22 November 2007

Straight & Crooked Thinking

Following a request from Dylan Dog, I thought I would post a short bit about one of my favourite books of all time. Yes, The God Delusion is good. Yes, Moby Dick is sublime. Yes, the Bible is lots of fun (as long as you don't take it too seriously). But this book is a concise work of supreme genius.

What book?

Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Henry Thouless.

It's pretty difficult to get hold of these days - inexplicably it is no longer available in cheap paperback. The edition I have was £1.95 in 1974 (by Pan Books), but the heritage of this treasure goes back to the 1930s, when the rise of crooked thinking was poisoning Europe, and indeed copies of the original edition were distributed to British troops to help them counter Nazi propaganda. There followed significant revisions in 1953 and 1974, and Thouless's son Christopher published a revised and edited edition in the 1990s (which I haven't read).

If you are a publisher, buy the rights to this book, and put it back on the mass market, where it belongs!

It is neither a dry nor weighty tome, but is jam-packed with raw rational sense. It will give you techniques for identifying fallacies and false arguments. It will help protect you from the devious subterfuges of politicians and preachers, journalists and jingoists. It is sweet manna from a rational heaven. Thouless describes 38 dishonest tricks that are commonly used in arguments (there may be more). You can have a look at the list here: http://www.246.dk/38tricks.html - see how many you can spot the next time you're listening to a creationist (or anyone, for that matter).

I am serious. Someone really needs to mass-produce this book again, and get it on every bookshelf on the planet.

01 July 2007

Another jump to glory

Jonathan Edwards is a first class chap. Olympic gold medal winner & world record holder, faithful Christian, trained scientist. Now, he has decided that Christianity is untrue, and has declared himself to be an atheist. This is great news, and enormously encouraging for other post-Christian atheists. I'm only speaking for myself when I say that what won me over was not other people arguing with me, or a desire to sin, or my selfish nature. It was humbly approaching the Bible - expecting to find the word of God, but finding the word of Man instead. The Bible can only be the product of humans, just like the rest of us. Jesus was a human, just like the rest of us. He fell foul of the authorities of his day, and ended up dying on a cross. His body went missing, and a few of his followers started the resurrection myth that kicked off a process that is still ongoing.
Some of us have grown beyond believing that to be real. It's great to be able to add Jonathan to the list. I'm not sure where his views have crystallised, or what was the precise catalyst, but, Jonathan, if you need any help, advice or whatever, you are not alone. You are joining a happy, helpful and distinguished(!) band.
The interview is at Times on-line.

06 May 2007

Truth in Multiplicity?

Hmmm. I'm gratified to see that my blog is starting to attract some comments, and I'm particularly glad to see some of my old pals from William Crawley's Will & Testament blog showing up to drop a line or two. You're most welcome, folks :-)

PB suggests that Prof FF Bruce argued that because the gospels exist in so many ancient (by which he means over 100 years after the death of Jesus) fragments, this is a testament to their truthfulness.

As an argument, this is clearly ludicrous. For example, if we were to make a zillion copies of Mein Kampf and distribute them around the world, would that make Hitler's rambling claptrap any more "true"? Of course not. What Bruce's argument (in this line anyway) points to is merely *popularity*, not veracity. He's really no further on.

Yet it is amazing how often this false argument rears its ugly head. Perhaps that's just a mark of the desperation of some people, when faced with people who do not believe. Christians would do better to buck up their apologetics, rather than rely on nonsense.

11 April 2007

Gospel of Christian Atheism

OK, I haven't been terribly active on the old blog lately, but I thought I'd better at least lay out the old stall with regard to what Christian Atheism is about. No, it's not a contradiction in terms - if anything, atheism is the logical consequence of Christianity. Many atheists would view themselves as post-Christian, rather than non-Christian.

I'm going to have to clarify a few points.
  1. The Bible is NOT the Word of God
  2. Jesus was NOT the Son of God
  3. We CAN pick and choose what we want from the Bible, viewing it as part of our cultural heritage
There is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about this - it is a consequence of the simple fact that the Bible contains a miscellaneous selection of writings revealing the views of the people who wrote them. How closely the "Gospels" follow the actual life and preaching of Jesus of Nazareth is a matter of debate - they certainly got his birth and death wrong.

Add to that the complete screwball mess made by Saul of Tarsus, and you end up with the difficulties we have today. Was Jesus special? No. Was he unique? No. Can we learn from him? Well, yes, but in the sense that we can learn from everyone. His story (and the myths that have arisen around it) carry a certain resonance, and we can certainly learn from that.

We can of course learn from other people, be they Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Thomas Jefferson, whoever. But for me, as a "Christian Atheist", I regard Christianity as a human cultural creation, not something that requires "belief".

27 January 2007

Holy Mary, Beloved of Amun

It's sometimes surprising how many elements of Christianity derive from Ancient Egypt. The Trinity, Moses in his basket, even some of the Psalms and Proverbs.

However, did you know that it is very likely that the name of the mother of Jesus himself (Mary, in case you're new to this) is derived from Egyptian?

We need to go back to the story of the Exodus for this. Moses (a perfectly good Egyptian name of the New Kingdom, usually rendered "Mose" in Egyptological anglicisations) had a sister named Miriam. The traditional meaning of this is "Bitterness", reflecting the tough time the Hebrews were apparently having at the hands of a rather truculent Pharaoh. That this is an unlikely etymology of Miriam's name is pretty darned obvious. Nobody calls their child "pain in the arse", even if they *are*.

There is a more likely explanation. "Miriam" is nothing other than a slight contraction of the relatively common female first name "Meret-Amun". The "t" was silent in spoken Egyptian of this period, so it would have been vocalised "Meryamun". The "un" simply got dropped (either deliberately or by accident). This is supported by Miriam's role as a priestess; while she was evidently a colleague of Mose, it is not clear whether she actually was his sister.

So we are faced with the irony that the mother of the Christ in fact had the theophoric name of a "pagan" god. While this poses no problem for a Christian Atheist (to whom Christianity is but one manifestation of a wide cultural load carried by humanity in general), it may bother some fundamentalists.

That in itself seems to me like a good reason to carry out some more research, in order to see whether this is a supportable hypothesis, or just pie in the sky.


[I posted this to Pharyngula just now...]

I sometimes find it helpful in dealing with [theist] nutters [who go on about "spirituality" and such things] to point out that there are two categories of Things-We-Do-Not-Know. These are UNKNOWNS and MYSTERIES. (Apologies for the capitalisation; I'll be trying to work these into acronyms at some point!)

I define the former as things that are in principle knowable, and hence they are not-yet-knowns. Even when they can't in *practice* be known, they are nonetheless non-mysterious.

MYSTERIES, OTOH, are things that we can never know *in principle*. They are beyond mere human ken. They are the realm of the pixies.

The problem for pixie-huggers is that there aren't any situations that fit into the latter category. They *claim* that there are, but there aren't. They will, furthermore, claim that certain UNKNOWNS are in fact MYSTERIES, but that is a leap that imposes upon them a burden of proof, and they are unwilling to be so gracious as to provide that.

So even your first mitotic division sits comfortably in UNKNOWN territory, but it sure ain't no MYSTERY. The vast tree of science is peppered with UNKNOWNS, but these are generally treatable as "black boxes", where we can establish the inputs and outputs of the system, even if we don't know the full details of the inner workings. But pixies cannot live in such black boxes, because these nasty old scientists have a habit of opening the lids and exposing the insides.

11 January 2007

British Centre for Science in Education


The BCSE was set up last year as a single-issue lobby group to counter the efforts by creationists to get the pseudosciences "creationism" and "intelligent design" included in the school science curricula in the UK. According to the BCSE (and I agree with them), the erosion of science is a major threat to the competitiveness of UK science and industry. It's also a threat to the health and wellbeing of the population at large, if doctors do not have the scientific knowledge to enable them to combat evolutionary diseases like pandemic flu, MRSA , diabetes or cancer. Presumably the consequence of Intelligent Design is to just accept that the Designer (whoever it is, but we all know really, don't we) *intends* for there to be a flu pandemic, and our efforts to counter that must be blasphemy of the highest degree.

You see, Science is not just an esoteric pastime for a bunch of weirdo boffins whose only desire is to disprove gods. Most scientists have better things to do with their time. Like fight climate change, develop new understanding of disease, develop renewable energy sources, document the biodiversity on our planet, inspire the young, promote *understanding*.

In some ways, "Intelligent Design" is interesting, because many living things do have characteristics that appear to be designed - and that includes their molecular biology. However, the designer is known, and has been for 150 years - it is our good friend Evolution. No intelligence required. Now *that* is smart.

07 January 2007

Cripes! Prof Andy McIntosh

How does he do it? William Crawley is the presenter of Sunday Sequence, one of the most popular shows on BBC Radio Ulster. He also has a BBC blog which I've only recently started following, but it is full of gems. Following the success of "The Creation Wars" (which exposed some True Weirdness among adherents of the selective literal interpretation of Genesis), he has followed it up with another interview with Professor Andy McIntosh of Leeds University (pictured). This is the chap (Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory, apparently) who thinks that evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and a massive sky-pixie magicking the universe into existence about 6000 years ago doesn't. Hats off to William for this one - it's a neat interview, and poor old Andy does his darnedest to avoid answering straight questions.

Sadly, the good people of Leeds, and the students at their historic university are being seriously short-changed if senior science appointees seriously believe this sort of trash. How post-modern is that?! Ironically, Leeds has on its homepage (at the time of writing) a prominent link to an article about using evolution to develop new drugs. Obviously they feel it works... Perhaps Andy would like to explain to them where they are going wrong.

04 January 2007

Pseudotruth in pseudocience

I've been following this discussion with interest [William Crawley's BBC Blog]. It would be misleading to think that one eminent doctor's very personal views on Intelligent Design are shared by the genetics or medical scientific community (and unfortunately advocacy of the "Truth in Science" bandwagon does give this impression). People see the banner "leading geneticist supports Intelligent Design", and then think that if it's good enough for that person, it's good enough for me.

That's not the way science works. A very eminent person can doggedly cling to a very wrong idea, and ID is a very wrong idea. Complexity - even "irreducible complexity" (a very sloppily defined term in what passes for the ID "literature") is not a barrier to Darwinian evolution. Standard evolutionary models not only *allow* irreducible complexity, they *predict* it.

Unfortunately, by giving the impression that crypto-religious pressure groups like TiS are in some way pushing a valid science agenda, some "leading academics" are being duped into becoming pawns in a game that is quite deliberately and intelligently designed to undermine science and science education. I think that is sad, and I hope this is just a temporary lapse of judgement.

It would be relevant to point out that even Francis Collins, a *really* eminent geneticist and committed Christian, or Ken Miller, another *really* eminent geneticist and committed Christian, hold ID and creationism in nothing but contempt, and would not give TiS the time of day. The vast majority of the scientific community is of the same view, but science is not a democracy - it's the evidence that counts. And by the evidence, ID is as dead as the flat earth.

03 January 2007

God-shaped hole

If you start out with a god-shaped hole, you end up with a hole-shaped god.

Think about it.

Richard Dawkins

The man is a genius. I mean, he just is. Of *course* there is no evidence for god. What's more, he doesn't engage in "sophisticated" theobabble like the theologians would like - he just tells it straight.

Personally, I think a lot of Christian folks have anti-Dawkins antibodies, and they think it is oh so clever to slag the chap off for being crude or "intolerant". Or that Dawkins only criticises a caricature of god; *their* god is so much more complex than the simplistic straw man that Dawkins erects. So they feel they can safely ignore the arguments - they can run away in the delusion that their concept of god is unscathed by the Dawkinsian logic.

It's a defence mechanism, and a remarkably effective one. It works for many Christians. But there is one major flaw. Dawkins is right. It doesn't require deep philosophical musing; you don't need to read Augustine, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis or anyone else. The emperor has no clothes, and that's the end of the story.

My waffling about Christian Atheism is largely about identifying those anti-Dawkins antibodies, and helping people to overcome them. There is a hard core of potential good atheists who find it hard to make the jump, and hard to "give up on god". For those folks, I think there may need to be a different strategy than strident assertion of atheism (much as we need that - atheists deserve a higher profile). Perhaps a companion volume to "The God Delusion" would be helpful, but in the absence of that, try "Losing Faith in Faith" by Dan Barker.

01 January 2007

Christian Atheism

Now here is an interesting viewpoint. Bob Jensen explains all:

"I don’t believe in God.

I don’t believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don’t believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don’t believe exists.

Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church."

Have a look at the full article to let Bob explain himself. There is a lot of sense in there; I suspect that there are a lot more atheists in the pews of Christian churches than many would suppose...