19 October 2011

The story of an Indian atheist

The October 10 issue of The New Yorker has an article by Akash Kapur about an Indian cow broker named R. Ramadas (‘The Shandy’, online abstract here). Kapur writes about Ramadas’s line of work in the context of a rapidly modernising India. As expected of a New Yorker piece, Kapur’s journalism is engaging, eye-opening and full of pathos without being condescending or mawkish.

The article takes an unexpected turn when the reader discovers that Ramadas is an atheist. I say ‘unexpected’ because Ramadas is a poor, uneducated man born into the Dalit, or ‘untouchable’, caste of a highly religious and superstitious society. The trend is for religion to be more prevalent among those who share Ramadas’s demographic traits. Yet, amazingly, he bucks that trend.

Kapur writes:

[Ramadas] said people always talked about gods and the miracles they’d supposedly performed. People believed the gods could heal a disease. But where was the proof? Ramadas believed only in what he could see. He believed in science. He believed in doctors and their injections.

18 October 2011

Religion: identity or idea?

Non-religious folks like me admittedly find it hard to understand how religious believers can get so emotionally invested in their beliefs. Any criticism or ridicule aimed at what is (to non-believers) obviously just a set of ideas no more sacred than any other set of ideas – whether political, cultural, philosophical – can often be taken as highly personal attacks by holders of those ideas. This conflation of ideas with identity allows believers to accuse religion’s critics of prejudice, even racism, when this is certainly not the case.

Greta Christina tackles this issue with her usual clarity and frankness. The following two paragraphs from her post describe both the nature of religious privilege and the outcome of denying religion that privilege.

A big part of what makes religion flourish is the special treatment it gets. The idea that religion is special and should be treated differently from other human ideas and activities is a ridiculously common one. It’s common to think that its leaders deserve special deference, that its holy places and relics should be treated with reverence, that people who are unusually religious must also be unusually virtuous, that it’s inherently rude or bigoted to criticize it. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In an armored tank.

So criticizing religion doesn’t just have the effect of sometimes persuading people out of it. It also has the effect of repositioning religion as just another idea. It has the effect of treating religion the same way we treat ideas about politics, science, art, philosophy, medicine, ethics, social policy, etc. — namely, as fair game. Ideas that have to stand up on their own. Ideas that are only as good as the evidence and reason supporting them. Ideas that can be questioned and challenged and made fun of and blasted into shrapnel, just like any other. Criticizing religion doesn’t just expose religion as a singularly bad, entirely indefensible idea. It reframes it as an idea, period.

Christina also has a few words of caution for ardent critics of sky-fairyism:

I think that when we do hammer on the idea [of religion], we need to be very careful, and very rigorous, about hammering the idea without insulting the people.

We need to be very careful to say, “That idea makes no rational sense” — and not say, “You’re irrational.” We need to be very careful to say, “That idea is entirely divorced from reality” — and not say, “You are entirely divorced from reality.” We need to be very careful to say, “That’s a ridiculous and stupid idea” — and not say, “You are ridiculous and stupid.”

It may be trite advice, but if we critics of religion want to uphold the moral and intellectual integrity of our position, we would do well to bear these words in mind as we go about shooting down one lousy idea after another.

Happy hunting!


17 October 2011

Why (and how) science is incompatible with religion

Over at The Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini explains why science and religion are oil and water, despite the intellectual acrobatics of theologians, religious scientists and ‘faithists’ (non-believers who nonetheless believe in the value of belief) defending accommodationism. Baggini’s article is a more eloquent version of my own arguments against the Gouldian concept of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, or NOMA. I used the analogy of science and religion (supposedly) occupying two separate rooms but religion constantly intrudes into science’s room. Baggini expands on this illustration by showing how religion intrudes into the room it apparently has no business in entering, if the accommodationists are to be believed.

Accommodationists maintain that science is purely concerned with the ‘how’ questions, while religion deals with the ‘why’ questions. Both are compatible with each other so long as they stick to their respective spheres of expertise. But Baggini demonstrates that such claims are incorrect, even dishonest:

It sounds like a clear enough distinction, but maintaining it proves to be very difficult indeed. Many "why" questions are really "how" questions in disguise. For instance, if you ask: "Why does water boil at 100C?" what you are really asking is: "What are the processes that explain it has this boiling point?" – which is a question of how.

Critically, however, scientific "why" questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, "why" is usually what I call "agency-why": it's an explanation involving causation with intention.

So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn't belong.

That’s the nub of this whole affair: religion assumes the necessity of agency, so all scientific ‘why’ questions that are agency-free will run afoul of religion, which sees itself as the only institution permitted to handle ‘why’ questions, questions that, from a religious perspective, inevitably have answers involving agency i.e. God. And by insisting on the ‘agency-why’ nature of agency-free questions, religion ends up trespassing into the domain of science, because ‘agency-why’ questions often turn into ‘how’ questions, which accommodationists assure us are the sole preserve of science. As Baggini points out:

This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific "how" and religious "why" questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.

Baggini exposes the falsehood of accommodationism’s premises: contrary to the NOMA ‘law’, religion keeps meddling in scientific matters because the strict separation that accommodationists believe exists actually doesn’t. Consequently, the myth of compatibility between science and religion is debunked; conflict between evidence-based understanding and faith is basically guaranteed when faith continually challenges the processes and findings of science.

So religion, by its inherent propensity for seeing agency in everything, including agency-free phenomena, cannot avoid interfering in the scientific enterprise because for religion, all ‘how’ questions are also ‘why’ questions. And the thing is, science also sees it that way, if in reverse – many ‘why’ questions are really ‘how’ questions. The key difference is that science doesn’t require agency to come up with answers. Religion always does.

Here’s an elegant graphic showing another way in which science and religion differ in their approach to finding answers to questions (click on the image to enlarge).

HT: Jerry Coyne


12 October 2011

There should be more bookshops like this

Given the despondent bookstore scene in Melbourne, the arrival of Embiggen Books is glad news. Formerly based in Noosaville on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, this independent bookstore packed up earlier this year for cooler climes southward, making its new home right in the Melbourne CBD (central business district).

But you know what’s more awesome, by orders of magnitude, than a mere indie bookstore? An indie bookstore that has “the biggest range of popular science titles in stock in the observable universe” and also sells scientific equipment and giftware, that deliberately refuses to sell books promoting pseudoscience, mysticism and irrational, baseless nonsense, and that is active in the skepticism movement.

An excerpt from the Embiggen Books website:

[The bookshop’s] parents Mr and Mrs Embiggen have had long interests in evidence based understanding, reason and life, the universe and everything. They have sieved out pseudoscience wherever they smell it so you won’t find new age malarkey in the stock list.

Imagine that, a bookshop with no self-proclaimed spiritual gurus, no anti-science screeds, no outright con jobs like The Secret, maybe even no section on religion (I haven’t visited the store yet). There will most likely be books on the history and philosophy of religion, perhaps of a comparative nature, but it would be wonderful to note an absence of books hawking one brand of sky-fairyism or another.

Fellow Melbournians who appreciate science, reason and skepticism, and books promoting them, while also having a sentimental fondness for brick-and-mortar bookstores are duly exhorted to pay Embiggen Books a visit, and support them with your custom. You can also buy books online and have them delivered to you, so even non-Melbournians can support a business dedicated to science, reason and skepticism.

The address and contact number for Embiggen Books:

197-203 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne, 3000

Phone: (03) 9662 2062

HT: Russell Blackford


11 October 2011

Hitchens recommends books to a young, bright girl

Christopher Hitchens recently attended the Atheist Alliance of America convention in Houston, Texas. Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has uploaded videos of Hitchens receiving the Richard Dawkins Award for promoting freethought and atheism, and holding forth on Rick Perry and Mormonism.

A highlight of the event was Hitchens taking the time to have a one-on-one chat with 8-year-old Mason Crumpacker. During the Q&A session Mason had asked Hitchens what books he thought she should read in order to become a freethinker like him. Hitchens graciously offered to see Mason afterwards to give her his recommendations.

Coyne has a post on the exchange between Hitchens and Mason written by Mason’s mum Anne, who accompanied her daughter. It was a beautiful moment, when one of the most keen and erudite minds alive today passed on a precious fragment of his mental library to a young, precocious girl who hoped to follow in his footsteps. A dying man planted seeds of knowledge and wisdom in the mind of a potential successor.

Mason wrote a lovely thank you letter to Hitchens:

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

Thank you for your kindness to me and all of the wonderful books you recommended to help me think for myself. Thank you also for taking my question very seriously. When I was talking to you I felt important because you treated me like a grown up. I feel very fortunate to have met you. I think more children should read books. I also think that all adults should be honest to children like you to me. For the rest of my life I will remember and cherish our meeting and will try to continue to ask questions.


P.S. I would like to start with “The Myths” by Robert Graves.

Anne Crumpacker captures that fateful meeting between Hitchens and Mason with heartbreaking poignancy:

I’m not a professional writer, just a mom, but if I get to make only one comment it would be this: There isn’t a magic reading list. Never was. Never will be. The reason what transpired that night was memorable was the wondrous Socratic feel of the exchange. Here was a man, a great thinker of our time who has spent his life developing and honing his intellect, challenging the next generation to pick up the mantle. What all these books have in common is they demand us to question, search and engage. They don’t preach, patronize or indoctrinate. They are a joyful expression of the whole of the human experience. The very best examples of a life fully lived.

We are about to lose a giant among us, but we, as atheists know there can be no greater Valhalla then to join the great conversation of the philosophers. We can honor Christopher Hitchens’ life by teaching our children his best virtues: to study broadly, to laugh heartily, to fight ardently, and to question relentlessly. Books are timeless companions and friends. Mason will surely spend her life in the company of illustrious authors gone before. Naturally, she was introduced to many of them that night by a kind man, with flashing eyes, sitting at a table who is about to join their company.


10 October 2011

Alt-med woo peddlers aren’t happy that their bullshit is being exposed

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has an article on their website about the frustration of ‘alternative’ medicine woomongers in the UK over having their lies and misinformation being exposed by skeptics, with help from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Looks like the alt-med crowd is feeling the impact of awareness-raising campaigns run by skeptic activists; alt-med’s often baseless claims regarding the efficacy of its treatments and products are being publicly challenged, and independent regulators like the ASA are lending their muscle to the skeptic cause.

Referring to real doctors and skeptics, this statement from the pro-alt-med website ASA Sucks (how mature) clearly indicates alt-med’s disdain for scientific rigour in determining the efficacy of medical treatments:

Their reason for hating complementary medicine is based on the ill-founded belief that double blind placebo based trials are good science.

Far from being an “ill-founded belief”, double blind placebo trials are essential to prevent subject and tester bias from compromising the objectivity of the trial. Using this method is definitely a sign that good science is being done. Alt-med folks understandably dislike double blind placebo trials because they all too often produce results that do not confirm alt-med claims. Since they are emotionally invested in their anti-conventional medicine ideology, alt-med folks blame the double blind placebo method for the failure of their ‘theories’, rather than the inherent flaws of their ideology.

Concerning the ASA Sucks website, Tim Farley, who wrote the JREF article, makes the following observations:

In a pattern we’ve seen before, the complaint site does not stick to factual debate, but delves deep into logical fallacies, conspiracy theory thinking and other canards. It makes rude comments about Simon Singh and others, but somehow manages to miss the fact (clearly published on the [skeptic organisation] Nightingale Collaboration website) that the group is actually run by [Alan] Henness and [Maria] MacLachlan.

Meanwhile the complaint site itself was registered anonymously Monday through a U.S. company and is hosted on servers in Malaysia. None of the text on the site is signed, there’s no indication of who is behind this effort. Whoever is behind it is not only angry, but anxious to not be publicly known. (Compare this with the skeptics, who are very open about what they are doing, and even have posted a code of conduct).

The people behind ASA Sucks can’t be very convinced of the righteousness of their cause if they haven’t got the integrity to back up their accusations with their names.

In the immortal words of Tim Minchin:

Do you know what they call “alternative medicine” that’s been proved to work? Medicine.


06 October 2011

Steven Pinker’s new book

Human beings are becoming less and less violent. This is the premise of renowned psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Pinker is considered to be one of the finest science writers of our time, with a gift for making complex ideas accessible to the layperson in his typically lucid yet highly informative writing style. His book on human language, The Language Instinct (1994), is a science classic. Reading The Blank Slate (2002) was a milestone in my intellectual journey. Pinker’s arguments against the tabula rasa theories of the social sciences left an indelible impression on me, and he convincingly demolished the ‘noble savage’ and ‘ghost in the machine’ ideas so widely held. I’m looking forward to reading his latest work for a similarly illuminating experience.

John Horgan has written a mostly positive review of Better Angels. Sam Harris interviewed Pinker and posted the result on his blog. I especially liked Pinker’s response when Harris raised the issue of so-called ‘atheist’ atrocities (obviously a dig at a common, and incorrect, anti-atheism argument):

05 October 2011

Possibly the BEST description of the Bible

Biology professor Jerry Coyne is garnering a reputation for his public criticism of religion in general and accommodationism in particular (the Templeton Foundation is his arch-nemesis). Of course, this means that Coyne now attracts the attention of god-botherers who have had their pious sensibilities bruised by his arguments. Not that the good professor minds the (perhaps unintentional) publicity his opponents generate for him.

The latest sky-fairyist to take a snipe at Coyne is New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Being a Catholic, Douthat takes issue with Coyne’s blog post eviscerating the Christian doctrine of Adam and Eve being the first humans and thus the progenitors of us all. But Coyne’s scientific debunking of that myth wasn’t what made Douthat go “tsk tsk”. No, what Douthat objected to was Coyne’s inability to see the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. It’s supposed to be viewed through the lens of ‘sophisticated theology’, not taken literally! Simplistic atheists like Coyne misrepresent the subtleties of Christianity by painting all believers as Biblical literalists, Douthat squawks. To these protestations, Coyne responds:

I don’t insist on a view of “true” religion as a literal reading of scripture, whether it be the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other holy book. What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

Indeed, how do religionists know which bits of their sacred texts are to be taken as fact and which are to be read as metaphor? Could it be that they don’t actually have an objective method to make that discrimination? That they just make up the rules as they go along?

Religion: the original Calvinball

Fallible readers of supposedly infallible books are necessarily going to come up with faulty, inconsistent, contradictory interpretations. Coyne gives the best description of the Bible that I’ve ever come across. It’s accurate, fair, and unsparing.

The Bible is a jerry-rigged, sloppily-edited, largely fabricated, and palpably incomplete collection of oral traditions and myths, once intended to be the best explanation for the origins of our species, but now to be regarded merely as a quaint and occasionally enjoyable origin fable related by ignorant and relatively isolated primitive ancestors. It’s a palimpsest that is largely fictional, a story reworked many times, but based on our ancestors’ best understanding of how we came about. It’s simply a myth, no truer than the many myths, religious or otherwise, that preceded it. Embedded in it are some good moral lessons, but also many bad moral lessons. And the “good” morality doesn’t come from God, but was simply worked into the fairy tale by those who adhered to that morality for secular reasons.


When women betray their own gender

Here’s the gist of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian article: Western imperialists cynically used the oppression of women by the Taliban as a pretext to carry out the US-led Afghan War.

Bunting isn’t anti-women’s rights; she’s anti-fighting-for-women’s-rights-while-also-shooting-and-bombing-their-oppressors. Now this may seem like a fair enough position to take. Spreading the idea of gender equality shouldn’t require the invasion of another country and subsequent mass killing of its people. Yet Bunting affects a concerned pacifism that disturbingly slips into cultural relativism.

Regarding the initial enthusiasm for the Afghan War, she writes:

Key to this largely supportive public opinion was how, over the course of a few weeks in 2001, a war of revenge was reframed as a war for human rights in Afghanistan, and in particular the rights of women. It was a narrative to justify war that proved remarkably powerful. A cause that had been dismissed and ignored for years in Washington suddenly moved centre-stage. The video of a woman being executed in Kabul stadium that the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan had offered to the BBC and CNN without success was taken up by the Pentagon and used extensively. The Taliban's brutal treatment of women, the closure of girls schools: all were used to justify military invasion and close down debate.

04 October 2011

Warren vs Rand

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is the antithesis of Ayn Rand, the writer and founder of Objectivism. Two months ago Warren gave a speech that was essentially a rebuttal to Rand’s philosophical ideas concerning the rights of the individual versus the rights of the society in which an individual lives.

Rand notoriously rejected the idea that society, i.e. the state, had a rightful claim to a share of the fruits of an individual’s labour, i.e. taxes. Rand believed that taxation was a form of theft, since it involves the use of force or coercion by the state to take people’s money without requiring their consent. However, since governments require revenue in order to function, Rand conceded that taxes were necessary but insisted that they should be voluntary, and only collected to fund the most basic services that the state could rightfully be expected to provide: the police, the military, and the law courts.

Rand wrote the following in her book The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), in the chapter titled ‘Government Financing in a Free Society’ (emphasis hers):
In a fully free society, taxation—or, to be exact, payment for governmental services—would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government—the police, the armed forces, the law courts—are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance. […]

The principle of voluntary government financing rests on the following premises: that the government is not the owner of the citizens’ income and, therefore, cannot hold a blank check on that income—that the nature of the proper governmental services must be constitutionally defined and delimited, leaving the government no power to enlarge the scope of its services at its own arbitrary discretion. Consequently, the principle of voluntary government financing regards the government as the servant, not the ruler, of the citizens—as an agent who must be paid for his services, not as a benefactor whose services are gratuitous, who dispenses something for nothing.