Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Notes on the Problem of Evil

Laurens
Laurens
Sun Jan 10, 2016 2:49 pm by Laurens

For the purposes of this post I shall define God as an omnipotent, omniscient creator being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings. This definition includes, but is not limited to the Judeo-Christian God.

Why is it important that I begin by pointing out these characteristics of God? Because a God with these characteristics necessitates the problem of evil. An omnipotent being can do anything to stop evil, an omniscient being knows the details of all the evil that is happening at all times, and how to stop it, and a being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings should be stopping evil. The attribute of creator is also important because God created conditions in which evil can exist in the first place.

These divine characteristics are not uncommonly attributed to God. In fact I’d posit that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam necessarily has these characteristics. The problem of evil asks; given these attributes why isn’t God doing anything to stop evil?

The standard theistic response to this is called the free-will defence. This states that moral evils are caused by the actions of free agents—a trait that God gave to us thus meaning we are responsible for our action rather than him. If we grant this, I shall argue that it does not do much to get around the problem of evil. So for the time being I shall grant that the evils committed by moral agents are not in God’s control because he gave us the free will to decide whether to be good or bad.

Lets look first at what makes someone a moral agent. I put forth that it requires at least two things; understanding of the potential harm or benefit of one’s action or inaction, and then acting (or not acting) deliberately, having considered these things. What we consider morally good actions are those in which the actor has considered the harm and benefit of their actions and deliberately acted in a way that is beneficial. Morally evil actions would be the same but with the actor deliberately deciding to act in a harmful way.

Where we arrive at a separate facet of the problem of evil is when we apply this criteria of moral agency to God. The act of creation by an omniscient being is a moral action because he already knew all of the potential harm caused by his creating the universe. Being omnipotent allows us to contend that God could have created a universe with no suffering, but chose not to, so we cannot posit that God had no choice but to create a world with suffering. Everything that happens in this universe could either have been prevented from the start, or stopped from occurring (excluding for the sake of this argument the free actions of human beings). This means that God decided to create a universe in which earthquakes, drought, disease, viruses, parasites, cancer, and so on can occur, and then failed to prevent them from occurring. This is the heart of the problem of evil. It’s not necessarily about human evil, it’s about a God who allows his creation to harm and inflict suffering on innocent people, and doesn’t do anything to stop it—in fact he created the universe in such a way that it happens regularly. The atheist has a difficult time making this fit with the idea of a loving God that has an interest in the individual welfare of human beings. It seems to be yet another problem that occurs from the application of inherently contradictory attributes to a being.

These kind of issues are often dealt with by positing that these horrible sufferings occur with some greater purpose in mind. The problem still stands though. God can do anything. Therefore he can arrive at any outcome without suffering. So he still has no morally acceptable reason to allow these things to happen. It is also worth pointing out that God having a plan with a predetermined outcome is in contradiction with the idea of us having free will. Free will entails that all our actions are entirely our own, that they are not presided over by someone tweaking things and manipulating history towards a particular end. If we have free will then God’s plan could fail. But why would God put the universe in such weird jeopardy? At this point it is worth stepping back and realising what we are positing here. A being who created us and gave us free will is engaged in trying to steer history towards his desired outcome in spite of the fact that he could have just had his desired outcome from the start, and he certainly could achieve it without any suffering. It turns our universe into a strange battleground between our free will and God’s ultimate plan. A battle in which suffering and pain—though preventable—are inevitable. Why would God create this scenario? Even if we don’t have free will and everything happens according to his plan, why is God playing weird vanity games with sentient life? It’s all rather unnecessary and it creates a sinister picture of God—which is a problem when you claim that he is unconditionally loving of all beings.

This is the problem of evil. If God exists—no matter how you look at it—the existence of pain and suffering in the world is preventable. The only reason it can persist is if God is not loving, or if God is impotent. This conclusion is true regardless of whether or not we include human free will. In my opinion this is the strongest argument against the Judeo-Christian God. If anybody thinks that I have made any mistakes in my case, has any criticism, or wishes to rebut anything I’ve said feel free to post in the comment thread.

 

Why Atheism Should Be Taught In Religious Studies

Laurens
Laurens
Wed Dec 02, 2015 7:44 am by Laurens

This week we had news that secular views being left out of GSCE Religious Studies was a mistake. Of course this has got some conservative commentators backs up. Why should we teach non-religion in classes about religion? To answer that first we should ask why we are teaching children about religions in the first place. Clearly, or at least hopefully we don’t teach Religious Studies in order that children can decide which is the right one, or be told what to believe. We do it to encourage harmony and understanding. So we don’t remain ignorant and all become massive Islamophobes (although I’m not sure that is working out so well).

In light of this, it is very important to educate people about those who have no religion at all. To complete our set of understanding. No one is advocating that Religious Studies classes teach kids that God is imaginary, just that people are made aware of what atheists are all about and why. To neglect this is to leave people open to all sorts of nonsense that gets said about atheists by the religious. That atheists have no morals for example, or that atheists believe in nothing. The only way to counter such misinformation is to educate people. If Religious Studies has a purpose at all, it is to nurture understanding between faiths and beyond to the irreligious. Otherwise there is really no use in teaching it.

I also think that it should not be called Religious Studies, but rather Philosophy and Ethics or some more inclusive title. Again not to marginalize religion, but to encourage an understanding of world views that extend beyond religion and the broader context in which religions and philosophies interplay and relate to each other. Just teaching kids what each different religion believes is not truly insightful. It would serve us all well to learn about the cultural context in which these beliefs evolved. It doesn’t undermine belief in Christianity to learn about Jewish Messianism and the Roman occupation of Judea (and subsequent corruption or perceived corruption of the Jewish temple authorities), but it surely teaches us something about humanity, our history and how we cope with change. We would all do better if we were educated on all different kinds of Philosophies and their cultural and historical heritage, a vital part of that is those who have rejected religious belief in favour of a rational and empirical world view.

This is not a case of sneering liberals wanting to turn your children into God-hating communists. Its about giving the next generation the best possible understanding of what it is to be human, our struggles, and cultural heritage in the hope that it will iron out any prejudice and tribalism. Really, including atheism in Religious Studies should be the first in a step towards teaching a broader humanities subject. Not because we want to remove religion from your children’s lives, but because religion doesn’t have the monopoly on things humans believe and should therefore only comprise a part of their education on the subject.

UPDATE 04/12/2015 – It has been pointed out to me that I was perhaps unclear about my usage of the term atheism. To be clear I do refer to the wider definition that is probably better defined as Secular Humanism that simply atheism—which could apply to religions such as Buddhism. So whenever I use the term atheism in the context of it being taught as part of a Religious Studies syllabus, I mean Secular Humanist views, not just lack of belief in God.

Misunderstandings about Atheism

Inferno
Inferno
Wed Nov 05, 2014 3:42 pm by Inferno

I recently saw an interview with David Mitchell. One topic discussed was his stance on religion. Here’s what he said:

1) Up until 0:30, it’s rather uninteresting: So he’s not an atheist, he’s an agnostic. I’d point out that he’s wrong, he’s an agnostic atheist, but that’s not a huge problem.

 

I’ve mentioned it a few times all over the forum, so I won’t go into it here, but “agnostic” is a qualifier about the position of God, it’s not a position in and of itself. You can be an agnostic about everything, aka. claiming that nothing is knowable, but you can’t purely be an agnostic about whether or not God exists: If your life does not include a God or gods, then you’re an atheist.

 

2) The first real problem I have is between 0:30-0:40. David says that he “wants there to be an all-powerful, benevolent God”. That’s fine, lots of atheists want that. In fact, I’ll use two definitions now:

An atheist is a person whose world view does not contain a God or gods.

An anti-theist is a person whose world view does not contain a God or gods, sees both organized religion (i.e. churches) and religion itself (i.e. the belief in a God) as something detrimental. Such a person would not like for there to be a God.

 

Christopher Hitchens famously said:

Such a person [an atheist] might very well say that he wished it were true [the existence of a god]. I know some atheists who say, ‘Well, I wish I could believe it. I just can’t. There’s not enough evidence for it’ … I say I’m an anti-theist because I think it’d be rather awful if it was true … you would never have a waking or sleeping moment where you weren’t being watched, and controlled, and supervised by some celestial entity from conception until, well, not even until your death because it’s only after death when the real fun begins, isn’t it? It’d be like living in North Korea.”

This is what I understand anti-theism to be: Absolute opposition to both organized religion and the hope of an afterlife. I’ll be absolutely clear: I agree with Christopher Hitchens that any god yet proposed* would be ghastly and I seriously hope that there is no god.

 

*That needs extra clarification as well: The gods of ancient Greece do not count as gods in this context. They are basically humans with super-powers, not gods. If they do count as gods, then I’d have no problem with them, they’re awesome.
What I do have a problem with is the bogus claim that a god can be both all-powerful and all-loving and that there can be a heaven.

3) The next problem I have is between 0:45-1:01.

David says that there are, and I have to be fair here, “some atheists” who want to tear the comfort of religion away from people. While it may be true that there are some people who want to do that, that’s not the position of the vast majority of atheists. Or anti-theists, for that matter.

Instead, most atheists I have talked with are perfectly happy to let people pray in their own homes or even in churches as long as religious stupidity (genital mutilation, fanaticism, religiously motivated killings, opposition to homosexual marriage, etc.) stays within the confines of their own homes or even churches. Another famous Christopher Hitchens quote goes as follows: “What about the most important minority in the history of the world? … We have to be insulted and outraged every day by what we see and what we read. By slaughter and murder. Slaughter and murder and barbarism and insult and superstitious nonsense.”

If religion and the insanity associated with religion wasn’t shoved down our collective throats, I think few people would have a problem with religion. As it stands however, I see it as my duty to stand up to it.

 

4) The last problem I have is between 1:25-1:35. David says (roughly) that “the idea that you take away one of the excuses, that the killing will suddenly stop happening is absurd.”

Quite right, that is an absurd proposition. That’s why I’ve never seen anyone make it. There is one argument put forward by Christopher Hitchens that there would have been peace long ago in Northern Ireland if there had been no religion, but I think that’s wrong. There certainly might have been a better chance, but I think the struggle would have been largely political instead of largely religious.

However, things like 9/11 would undoubtedly never have happened. If not for the crazy idea that you get rewarded for your death in an afterlife, nobody would have strapped a bomb to themselves and blown themselves up. It’s ridiculous.

Much of the opposition against evolution would be gone, a good deal of anti-science would simply vanish. Genital mutilation would be gone almost entirely. Abortion clinics would be largely safe. And so on and so forth. A lot would definitely change and the way David explains it is a simple misrepresentation.

I hope this clears up some of the misunderstandings about what atheism is and what atheists believe. There will be, I hope, a fair amount of discussion on this issue.
Some people may disagree with the distinction of atheism and anti-theism, nor atheism and agnosticism.
Some people may disagree with the notion that a god is by definition a bad thing.
Some people may disagree that religion interferes too much.
Some people may disagree that the things I listed under 4) will go away if religion were to disappear.

Ah well…

The Good and The Hatred

Dean
Dean
Thu Dec 15, 2011 11:02 pm by Dean

Just recently I discovered various videos of Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett on YouTube (surrounding the AAI). They echoed opinions that are similar to mine and are quite harsh in their views on religion. I rediscovered this stance for me just recently again after a long time on hiatus. Now my experience is this: arguments on the ‘crimes’ of religions and their negative views are often met with justifications and relativizations; It is suggested that a position as mine is driven by hatred and intolerance.

There is the old question: How much tolerance for the enemies of tolerance?

Also recently, I found a documentary on the German church-critic Karlheinz Deschner (unfortunately not in English yet). It was titled: “the Hatefilled Eyes of Karlheinz Deschner’. The documentary is some kind of meta-discussion on his body of work which is, alas, not yet available in english, either. He basically wrote for 30 years, alone, on the “Criminal History of Christianity’ in 10 Volumes (!), currently writing the tenth and last one. Hopefull the whole is translated when he is done.

The title “the Hatefilled ‘¦’ is a quote of one of the Christian interviewees, who also appears in regular public TV sometimes. It reflects how some of the other Christian participants think. They are quite obsessed in trying to find a reason for Deschners engagement, trying to pull Ad Hominem Arguments against him. Deschner on the other hand is a rather gentle (very) old man, speaking softly and supports his work with tons of supportive evidence. He will probably not witness how his work is received and it may appear to him that it happens what the other side wants: that his book just collects dust (one of the christian interviewee says so).

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A plea to theists: well I guess it is too late for you

Aught3
Aught3
Sat Sep 03, 2011 2:48 am by Aught3

One of the greatest ironies in life is watching theists try to reason about moral philosophy. The mess of contradictions produced makes for some laugh-out-loud reading and can be terrific fun to unpack. Working through this kind of fractal wrongness can also help us to clarify our own moral reasoning and shows us why secular morality is superior to that of the religious.Exhibit A is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late. I’ve picked out a few of the major problems and given my response to them.

 

Subjectivity
Averick’s main beef with atheistic morality is that is subjective:

“For the atheist, morality is simply a word that is used to describe the type of system that an individual or society subjectively prefers. Each society establishes, maintains, and modifies its values to suit its own needs.’

While some atheists do see morality as subjective there are also moral philosophies based on facts and a shared understanding of reality (i.e., objective). Rabbi Averick also thinks it is a problem that moral philosophy can update itself as new arguments are made and accepted. As someone who works in the sciences I am comfortable with knowledge improving as new facts are discovered and new ideas developed. There will be setbacks, aberrant paths that are found to be wrong, but on the long view a gradual improvement is continuously made. In modern social democracies can we really doubt that we are better off today than in the past? We have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. This is not the result of mere subjective whims that happened to go the right way, but a recognition that some actions of the past (e.g., slavery) were wrong and should no longer be permitted in our society. Dogmas, on the other hand, do not update and are stuck in our less enlightened past.

 

Peter Singer
Averick spends a significant chunk of the article attacking Peter Singer for his views on consequentialist utilitarianism. Which is an objective moral system. The Rabbi doesn’t seem to recognise that his criticism of moral subjectivism doesn’t apply to Singer but he continues regardless:

“Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.’ For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism’ in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical.‘

What Singer’s philosophy actually entails is the evaluation of harm that results from an action. Utilitarianism considers happiness to be desirable and harm to be deleterious. This means that when assessing an action for its morality you should look at the consequences in terms of the people harmed and the people helped. So if enjoying child pornography and having sex with children harms someone then it is unethical. Since paedophilia often has traumatic effects on the child involved, their parents, and the wider community Singer would most likely find most cases of paedophilia morally wrong. So much for the slippery slope argument.

 

S.P.A.G.
Averick claims that since we resulted from slime (or from dust if you are Jewish, I guess that’s better?) that means we are morally bereft. The fact that we evolved from primates does not degrade humanity. It is thrilling to think that all species on this planet are interrelated though the process of evolution. What makes humans different, more significant than our jungle dwelling relatives, is our ability to reason. When we exercise our unique intelligence we get to make our own decisions about meaning, value, and morality. Atheists aren’t handed their morality from on high, we have to think about it, and thanks to evolution we have that ability. After spending most of the article decrying the ability of secular philosophers to reason about ethics, Averick engages in the most dishonest part of the article. He simply throws out a bunch of ethical rules without giving any justification for his claims.

  • All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
  • All men have been endowed by God with unalienable rights and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery, incest, or bestiality.
  • Thou shalt not have sex with children, and if you do you will be looked upon as a disgusting and contemptible criminal and will be treated as such.
  • Thou shall teach these laws to your children.

Fortunately, we can recognise the source for some of these claims, and they don’t come from a god. The ones about unalienable rights are from the American Declaration of Independence and the rules about murder, stealing, perjury, and adultery are from the Torah. These moral rules aren’t from God but from the men who wrote the documents. But where do the other bits and pieces come from? Since Averick hasn’t demonstrated God is the moral author, we have to conclude they come from Averick himself. The Rabbi simply prefers it to be the case that paedophilia is immoral and so claims that it is a divine command. This is merely Self-Projection As God. After spending an entire article railing against subjective morality we find that the only justification Averick has is that he just feels paedophilia is wrong (and God agrees with me!) Unfortunately for Averick the main point of his article is that atheism leads to paedophilia. It is rather easily countered by the mention to two religions: Catholicism and Islam. Both of these theistic beliefs have managed to rationalise and accept (respectively) the sexual molestation of children. If theistic societies are also capable of accepting paedophilia then Averick’s point is moot and it seems that God does not totally agree with our hapless Rabbi on the immorality of pedophilia.

Irony, it’s everywhere.

Religion and support for torture

Aught3
Aught3
Tue Jun 07, 2011 11:01 am by Aught3

An interesting paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin details the conflicting influences of religion on support for torture. The researchers tested several possible relationships between these two factors including the influence of other variables such as education level and political conservatism. I found the results fairly surprising, let me know what you think.

The data collected was from two surveys taken in 2004 and 2008 asking 983 and 1,893 people respectively. The first effect looked at was the direct relationship between religion and support for torure. The researchers found a negative correlation on this point. That is, a religious person was less likely – on average – to support torture. This was described as an organic influence, something about the precepts of religion and opposition to torture were simultaneously appealing to the survey respondents.

However, the authors had also expected a discursive influence of religion and torture because of the popular view that religion and conservative politics ‘go together’ in the US and conservative politics lead to support for torture. When they separated out the progressive and conservative respondents, the moderating impact of religion was overwhelmed and a strong positive relationship between religion and support for torture was observed. A discursive relationship is one that arises through common perception, such as an ideological framework. Compare this to an organic relationship caused by innate features which people may not be consciously aware of. To show the three part relationship between religiosity, conservatism, and torture the researchers looked at one final factor: education level.

The authors of this study reasoned that conservatives with higher education levels would hold more consistent political views. Those with less education would be more likely to follow the common, organic, threads even if they were inconsistent with their stated political position. The data were consistent with this hypothesis showing conservative religious people who were highly educated were even more likely to support torture. So there we are, being religious is negatively correlated with supporting torture but being educated and politically engaged is positively correlated with it, at least if you are a conservative.

 

Malka and Soto (2011) The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

tp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=The%20Conflicting%20Influences%20of%20Religiosity%20on%20Attitude%20Toward%20Torture

Science vs religion: the effect of education

Aught3
Aught3
Wed Jun 01, 2011 9:02 am by Aught3

A new sociological study of UCLA undergraduate students has been getting some play in the sceptical blogosphere. Since it relates to some previous blog posts I have written on the LoR I thought I would go through it. Basically, a UCLA organisation called the Spirituality in Higher Education Project (SHEP)1 surveyed the religious opinions of the first-year population on campus. They then followed up with another survey of juniors to identify opinions influenced by several years of higher eduction. The study in question (Scheitle, 2011) focuses on the students’ perception of the relationship between religion and science.

Students could choose between four options to describe their view on this relationship.

  1. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of religion
  2. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of science
  3. Independence – they refer to different aspects of reality
  4. Collaboration – each can be used to help support the other

Categories three and four were lumped together into a ‘non-conflict’ answer.

Of this sample 83% of the students were religious. Unsurprisingly then, this means that 86% of the respondents went with non-conflict (69%) or sided with religion (17%). That leaves 17% non-religious students, 14% of whom sided exclusively with science. Given the large proportion of Christians in the US and that most are not of the fundamental variety, meaning they will have their science and eat it too, this seems a fairly straight-forward result.

Interestingly by their junior year, 73% of those who had originally sided with religion had come to adopt a non-conflict or pro-science position. This shift perhaps reflects the secularising effect of education. However, 47% of those who had originally picked science had also shifted their position. Not as large of a percentage of those who changed from a pro-religion stand-point but a substantial proportion of students. Even when the researcher looked into the data for only science students, the moderating effect of education was still present. Apparently, learning more about science decreased the view that science and religion were in conflict.

What I would have liked to be able to look at is the detailed data for both the independence and collaboration viewpoints instead of having them lumped together in a single category. If it’s correct that more education promotes a more secular viewpoint I would expect to see the ‘independence’ category increase. Whereas if education was actually supporting religion, I would expect to see a growth in the number of students picking ‘collaboration’. With the data in their current form, it’s impossible to make such judgements.

 

  1. SHEP is funded by the Templeton foundation; any true sceptics will now hum the Jaws theme.

Scheitle, C. P. (2011) U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(1), 175-186.

Pope in-fallacy

Aught3
Aught3
Fri Sep 17, 2010 7:17 am by Aught3

A recent speech by the current Pope, in Britain, where he links atheism and Nazism has caused some controversy in the blogosphere and in our own forums. The Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society’ and went on to express concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism’. This is such a common trope in debates that I wanted to take an entire blog post to explain what I see as the gaping flaw in this form of argument. What I want to discuss is the way atheism and theism should be properly related to religion and ideology and why it is incorrect to set up atheism as the counter-position to religion.

Atheism, at its most inclusive, describes anyone who has no belief in gods. From even this basic understanding, it is remarkably difficult to see how atheism could be expected to produce any action from an individual atheist. There is no causal line from the absence of a single belief to any other belief or action, be it good or bad. Even explicit atheism (the denial of gods) does not imply any further belief or action. If we say this for atheism, in order to be consistent, we must also say this for theism. Theism (the belief in gods), as a single belief, does not entail any other beliefs or actions by the individual theist. A theist may believe in the philosopher’s god, a non-interventionist god, Allah, the trinity, or a whole pantheon of pagan gods. But even these basic beliefs about the nature of gods are additional to the initial claim of theism, not derived from it. Taking the example of the Thirty Years war, the Pope would have us blame theism for the conflict. However, given both sides of the conflict were theists this conclusion makes little sense. The true dividing factor was the different religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, which each side maintained. My contention is that while atheism and theism are blameless in the great atrocities of history, ideology and religion should be held to account.

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