We are now into the sixteenth year of the twenty first century, but it’s hard to believe it. Mankind has created the most scientific and technological society that has ever existed on this planet, and yet we are still surrounded by primitive superstition that would stop it dead in its tracks if it can ever get away with it.

Although I was brought up within a religious and superstitious family, I was able to notice after I left school and got out into the big wide world that the religious beliefs, superstition and, frankly, bigotry that I was taught as I was growing up, just didn’t match my own observations. And after several decades of those observations, I conclude that reality, supported by testable and confirmable evidence, is more reliable than (and preferable to) untestable and unconfirmable belief or faith.

Look around you and notice things. While the religious zealots are torturing and killing people, science has landed a spacecraft on a comet half a billion miles from Earth. It’s easier, I’m sure (although I couldn’t do it myself), to kill someone in the name of some god or other than it is to study science for years and do positive things that no amount of prayer will ever achieve.

Is the paranormal real? It’s certainly easier to make excuses for why psi claims don’t actually work than it is to produce the claimed effects. And just as easy to whine that those like me – sceptics – are just nay-saying curmudgeons who are just “desperate to protect their world view.”

Do the quack nostrums of homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, reiki and all the rest of the nonsense peddled for profit by (maybe some) well-meaning but unqualified (in scientific terms) practitioners do any real good for people? Someone suffering an ailment might be able to say honestly during such treatment (self-reporting) that they actually “feel better” as they undergo that “treatment,” but that is not the same as actually being cured. Germs and cancers do not disappear as a result of quackery, even if the sufferer has, as they often say, even with the latest medical treatment, “good days and bad days.”

Will your horoscope in the daily newspaper really be accurate today? Or maybe it would be better to pay through the nose for a personalised chart that will give you nothing other than a self-fulfilling prophecy – as long as you interpret it in the way that confirms your expectations and beliefs after the events you think they are predicting.

It could be that you will consult any pro paranormal website or blog that tells you why sceptics are “wrong in their beliefs” but don’t provide any testable evidence for that claim, which is really just sour grapes because the woomeisters have to face the fact that rational, scientifically literate people don’t go along with belief over testable evidence.

I could go on and on about all of the superstitions people prefer over actual reality, but by now if you have read this far, you might be starting to understand my frustration. I am one of those people that the paranormal promoters call, disdainfully, a “materialist!” Even worse than that, I am what they call (gasp, shock-horror) a “pseudosceptic,” one of those rationalists who don’t believe without question the paranormal anecdotes presented to me.

What can I say to it all, except, do you deny that the universe we inhabit does, in fact, have an actual material existence? I have to wonder why, but get no answer to the question, how can the “immaterial” exist for a start off, and how can it affect or interact with, the actual material (real) universe we all live in? Why don’t the physical laws of nature prevail over the immaterial (non-existent) “laws” of, er… the paranormal? In fact, what (physical or non-physical) laws control this immaterial paranormal “energy” or whatever it is? Where is the actual theory of the paranormal? (And when I say theory, I mean “theory” in the scientific sense.)

There is no such theory. A scientific theory can exist only if there is something there that can be shown (with a high degree of probability) to exist. At the moment, as has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, paranormal investigators are still trying to show that there is anything paranormal going on at all. None of that has been demonstrated conclusively; so far, there is no compelling reason to think any of it is true.

And yet, no one needs any supposedly precognitive ability to just know that the year 2016 is going to be another non-stop tsunami of woo. That will include everything from serious paranormal researchers failing again to prove their claims, to outright frauds bilking the gullible for personal profit. There will also of course be well-meaning but off-beam believers spouting incorrect claims supported by totally wrong assumptions about the nature of, well… nature itself.

I will say this yet again: I do not believe in the existence of the paranormal or the supernatural, but my mind can be changed if anyone can prove the claims they make. However, those claims will have to meet the rigorous standards required by science, which does not mean someone’s heartfelt belief, or a single experiment that no one else can replicate, or an anecdote from some “eminent person of good character,” or any number of ad hoc rationalisations to explain what is maybe anomalous but not necessarily paranormal.

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Chemtrails?

“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

In 2016 we are going to see more TV shows, books, and everything else about UFOs, ghosts, and all manner of irrational nonsense, supported by ignorant people who are willing to subscribe to it all and therefore pay for and perpetuate a kind of mind-numbing, modern-day “opiate for the masses.” Sensible programming about science – the true reality programmes – are (still) going to be side-lined, or given the least prominence because actual reality does not have the same commercial value to TV producers. That’s a shame, but it illustrates the problem.

For the forthcoming year of 2016 CE, I wish all of my readers a Rational New Year and freedom from Bad Thinking, while I continue trying to do my bit to fly the flag of reason. Wish me luck. (No, not luck, it doesn’t work like that… er, no, it really doesn’t; it’s a struggle.)

 

A Skeptical Christmas To One And All

I’m a sceptic and an atheist, and yet I’m looking forward to the Christmas and New Year holidays and I intend to enjoy myself, together with my family and friends. But that idea seems a bit odd to some religious people I know: how can an atheist enjoy Christmas – a religious festival; and also isn’t it a bit hypocritical, to boot?

No, not at all. As Christmas comes around, I see it as a time to just relax, having a break from work, and maybe getting into the party spirit. Admittedly, I’m not a youngster any more, and partying in the way young people now do it is not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, or that I am going to put a damper on anyone else’s enjoyment. I won’t be going to any Christmas church services, of course, but I’m also not going to criticise any Christians who do so. We live in a free country (so far, anyway), so I support everyone’s right to follow their religion as they choose. I also expect and hope that people of other religions will respect the right of Christians to go about their celebrations as they have done here for many years. I don’t want to see any Christian celebrations having to be curtailed or stopped in the name of political correctness in case the feelings of other religions are hurt. Cobblers to that idea.

I will, naturally, have to run the gauntlet of some Christians who despise me for not believing the same as they do, or appreciating the fact that I actually support and defend their right to be Christian. It’s just a pity that those Christians, as well as members of other religions, do not have the tolerance to want to allow me to have freedom from religion in the same way they have freedom of religion.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of holiday spirit in the local High Street – buskers playing Christmas songs; any day now, I’m sure, the Salvation Army will make an appearance as they play the more religious carols, and I even look forward to it. I will also, no doubt, contribute some money in the collection box, as I also regularly do for some of the non-religious causes (the local fire brigade usually have a display that I always contribute to). It’s just a nice atmosphere they all create between themselves, and it works just nicely to make at least the very few short weeks in the run up to a special family day a good time.

At this time of year, there are young children who know little about religion, but who believe in Santa Claus, and hope to receive a reward for being good. That’s not much different from many of their parents, who believe they, too, are going to receive a reward for being good, albeit in some (equally mythical) afterlife. The difference here, though, is that we don’t expect children to believe in a make-believe entity when they grow up. But many adults do that very thing. At least a child can provide evidence for the existence of Santa in the form of presents delivered, but the adults rely on faith that they have to continue with until the day they die.

It is inevitable that children find out and come to terms with the fact that Santa was a comforting fantasy when they were so young. But it’s a tragedy that so many adults can never find out the same truth about whichever god or gods they happen to worship. And there is no shortage of religious people who are happy to tell the members of every other religion that they’ve got their theology wrong (and some are even willing to kill to prove their point).

That’s one of many reasons that I have no religion: I have no reason to harm anyone else in any way just because I believe something different. As it happens, the fact that I have no beliefs is a good enough reason for me to be able to listen to what others have to say, without at all having to hate anyone else for thinking differently.

That’s something I keep in mind always, but especially at this time of year when most people at least seem to be making an effort to be nice to each other. I wish they could do the same all the time.

But Christmas or not, if I happen to meet you, whether it is where I work, or at a bus stop or in a pub or whatever, I will be just the same person you might meet at any time of the year. I will be nice to you; I hope you will be the same to me

Dare I, as an atheist, say it – Merry Christmas to all my readers.

 Santa gets it

(Just joking with the pic.)

Former Bishop of Durham calls for Christian Theocracy, As Islamists Call For Sharia, While Atheists Just Want A Peaceful Life

bish of durham exSo, it turns out that a former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reckons that it’s about time democracy was done away with and replaced with theocracy.

As this article from the National Secular Society puts it, the Bish says:

“The whole meaning of God’s kingdom is about the one true God calling time on the world’s wicked empires and setting up a radically different empire instead.”

But we had all that in Britain a few hundred years ago when Catholics and Protestants were in some kind of race with each other to see who could torture, maim and burn the most heretics (i.e., each other, mostly) . And don’t forget – it was Christian “morality” that caused all that suffering for so many people. Maybe the Bishop would like to see a return to that good old fashioned fire and brimstone control that the church could exert over the ordinary people. Even kings came under the control of the church.

Yeah, let’s start burning philosophers and astronomers again. But the Bishop has, whether he likes it or not, been overtaken by the Enlightenment – which he also detests, apparently. Possibly referring to the present refugee and migrant situation, he says:

“The problem is that the West has bought so deeply into the narrative of the Enlightenment and then can’t understand what has gone wrong when the tragedies of this world literally wash up on our shores.”

Bought into the Enlightenment?  As if that is a bad thing? Yes, of course: no theology ever invented by man (they’re all patriarchal, after all) has ever had any use for anyone who could think for themselves; that sort of thing is the biggest danger to any religion, of course.

The only way nowadays that a religion could replace democracy in this country (apart from the constant threats of violent revolution by some Islamic extremists) would be the the paradox of democracy – if enough religiots voted together, then democracy itself could be voted out of existence.

Shariah-4-UK

The (mostly masked) Muslim people (men, not women, of course) in the above picture are using their democratic right to freedom of expression to demand that their right to freedom of expression should be revoked so that they should not be allowed to do what they are now doing – demanding that they should not be allowed to demand the law be changed to stop them demanding what they are demanding. If you can work that out, put your answer in the comments. (It actually comes within the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or, more formally, begging the question. In other words, Bad Thinking.)

Maybe the Bishop would like to see a referendum on the subject. He can’t invoke the power of the church to enforce his version of theocracy, but I wonder if he would be prepared to put his idea to a democratic vote? The population of the UK could have a vote to decide whether we have our present system of government (which is itself far from perfect by any objective measure); a Christian theocracy; an Islamic theocracy; a Hindu theocracy; a [insert a long list of religions here] theocracy; a plutocracy; an oligarchy; even pure anarchy or a new version of the Wild West, where individuals make their own laws which, almost by definition, is pure chaos and lawlessness anyway. In such a scenario, you would be given the right to have all your rights taken away from you! (After that, though, you won’t be able to change your mind again.)

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea that I might (actually would) be tortured and killed in the Bishop’s ideal society just for not believing in his particular god. I find the whole idea unsatisfactory. As an atheist and secularist I think that all religious people should have the right to follow their own religion without interference and that right should be protected by secular law. Similarly, people who have no religious beliefs should have the same rights and protections to not be forced to follow any religion. The only proviso I insist on is that so long as people follow their religion or lack of the same, they cause no harm to any other person.

If you are religious, then by all means bow to and worship whichever god or gods you believe in. I am not going to interfere with your right to do that, but I expect the same courtesy from you: I do not believe in your god or gods; so don’t interfere with my own lack of belief.

For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will defend your right to grovel on your hands and knees.

In the meantime, Bishop Wright can sod off back to the middle ages – where all religions belong. I’ll stick with the Enlightenment, thank you very much.

God’s Law Is Not Above Secular Law

There’s a problem when religious people claim they do not (or should not) have to obey secular laws that go against their religious beliefs. The trouble is that there are so many different religions, each of which conflict with each other on so many different principles, that the only way to have a coherent and stable society within what we nowadays call “multiculturalism” is to have laws that apply to everyone equally, based on common sense, not religious fanaticism.

Kim DavisThe latest example of religious bigotry is the case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky court clerk who has recently been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples. According to the four-times married Christian, who had twins as a result of an adulterous affair, gay marriage is not in accordance with God’s definition of marriage. (There’s another Christian who has obviously not read the Bible, or at least believes that she is entitled to interpret it selectively enough to fit her own particular prejudices.)

When you get down to it, though, it doesn’t matter what your views are about gay people, you are under an obligation to obey the law. Your religious beliefs are neither here nor there, but at least in a western democracy anyone can form a movement to change any existing laws. In fact, that is exactly what happened here with regard to homosexuality. Here in the UK, I can remember when homosexuality was a criminal offence that could result in jail time for anyone who was found out to be gay. Prosecution was what happened to one of my intellectual heroes, Alan Turing, who subsequently committed suicide because of the scandal. (Turing could have been jailed, but he accepted “chemical castration” as an alternative to prison time.)

The same principle also led to the possibility that people in very high (and not so high) places could be open to blackmail if their sexual orientation were to be made public. That too also had some very public consequences for some individuals, but also for national security. As far as I know, Turing was never a security risk himself, but OK, if his work (that helped to end WWII) had been compromised by the threat of blackmail, then he would have been considered a big security risk. If homosexuality had been legal then as it is now, then so what if he was a homosexual? If I were working right now  in a high security government post and some blackmailer were to threaten to “out” me as a heterosexual, well… it just wouldn’t work, would it? The very idea would be laughable.

It’s much better now that gay people can just be part of the community; after all, anyone should be able to do whatever they want to do with only one proviso: that what anyone does causes no harm to others. That sounds reasonable to me.

I believe in and support religious freedom, even though I am an atheist and I do not believe in the existence of any gods. There are thousands of religions, and here in the UK, there is a more than fair spread of them. Having said that, however, I have met some religious people who have tried to hurt me and my family just because I am not “a person of faith.” What is it with these people? Religious people (who actually hate people of other religions), hate even more those people who do not have “faith,” which by definition is a belief without any evidence whatsoever. (If you have the answer to that one, then please let me know.) Also, of course, believing things without evidence – and especially in the face of contradictory evidence – is called “delusion.”

But yet again, we have a Christian who believes she is being persecuted because of her religious beliefs, when in fact she is in trouble for refusing to carry out the job she is paid to do. Like so many others, she thinks that “God’s laws” are above man-made laws. She is, of course, wrong. Her interpretation of her god’s laws just happen to contradict the actual law, as well as other people’s interpretation of their god’s laws, so we also get the regular situation where Muslims, for example, refuse to allow pork or alcohol through the supermarket checkouts they are operating. The reality of the situation seems to be that the religious are upset because they think they are being discriminated against because they are not allowed to discriminate against others.

When you think about it for a moment, there are so many different interpretations of so many different religious laws, that we would live in a totally chaotic society if there were no central laws to keep order. I wonder how many people of different religions think their religious freedom is under attack because they aren’t allowed to burn witches, or kill apostates, or carry out stonings, beheadings, amputations and all the rest of it that is going on around the world right now? Then again, no religion is known for toleration; it’s a pity toleration has to be enforced by (secular) law.

It’s about time that religious people just accepted the fact that in a secular  democracy they have the right to follow their religion without interference (they aren’t going to be executed by the state for following their religion, after all), but at the same time, they have an obligation to allow others their own freedoms – whether they like it or not, and no, they are not being persecuted, they are merely being required by law to act like civilised people in a civilised society.

When you get down to it, there are thousands of religions, and many of them are represented in this country. If we want a coherent society where everyone can live together in some kind of peaceful co-existence, then there has to be a system of laws that do not prefer one religion over another, and which restrict what people are allowed to do to either promote or defend their religious beliefs. The same applies to atheists like me – I want the right to not be religious, without being attacked because I don’t believe the same way as some other people. I don’t mind if others want to pray to their imaginary god (and let’s be honest here: I am not alone as an atheist claiming that the religious are worshipping an imaginary god; every religious person believes that the people of every other religion are worshipping an imaginary god or gods. In a very real way, every religious person is convinced that the gods of the various other religions just don’t exist; in that sense, everyone on Earth is united. No one believes that the other fellow’s religion is true. For every god that is claimed to be real there is an overwhelming majority of people who think they are wrong, ergo, there is no god. Maybe.).

I wonder what would happen if I lived in America as a heterosexual atheist, and applied to Kim Davis for a licence to marry a woman, say another heterosexual atheist. Would she feel justified in refusing a licence to me because I don’t believe in her particular god? Or could I insist that I would accept a licence only from an atheist clerk? Or could I quote the Bible as a justification that in the eyes of God she herself is an adulteress, having been married four times (so far) and is therefore unfit for her post and should be put to death according to biblical law? And what if I insisted and incited other people to do that? Obviously I should be arrested if I were serious, but I’m a reasonable and rational thinker, so it ain’t really gonna happen, is it? All I can do is look at the whole sorry mess and shake my head as I ponder the irrationality of religion dividing humanity rather than uniting it – as so many of the religious claim to be trying to do.

If you have read this far, you might be starting to understand why I think that all religions are just magnets for bigots, and if they weren’t bigots before they got religion, then they certainly become so once they accept it – from the youngest possible age if they were born into it.

I’m an atheist. I don’t need religion to tell me it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie or do anything else that causes harm to any other person. Those principles were in place thousands of years before the Abrahamic religions existed, and they existed in prehistoric societies just because it was a sensible way to make those societies exist peacefully. No gods are required to have an orderly and peaceful existence. It is the belief in gods that divides people and buggers it all up for everyone – every time.

Being divisive because of belief in any any gods is Bad Thinking; accommodating others whatever their beliefs if they cause no harm to anyone else is better thinking.

The Poison Of Religion

Raif Badawi pic from the BBC

In January this year (2015) Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi received the first fifty of one thousand lashes he was sentenced to by the Saudi Arabian “justice” system for being disrespectful to Islam. He had also been sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine, although it goes without saying that he is unlikely to survive such a flogging – even if it is to be carried out in stages, supposedly giving him time to recover sufficiently enough for the full sentence to be administered.

And while this is going on, Saudi Arabia is – unbelievably – actually on the UN’s Human Rights Council!

There has, of course, been an international outcry over the barbarism that is being inflicted on a man who had the courage to speak out in favour of the freedoms we enjoy in civilised western countries, where we can think freely and even criticise the status quo. But in an Islamic state like Saudi, independent thought and expression of dissenting beliefs can invite horrendous punishment and even death. And this is the 21st century!

The sentence of another fifty lashes has been postponed numerous times since January, giving some hope that the Saudi authorities might have been giving the case further consideration, and possibly even been willing to give in to the worldwide pressure to revise the sentence imposed on Raif. Unfortunately, as the BBC reports, the Saudi regime has confirmed that the original sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years jail will be carried out.

To their shame, western governments aren’t really making as much of a fuss as they could, or should, nor will they as long as they are so eager to buy Saudi oil, and equally eager to sell them arms. Not only that, but the newly-elected Conservative Party government in Britain has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act that protects every citizen in the UK from the same medieval barbarism that leaves every person in Islamic countries in fear of the ominous rap on the door in the middle of the night. Or just the wrath of an ignorant lynch mob at any time of the day.

There is little I can do as an individual to help this man whose “crime” is nothing more than speaking reasonably. All I can do is add my own voice to the many others who are speaking out and hope that eventually it might make a difference. Add your voice too, if you cherish – and want to keep – the freedom to think for yourself.

In the UK and other western countries, everyone has freedom of conscience, and that includes the freedom to follow any religion without hindrance, as well as the freedom to follow no religion at all. That’s the way it should be, but it doesn’t happen in any country where politics and theocracy are so intertwined that they become, in fact, the same thing.

Religion, as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, poisons everything.

Creationism Is Not Science

IMG_20150110_175325My last post was a very brief answer to an article in the Shields Gazette on Thursday, 26th March 2015, in which Mike Hallowell complained that I have criticised his anti-scientific beliefs. I said I would give a fuller answer to his article on the Bad Thinking blog because his original article has not been published on the Gazette’s website. I obviously don’t have a right to reply there, but at least I can reply here.

Mike reckons he doesn’t have a problem with science itself, it’s the “culture that often surrounds it” that bothers him.

Mike says:

I don’t mind scientists telling me what they’ve discovered, but what I don’t take kindly to is being told what I should believe.

Give me the facts, but don’t get heavy-handed with me and tell me how I should interpret them.

In all probability I’ll bow to the expertise of scientists, but I reserve the right not to on occasion. And that’s what some individuals don’t like.

All creationists are happy to accept what science has to say, but only up to a certain point: if science comes up with something that happens to contradict a religious believer’s faith, then that is where their acceptance of scientific discovery stops.

Mike is under no obligation to believe what science has to say about anything, but what “some individuals don’t like” is the campaigning by many creationists to have religion taught in science classes. Religion and science are totally separate issues that are simply not compatible with each other.

Similarly, the so-called “debate” between evolutionists and creationists is a non-issue, except for the creationists. If they want to believe that a god or gods created the universe and the life within it, no one is stopping them from following their religious beliefs. Science would quite happily ignore religion if only religion would keep itself to itself. Unfortunately, religions do not produce new knowledge; what the religious believe is already written down and it would be considered blasphemous to question holy scriptures, so nothing in religion is going to be tested, questioned or changed in the light of new scientific research. Creationism is simply not scientific, and “creation science” is just an oxymoron.

I find it ironic, however, that the religious – like Mike in his article – refer to what they call “scientific dogma.” At the same time, they also claim – like Mike does in his article – that science changes, even to the point of discarding ideas that were eventually found to be wrong. He says science is dogmatic, in an article where he also says it is always changing. He appears to see no contradiction there.

But what about those scientists he mentions who had religious beliefs? After moaning that I have said in the past that if creationists could be reasoned with, there would be no creationists, he says;

I don’t know about you, but I find that sort of attitude appallingly arrogant, for it forces us to presume that great minds like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Herschel, Joule, Pasteur and Kelvin were so beyond the pail (sic) of rational thinking that they could not be reasoned with.

As far as I have been able to determine, all of these geniuses believed in a creator.

What Mike says there is simply a red herring – a rhetorical device intended to divert his readers’ attention. Perhaps all the scientists he lists were believers in a creator; Isaac Newton in particular was a devout Christian, but he saw himself as merely discovering and describing what he believed was his god’s creation. Nowhere in his scientific writings does he invoke any supernatural explanation for any of his observations. Other scientists don’t appeal to the supernatural either.

The same applies when a similar argument is utilised with regard to the USA, for instance. Yes, it is a world leader in science; it is also a very religious (primarily Christian) country. But its scientific accomplishments are despite, not because of, the religiosity of its citizens. The science is done by (mostly godless) scientists, not by those who are motivated by, and seek, supernatural explanations for what we see in the world and the universe around us. The US constitution keeps religion out of state schools and universities. Keep in mind the fact that scientific breakthroughs come from purely secular institutions, not Bible colleges or any other religious organisation.

Natural events can be explained by natural causes, and you will not find any legitimate scientific research report appealing to the supernatural as a cause for anything. Whether the religious like it or not, science progresses while religion stagnates.

Mike then comments:

Swiftsure also admits that science “is not a perfect system” but if it isn’t perfect, why should people be ridiculed for rejecting some of the things science currently teaches?

It’s true that science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have to find out about the objective reality that is out there. Those who reject science are ridiculed when they make claims that are, well, ridiculous.

Using the same oxymoron as above, Mike continues:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The point here, though, is that the people he refers to are not doing any actual science anyway. It’s a classic example of people who think their beliefs have – or should have – equal standing with empirical research, whining that science ignores them. If they could come up with solid evidence to support their beliefs rather than just trying to nit pick perceived faults with evolutionary theory then they would be taken seriously. But trying to replace established and well tested biological science with “God did it” isn’t good enough. Strong faith is regarded as an admirable characteristic in religion, but in science faith is a weakness (even a liability) not a strength.

Mike’s next comment merely illustrates that he is talking about things he does not understand:

I don’t get angry in the least when I hear people deny creationism, but I openly confess I do not like the high-handed, arrogant and often venomous way in which some evolutionists belittle those who do not agree with their views on the origin of life.

This is the standard trope of the typical uninformed creationist, who thinks that science is trying to compete with their particular god or gods. For Mike Hallowell’s benefit, let me make this point clear: no one knows how life originated. Science makes no claims about how life began (although there are people working on it). The theory of evolution has nothing to say about how life started. Evolution is a science that investigates how life evolved after it began, not how it came about.

The next thing Mike says is possibly the most eye-rolling of his diatribe:

We’re told science is “self-correcting”, [Mike is referring to me, again, informing him of that], but that’s a process which only works if one allows for dissent and open debate.

And you can’t have open debate if you believe those who disagree with you are too stupid to be reasoned with.

Creationists who disagree with science with regard to evolution are in the same situation as someone who disagrees with the accepted “dogma” that an internal combustion engine has to be operated with petrol or diesel fuel. Dissent and open debate are regular features of science – but that happens between scientists, who do change and adapt their theories in response to new evidence. But should a non-engineer who has no training in, and knows nothing about, engines be “debated” with? Such a person obviously can’t be reasoned with. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, but their ignorance can hardly be denied.

Mike is still on his high-horse, however. He says:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

I don’t know about any literal bullying, harassment or threats that Mike mentions, although those people might interpret the rejection of their anti-scientific views as being that. In reality, creationists cannot get a foothold in academia for the simple reason that the very concept of “creation science” is a non-starter as a method of discovery. The only thing creationists do is to try to pick faults with existing evolutionary theory – particularly in areas where there is genuine disagreement between real scientists. Where there are areas in which scientists don’t know yet what is happening, creationists fill those gaps in knowledge with the all-encompassing and untestable “God did it.” The true purpose of creationism is to get rid of any aspect of science that contradicts the actual dogma of religion.

But Mike isn’t finished yet:

No matter how convinced you are about the wonders of science, just remember: behind every currently accepted scientific doctrine lies a long trail of discarded ones which seemed just as sensible in their day.

Unlike religion, of course, where the battle against disease and every other adversity we come across is fought the same as it always was: with faith, prayer and an assortment of rituals and incantations.

Science itself didn’t actually start on any particular date; it began when thinking people started to question religion. A drought was never overcome by prayer, for instance, but some people reasoned that bypassing gods and digging irrigation ditches would work – and it did. While some people were offering worship to their god during an outbreak of cholera, others were actually doing something useful – finding a source of clean water that was not contaminated with whatever was actually causing the disease. Those people were wrong when they thought cholera was caused by a miasma – a bad smell – and they discarded that idea when they found out about germ theory. Yes, that’s pretty much how science works – by keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t. But Mike sees that as a bad thing.

Before science as we know it now, people were lucky if they lived to their mid twenties. It is the advancement of science that has brought us out of the dark ages, but it is the unchanging dogma of religion that would take us straight back there. And it might yet succeed. Mike, according to his article, is clearly also a global warming “sceptic,” (read, denialist) and he has the same complaints about science and what it has to say on the matter.

Unfortunately, the anti-science lobby is very influential, supported by religion and vested interests. However, when the rising water levels on this planet start lapping around the denialists’ ankles, they might start to pray, but by then it might also be too late. We have a realistic chance of avoiding disaster if we act now by listening to, and acting upon, what science has to say about it.

When the Earth becomes a water-planet with most of what is left of the land a parched wilderness, science will be able to do no more than say, “I told you so.” And the religious will replace their failed prayers with, “It was God’s will; we can’t do anything about it. Praise the Lord.”

If religion would stop trying to interfere with reality, we would all – including the religious – be much better off.

Meanwhile, here is a snapshot of our evolutionary history. No one is being told they have to believe it, it just happens to be true whether you believe it or not.

IMG_20150111_200601

Addendum: This is strange; the above article is now on the Gazette website here:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/kicking-up-a-stink-over-origins-of-life-1-7178249#comments-area

It doesn’t appear on any of my feeds on any of several computers I use in different locations on different networks, and I came across it only by chance when I was looking for something else. Nevertheless, you can now click over there and read it; there are some interesting criticisms (at least there are at the moment; it’s not unknown for the Gazette to remove criticisms, so read now while you have the chance).

Who Saw That Coming?

A long time ago, a solar eclipse was seen as a portent of doom, you know. Oh, yes. The religious, who claim they have revealed knowledge through divine revelation and prophecy were always taken unawares when some astronomical event happened. Within the last 24 hours it was a solar eclipse that happened, but it was predicted by science, not revelation.

Maybe we are making some progress, in a way. We don’t experience a mass panic nowadays when the sky darkens and the Sun is blotted out temporarily for reasons that science can explain, but historically, the religious could not explain, except by invoking a non-existent angry deity. Solar and Lunar eclipses are predicted with precision to the exact second for centuries to come, not by religious insight, but by physics.

It’s as simple as this – as Carl Sagan pointed out many years ago – no religion has the predictive power of science. And I suppose I could add that no religion has the insight into “creation” that science has.

Here is my own (barely significant) contribution to scientific observation of the universe: one of the photographs I took of the eclipse:

SAM_0440

 

I had expected that if the sky had been clear then I would have used my home-made pinhole projector to watch it happen (as I did in 1999 when the last eclipse around here happened), but cloudy skies prevented that. Maybe it was better for me that observing conditions weren’t “perfect,” otherwise I wouldn’t have a permanent record of the eclipse. So there you have it.

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?

Pegasus 

So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

Science Doesn’t Know Everything

MP900341489It’s true – science doesn’t know everything. It’s also true that science has been wrong about things in the past. There have also been cases of scientists committing fraud by falsifying their research results, and some of the big research companies have not exactly been untouched by charges of outright corruption. I’ve even highlighted some of that on this blog myself. So is it time to give science the heave-ho?

Actually, although science has to face up to the same problems that confront every other institution or business, it is in fact the most valuable and successful enterprise humanity has ever created.

It goes without saying, of course, that the religious and the woo people don’t like it because it usually contradicts their cherished beliefs. Religious and paranormal claims have nothing to support them by way of testable hypotheses: science cannot even confirm that anything supernatural or paranormal is happening anyway, never mind what these mysterious forces might be. What is “psychic energy,” for example? Science happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy, so why can’t it detect so-called psychic energy? Is it just because science doesn’t know everything?

When you get down to it, though, the religious and the woomeisters accept and rely on science in every aspect of their lives except one specific area – their own particular, closely-held cherished beliefs. I detect some hypocrisy here.

Take religion, for example. Ask a believer to do something extraordinary by prayer (that they believe works), and you get a refusal because “it doesn’t work like that.” God will not be put to the test, or some such excuse. A religious person whose life is saved by medical science prays to and thanks their particular god for their cure; the physician or surgeon who did it gets a polite thank you as an afterthought.

Take woo in general. If you meet someone who claims to be psychic, ask for next Saturday’s lottery numbers, but you will be told “It doesn’t work like that.” (Psychic powers are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will – or any of a list of similar excuses.)

For these people, science is regarded as useless – only because science doesn’t support their beliefs. But science is not about belief, it is about things that can be tested. When yet another psychic fails an objective test of his or her powers, there is always an (untestable) excuse for their failure. Does the presence of an unbeliever (a sceptic) really “upset the vibrations”? What vibrations? Psychic vibrations? What are they and how can they be tested?

The remarkable aspect of all investigations into the alleged paranormal is that parapsychologists assume the existence of the paranormal only because they are unable to find a natural explanation for what they can’t explain. It’s a bit silly, if you consider it for a moment: “I have observed something; I can’t think of how it could have been done by normal means; therefore it is paranormal activity.”

Personally, I have watched magicians do things that I can’t explain. Then again, after some consideration, I have been able to work out for myself how some of those tricks were done. There are many other tricks that I cannot work out. But one of my correspondents told me some time ago that he had interviewed Uri Geller who, he believes, bent one of his keys, and he “knows” that Geller (magician) just could not have fooled him.

Similarly, some years ago, when I was arguing a point on another blog, I asked my correspondent if he would be confident enough to sit with me in a theatre, watching a stage magician, and explain to me as the act went on, just how those tricks were being done. I got no reply of any significance to that, but I think he might have realised that maybe he, like me, cannot just see through the trickery and deception that stage magicians use to entertain us all. But some alleged psychics do the same thing – is there a good reason to think that just because you can’t immediately explain something unusual that it must be paranormal, supernatural or just actual magic?

Science tries to find out what is going on out there. It’s true that science doesn’t know everything, and there are lots of gaps, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to fill in those gaps with guesswork that just happens to align with their personal beliefs. In fact, historically, every time science takes a step forward, religion and woo have to take a step back. Those gaps are closing.

It’s an easy claim, of course: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore this or that paranormal or supernatural claim must be true by default. What else could it be?” But look at it this way: does science know more than it did last year? What about the state of scientific knowledge a hundred years ago? Until the late 19th century, science as we understand it now was called “natural philosophy,” but in those days science – a systematic search for knowledge – was still going on.

Think back to the ancient Greeks (or should that be the ancient Geeks?). Although they believed in gods, the work they produced was nothing short of astonishing. Eratosthenes worked out that the Earth is a sphere (approximately), and its size to within a few miles, for example, although in the same society Socrates was regarded as something of a heretic and was sentenced to death. Rather like today, any scientific research is OK just so long as it doesn’t contradict religious dogma.

Clever as they were, though, the Greeks didn’t develop radio telescopes, space flight, antibiotics, electricity, computers, the internet, a theory of nuclear fusion (they thought the Sun was a burning hot stone), a theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, a global positioning system, television, radio, etc., in other words, all of the things we just accept as normal nowadays. Philosophy preceded natural philosophy, which in turn preceded science as we know it now. Back in those days, there was plenty of scope to say philosophy (science, in other words) “doesn’t know everything.”

Things weren’t much different from now, two and a half thousand years ago, when it comes to wanting to know what makes the Earth and the universe “tick.” As clever as the Greeks were, they still had the same psychology that humans have today – an inbuilt need for answers. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to accept any answer, however wrong it might be, just to feel that they know what is out there. Thunder and lightning? If you don’t know about electrical charge and how it builds up in a cloud, leading to a lightning strike, then a made-up angry god will be a good enough explanation. And once you and your tribe have that belief built into your culture, woe betide any upstart philosopher, natural philosopher or scientist who tells you that you don’t need to sacrifice animals – or humans – to appease this non-existent god. The philosopher or scientist who shows that disaster can be avoided with a lightning rod could end up on a pyre for disagreeing with accepted religious doctrine.

SAM_0423I notice, however, that every church I pass when I drive around just happens to have a lightning conductor that reaches even above the steeple of that church. Why should that be? And why should that piece of copper cable reach higher towards God than the top of the steeple itself? Maybe it’s a better protector of God’s house than God himself.

The empirical knowledge we have now is way beyond anything the ancient Greeks had, and since then, that knowledge has increased and is still increasing. And over the last two and a half thousand years, there has been opposition to scientific knowledge from ignorant people – often as a mob – who think they have some insight unavailable to those who actually test and measure the universe around us. From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by (probably) a Christian mob, to the famous book burnings by the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century, to the burning of priceless books and the destruction of ancient relics right now at the Mosul Library in Iraq by Islamic militants, the fight against knowledge by the ignorant continues.

Although it’s true that science doesn’t know everything, it knows more and more as time goes by, steadily closing the gaps that were formerly filled by claims of a god or gods. But science knows better than the ignorant that as questions about the universe are answered, more questions are thrown up in their wake. That’s what spurs science on.

The religious can claim, “God did it,” as if that answers anything at all, but religion does not lead to new knowledge, it leads to stagnation.

The paranormalists also stop further inquiry by not only failing to demonstrate anything paranormal, but by excusing their failure to do so by criticising science – those closed-minded researchers who are hell-bent on “preserving scientific dogma at all costs.” But while they accuse science of preserving some imagined, unchanging dogma, they also claim that science is always “changing its mind” about things.

The reality is that science tests the testable. It makes no attempt to actually explain nature, science merely describes nature. Why nature and the laws of physics are the way they are will likely never be explained. But the facts of nature and the laws of physics can be described and utilised for our benefit, even if no one will ever know “why” they are the way they are.

I don’t why E=MC^2, but it does. So we have GPS satellite navigation, nuclear reactors providing our electricity needs and so on. When you get down to it, piety and prayer provide nothing of practical value in the world, paranormal claims provide nothing of practical value in the world, no amount of belief in anything gives us anything of any use whatsoever.

If you have an electricity supply in your home; a connection to a safe water supply available, literally on tap; if you can access the internet or health care or even a library, then you are reaping the benefits brought about by science. If you really want to claim that because science challenges your deeply held beliefs that it doesn’t support, then just stop using science and its benefits. You don’t have to go far to prove you are right and science is wrong; just contact your energy supplier and have your electricity supply cut off. If you have a gas supply for your heating, that’s even better – have that disconnected too. Have your water supply stopped. Pray to your god to sustain you, or use your psychic powers to survive. If you can do it, science can measure it and confirm that there is something going on here.

That’s not going to happen, is it? In the meantime, science might not know everything, but it works. Religion and woo don’t.

Then again, I’m a sceptic. I can change my mind in the same way that science changes in the light of new evidence. Show me the evidence. Or show me next week’s lottery numbers. Or create world peace with a prayer.

Darwin Day And Other Musings

I’m a bit late posting this, but better late than never, perhaps. Work and family commitments have kept me away from blogging for the last few weeks.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin was born on 12th February, 1809, and yesterday we celebrated that event. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection unifies all of the biological sciences, and has led to some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in history. It is arguably the most important theory in all of science, and is also perhaps the most tested and confirmed.

Unfortunately, religions in general do not accept it because to do so means that there is little room left for a creator god. Although evolutionary theory does not disprove the existence of any gods, it certainly disposes of the idea of the supernatural creation of all life in its present form within the last few thousand years. Consequently, some religions have been forced to modify their interpretation of their holy scriptures, and reluctantly reinterpret their creation myths as being allegorical rather than factual accounts of how life arose on this planet. Even the fact that we live on a planet orbiting the Sun was a discovery that some early astronomers paid for with their lives after contradicting church dogma.

That’s the problem with religion. Dogmatic beliefs will not be swayed by evidence or logic.

Although evolution has been accepted – at least in part – by many religions, there are the fundamentalists who deny it unconditionally. It’s particularly worrying in America, where some elected politicians make repeated attempts to either have evolution dropped from school lessons, or have bills introduced to “teach the controversy” (although there is no controversy within science about the fact of evolution).

I find it incredible that, even though the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, not to mention easily available and well promoted, there are those who claim, quite seriously, that “there is no evidence at all for evolution.” This is denialism on a breathtaking scale. Anyone interested in the subject can buy an introductory book in almost any bookstore; there are libraries full of information; there are many high quality TV documentaries that explain evolution (anything by David Attenborough is worth watching); there are websites and blogs that cover the subject in exquisite detail and there are even museums displaying physical artefacts that can be seen and sometimes even physically handled. Yet despite all that, there are plenty of people who simply say the evidence is not there, despite it being offered to them. Denying evidence when it is offered is just seriously bad thinking.

Maybe it’s just the other side of the woo coin. As a sceptic, I doubt that the Earth is being visited by alien beings, for example, but I would love the chance to examine the evidence that UFO promoters say is out there. There’s a snag, however. No one will offer any testable evidence whatsoever. There’s no shortage of people claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials (up to four million claimants in the USA alone), or former military people claiming they have seen or personally examined aliens and their alleged craft, but that is not evidence of anything. If you happen to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than someone else’s say so, then you will believe anything.

That’s where religious and paranormal claims seem to meet – in a disjointed sort of way. Believing in gods on faith without evidence is similar to believing that ET is here, also without evidence. The difference, however, is that the religious will deny the existence of evidence for evolution despite it being there; the believers in aliens expect others to believe their claims but cannot provide believable evidence even though sceptics like me keep asking to see it. It would be particularly fascinating to have physical contact with an alien civilisation, to be able to study their own biological evolution in comparison with our own.

The laws of physics operate all over the universe, so it’s likely – perhaps inevitable – that the cosmos is teeming with evolving life. Even so, the same laws of physics put limits on what can happen within the universe. Can alien spaceships travel faster than light? Maybe not, but what about warping space for fast travel? Theoretically possible, maybe, but maybe just not practical, given the astronomical amounts of energy it would take. Wormholes? Another theoretical possibility that apparently disappears up its own mathematics.

The hurdles that would have to be overcome to make interstellar travel possible – at least in any practical timescale – are huge, and the idea itself might be nothing more than a forlorn hope. Then again, if there are technological civilisations out there, then they are most likely to be discovered by detection of their radio signals – even if face to face meetings aren’t possible.

In the meantime, evolution deniers will continue to ignore the evidence that is there in abundance, and the alien visitation advocates will continue to fail to provide the evidence they say is there, but can’t provide. The evidence for evolution is there for everyone to examine; the evidence for alien visitation is not. Such is the power of faith (a belief held without evidence): at the end of the day, it is no wonder that the major advances made by modern civilisation have come about by scientific exploration, not religion or woo.

As far as ET is concerned, there is still an absence of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, but for anyone who wants to claim some kind of victory over sceptics by quoting Carl Sagan’s famous dictum, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” it does not follow from the fact that the evidence is absent that the evidence is there, or even might be. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, but after decades of claims of alien encounters there is absolutely nothing – nothing at all – that the ET buffs have proven, nor is there even any physical evidence that can be tested. And they wonder why some of us are sceptical.

At least with evolution, Charles Darwin presented his evidence (coinciding with another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, coming to the same conclusion independently). And since then, the foundations laid by Darwin have been built upon and gone far beyond anything Darwin himself could possibly have imagined. Evolution – descent with modification by the process of natural selection – is a fact. Only an uneducated fool could deny the evidence for evolution. But there are plenty of those around.

Charles Darwin deserves to be – and should be – remembered. Many of us would not be here without him.