Monday, 27 September 2010

When an answer is not an answer

I guess when it comes to addressing the problem of "where did everything come from" one can, to a certain extent, believe whatever they wish on this topic: an intelligent designer, less-intelligent designer, or maybe even a natural explanation. I personally see no need to invoke a supernatural cause anywhere in the universe, at any time. But this does not mean that a god is not possible. I only prefer to follow the mathematics and evidence that seems to show how stars form the different elements at their core that we are made of while the rapid expansion of space-time ~13.6 billion years ago caused the stars themselves to coalesce. How the so-called 'Big Bang' got started is anybody's guess really. I prefer not to comment on this idea as physics itself breaks down if you go too far into this amazing event, and there are plenty of better sources than myself that could explain this in fulfilling detail.

By the way, if mathematics and evidence did point to god as being the first cause of the universe, what exactly does that prove? I mean, do you stop there and say, "god did it" or would you and others be keen to try and figure out how he did it? And, once you do figure out how he did it, wouldn't god have had to use natural physics, chemistry and such, at least in order to form things originally, seeing as that is how things appear to be formed today? And if we find out how he used these natural methods to create the universe, doesn't the need to invoke a god seem a bit redundant? After all, if we then show that natural methods can create a universe, where then does god fit? If I have written this clearly enough, you should see the reason science does not appreciate the invocation of gods into their workings. Simply put, saying "god did it" does not answer anything, it just pushes a possible answer to the question further away.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Another equation of atheism and Hitler

So why do the religious, when cornered to admit that religion kills, always hurl the canard that atheism brings us Hitler, Stalin, and Mao as if this were in some way logical? After all, how could atheism do such a thing? It’s like saying that because Hitler, Stalin and Mao all wore brown shoes that brown-shoe-wearing causes the death of millions of innocents. Still more illogical is the proposition that the atheist community should apologise for these atrocities. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who fights “anti-Catholicism”, recently said:

The pope cited Hitler today, asking everyone to "reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century." Immediately, the British Humanist Association got its back up, accusing the pope of "a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God."

The pope did not go far enough. Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.

Why should atheists today apologize for the crimes of others? At one level, it makes no sense: apologies should only be given by the guilty. But on the other hand, since the fanatically anti-Catholic secularists in Britain, and elsewhere, demand that the pope—who is entirely innocent of any misconduct—apologize for the sins of others, let the atheists take some of their own medicine and start apologizing for all the crimes committed in their name. It might prove alembic.


(What the hell is the word ‘alembic’ doing in there? That’s an alchemy term, not an adjective. Anyway...) I want to know where these religious folk get their history from. Is there some sort of Christian playbook floating around that includes all the common fallacies and misconceptions we hear all the time? I can just imagine the chapters of such a pamphlet: “Hitler and atheism: Six degrees of separation” or “20th Century Atheist Genocides: The players, the proof” Because even a cursory glance at Hitler’s writings will reveal his honest belief that he was doing “god’s” work. For instance, here he is in a speech at the Reichstag in 1936:

"I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work."

Pretty unambiguous I think. And again in his book:

"I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator."


[Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, pp. 46]

"What we have to fight for...is the freedom and independence of the fatherland, so that our people may be enabled to fulfil the mission assigned to it by the Creator."


[Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, pp. 125]


This is not the voice of a person dedicated to “secular extremism” as touted by Donohue and co. Atheists do not, out of habit mostly, invoke the ‘Creator’ when making a speech. Indeed Hitler goes on to describe his deep convictions as a Christian believer.

"This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief."


[Adolph Hitler, _Mein Kampf_, pp.152]

"I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so"


[Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]

Here’s the kicker. The rhetoric spouted by the religious that atheism equates to genocide and Hitler is not dispersed by some sect, or a shunned parish deep in the wintery highlands, it is spread by mainstream religious organisations. The charge that atheism inevitably eventuate Stalin and Mao falls just as easily as the Hitler fiasco with a bit of historical and contextual research. The claim is ludicrous that atheism somehow leads to terror, the religious are fed this lie to exacerbate an already brooding ‘us vs them’ mindset; to separate further out the so-called ‘sheep from the goats’. Besides, how can a position such as atheism ‘lead’ to anything? It’s neither a world-view nor a belief structure. Atheism, as I’ve said before, is simply the negative answer to the question, "Do you believe in god?" Why is that so difficult for the religious to grasp?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Guilt and sin and indoctrination

At her website ex-catholic girl, Miranda Hale has written a smarting piece about what damage her catholic upbringing did to her childhood and adult life. Don’t worry she doesn’t talk about any of the nasty stuff the current Pope is covering up. But nonetheless her story is quite compelling and well worth the seven paragraphs if you want a read.

. . . Catholic childhood religious indoctrination is chillingly effective. Its most powerful weapons are guilt and the fear of a literal hell. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so. . .

Then there is the guilt. According to Catholic teaching, humans are born sinners and cannot help but continue to sin throughout their lives. The only way for a Catholic to atone for these sins is to confess them to a priest, do the required penance, and be absolved. As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. I’d do my penance and be absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I would feel light and pure and holy. But soon I would sin again, the guilt would return, the little notebook would be filled up with a record of my indiscretions, and I would return to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again. . .

. . . The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world.

I can’t help but feel this teaching is rampant in other parts of Christianity today as well as Catholicism. I for one was told, although not nearly as brutally as experienced by Ms. Hale, that sin was inherent in our lives and was indeed a real thing. As a child the guilt of everyday issues and problems, especially as one grows older, becomes more vivid and acts as a plague on the mind. Christianity does not try to divorce any of the ‘normal’ happenings of people from their potentially ‘sinful’ corollaries. Everything either not done ‘right’ is a sin (whatever the right way turns out to be) or even if it’s done at all can potentially be a sin. I can totally sympathise with Miranda and the mind-plague that the doctrine of sin and guilt is that can chip away inexorably at the self.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Path to enlightenment or obscurity?


The thing is, before I can take any Christian beliefs seriously, or any of the comments mentioned above, there are several steps the commenter has to climb first. Christians tend to take it for granted that these steps have already been climbed, but as a rationally-minded atheist I can make no such assumption. For me, these steps have to be examined and then climbed one at a time before I can take seriously the claims of Christianity, or any other religion.

STEP 1: Prove that God exists.

This is the biggest step. Unless this step is climbed first, the others are already irrelevant. Show, using actual objective evidence, that there are good grounds for believing in a deity. Actually, you don't even need to prove it conclusively; just show that there are reasonable grounds for believing in a god as opposed to not believing, and I'll be happy to progress to the next step on the grounds of probability rather than proof.

STEP 2: Prove that there is only one God.

This is often taken for granted by those who have convinced themselves of God's existence. "God exists, therefore what I was taught about him in my childhood must be true." Whoa, hold on there! This is by no means a given. Even if you could satisfy me that a god probably exists, you then have to show that there is, in fact, only one God and not many gods.

STEP 3: Prove that your one God is still alive.

Even if I were to be persuaded that a single, solitary God created the universe, who is to say that the creator is still in existence?

STEP 4: Demonstrate that God is interested in us humans.

Supposing that all the other steps so far have been climbed, you would then need to demonstrate that your God is actually concerned about us. Again, this can certainly not be assumed with any degree of certainty even if it is taken for granted that God exists and is still alive.

STEP 5: Show that God is in fact the Christian God.

OK, so even if you did somehow manage to get up all the other steps, how do you know that your religion is the right one? How can you be sure that Christianity is right about God and not Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, classical Roman paganism or any of the thousands of other religions that have ever existed? In fact, how do you know that any of them are right, including yours? Appeals to a holy book cannot be allowed as evidence because it has not yet been established that your holy book is accurate. Neither can appeals to an "inner witness" because people of all religions can make claims based on that same basis. So can atheists, in fact.

STEP 6: Show that the Christian God is worthy of worship.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the existence of God can be proven and that he can be shown conclusively to be the God of the Bible, the triune God of Christianity. Even then, why should I worship him? Even if he were real (which I do not believe, but just supposing), how is a God who would create humans knowing that the vast majority of them would burn in hell for all eternity be worthy of worship? That would make him directly responsible for the eternal suffering of billions of people. And why would a God who ordered the deaths of innocent men, women and children (read your Old Testament) be worthy of worship? Or how about a supposedly loving, caring God who makes his existence so difficult to believe - why should we worship him if his very hiddenness leads millions to hell? Even if the God of the Bible exists, he is a sadistic monster and unworthy of worship and devotion.

An open letter to people in my life

What I am about to say may well surprise some of you. It may even shock some of you. However, it is important to me that I am honest with you and that I don’t live a lie just to spare people’s feelings. Some of the things I have written here lately may have pointed in a certain direction; I write this to confirm or deny any suspicions.

No, I’m not coming out of the closet as a gay man, although explaining what I am about to sometimes feels like it. I was born heterosexual. Rather, I am coming out of the closet as an unbeliever. After more than twenty years of Christian belief, theological study and religious attention, I have examined the evidence for God and found it lacking. I now believe that no good argument for the existence of God has ever been established and therefore is something I cannot believe in.

This is not a decision that I have reached lightly. I didn’t suddenly wake up and think to myself, “I don’t think I’ll bother to believe any more.” It has taken me a long time to sift and decide. Trust me when I say that a lot of thinking, agonising and soul-searching went into this before I finally let go of my belief in God. I did not abandon my faith lightly and for no good reason.

Perhaps I need to clear up a few possible misconceptions at this point, and explain what doesn’t lie behind my shift into unbelief.

1. I am not an unbeliever because I am bitter at the church or its members. I have met many lovely people who confess Christian faith and belong to the church, and I have many fond memories of my time as part of that system. I was bitter once, but no more. Even if I was still bitter at the church, that would not have coloured my opinion about God. I remained a strong believer long after I left the institutional church.

2. I am not in rebellion against God, or angry at him. Indeed, I no longer believe such a being even exists. How can I be in rebellion against something that isn’t real?

3. I am not leaving my former faith behind in order to justify living a life of sin. My moral framework is just as strong as it always has been, if not stronger now that I do not get my morals by divine permission. I am not about to start taking illegal drugs or worshipping Satan now that I am an unbeliever.

Basically, I decided to question my beliefs and see which ones stood up to questioning and which ones didn’t. I thought initially that this would strengthen my faith, but as I began to see parts of it not holding up under scrutiny, I determined to follow the evidence honestly, no matter where it led. The search for truth and an examined life are two of the greatest pursuits of humanity, my parts in these struggles are very important to me. In the end it led me out of the Christian faith as more and more of what I believed failed to stand up to scrutiny.

So why was I a Christian in the first place? The simplest answer is that I was brought up in a nominally Christian family, in a nominally Christian culture. I was sent to Sunday School as a child, and the existence of God was just one of the unquestioned cultural beliefs I assimilated as a child. So was the truth of Christianity. An environment of critical thinking was encouraged by my parents, equipping me with skills and tools to challenge everything. That this led me to question religion is no fault of theirs and the decision rests with me.
I’m sure that if I had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I would have held the same unquestioning convictions about the truth of Islam and the existence of Allah. My belief in God and faith in Christ and Christianity was based not on evidence, but on indoctrination by those who had, in their turn, been indoctrinated with the same beliefs and assumptions.

When I actually tried to find proof of God’s existence, even though I tried all sorts of ways to justify my belief, I could find no actual evidence that any deity has ever existed. I asked myself why I don’t believe in Allah, Krishna, Zeus or Baal, and then applied the same logic to the god of the Bible. Ultimately I could find no evidence for any of them. Surely if there is an all-powerful God or group of God’s, there would be some clear evidence of his existence. Certainly if he is personally concerned with humanity and loves us, as the Bible claims, then he would make his existence obvious to us. He has not done so to me, and anecdotal evidence from other believers is flimsy and unreliable.

Then there is the question of prayer. Jesus said in the Bible that whatever we ask for, if we truly believe, God will give us. He also said that where two of us on earth agree about something we ask, it will be done by our Father in heaven. Well, I have prayed fervent, faithful prayers all my life, both alone and with others. I have prayed with faith in Jesus’ name. I have prayed for healings that have not happened, for ends to wars that continue to rage, and for many other things more important. Yet I have seen no results of these prayers beyond those that could be attributed to random chance. If there is a God, he is very good at ignoring prayer.

I have asked God many times to show himself to me if he is real, but he refuses. Yes, I was praying fervently, with faith and hope – I really thought God was real, and knew my Christian faith was true. Even now, were God to reveal himself to me in an unambiguous way, I would immediately consider belief and serve him. I’m not going to hold my breath in anticipation though.

Those of you who are Christians and know me from church or other things will no doubt be shocked, upset, surprised or disappointed by this news. If I have hurt or offended you in any way by this confession of unbelief, I am truly sorry. I am not your enemy, and I do not seek to de-convert you or turn you away from your faith if it works for you. I am happy to engage in discussion with you on this or any other matter, or just to spend time with you socially as a friend, but please understand that I have no desire to re-join your religion as I no longer share your beliefs. If you honestly take issue with anything I say or write please discuss it with me as I value everything you have to say.

To those of you whom I have tried to indoctrinate into Christianity, whose “souls” I have tried to save, I sincerely and humbly apologise. Please understand that I was doing what I sincerely thought was right at the time, however misguided I was.

Those of you who have already left religious faith behind, or never had it in the first place, may find all this a bit perplexing. To you religion may be a non-issue, but for someone coming out of strong religious faith into unbelief it is a hugely difficult, emotive, traumatic experience. To those of you with whom I have had discussions (sometimes until well into the early hours) about faith, unbelief and philosophy, I am grateful. Thanks for helping me to think these issues through, and thank you particularly for being patient and respectful while not trying to push me into believing your point of view. I sincerely hope to have many more conversations.

I am well aware that while some of you may applaud my decision to “come out” as an unbeliever, some of you will disapprove or even condemn me for it. However, to steal the words of Martin Luther and apply them to a context of which he would surely never have approved: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Alister McGrath’s response to The God Delusion

Alister McGrath’s response to The God Delusion, by Stephen Law

Which brings me to the theologian Alister McGrath, a long-standing critic of Dawkins. In his article, “The questions science cannot answer - The ideological fanaticism of Richard Dawkins’s attack on belief is unreasonable to religion - and science”, McGrath attempts to defend religion against Dawkins’ attack. He begins by pointing out there are questions science cannot answer:

In The Limits of Science, Medawar reflected on how science, despite being “the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”, had limits to its scope. Science is superb when it comes to showing that the chemical formula for water is H2O. Or, more significantly, that DNA has a double helix. But what of that greater question: what’s life all about? This, and others like it, Medawar insisted, were “questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer”. They could not be dismissed as “nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer”. This is not to criticise science, but simply to calibrate its capacities. [From The Times, February 10, 2007]

MacGrath then goes on to do several things. First of all, he accuses Dawkins of being ideologically wedded to scientism. Dawkins, claims MacGrath, simply assumes that “science has all the answers” But of course, scientists need to show a little humility. There are questions science cannot answer.

This first line of attack on Dawkins, though very popular among theists, entirely misses its mark. In fact, within the pages of the very book MacGrath is attacking, Dawkins quite unambiguously acknowledges that, “Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science.” (p XX) Indeed, Dawkins seems happy to concede that moral questions may well fall into this category. Dawkins says: “we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least”. (p80).

So McGrath is attacking a position Dawkins does not hold. In fact McGrath is presenting a rather crude caricature of Dawkins’ position. The charge of scientism is unwarranted. It is also irrelevant. For suppose we can show that scientism is false – that there are certain questions science cannot answer. These may include certain questions about meaning and value, for example. Would it then follow that science cannot show there is no Judeo-Christian God? Would it follow that Dawkins’ argument must fail. Of course not. Science might still be able to show that there’s no god. Perhaps Dawkins has.

MacGrath then proceeds to rubbish Dawkins’ argument against the god hypothesis, not by identifying any flaw in it, but by simply insisting that we cannot “prove there is no god”.

Now, interestingly, Dawkins remarks in The God Delusion itself that in his earlier attacks on Dawkins, McGrath’s defence of theism seems to boil down to “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God” (p XX). Dawkins says he agrees with McGrath that we cannot conclusively prove the non-existence of God, but points out, correctly, that this doesn’t entail belief in God is therefore immune to scientific skepticism. For, Dawkins suggests, the God hypothesis has observable consequences: “a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” p80 Dawkins maintains that, in response to this question, McGrath had previously offered no real answer. It is particularly ironic, then, that in his Times article attacking Dawkins, McGrath simply repeats the charge, yet still offers no real answer to Dawkins question.

So McGrath’s point about Dawkins not having a “conclusive proof” is another red herring. Dawkins claims no such proof. Dawkins merely argues that God’s existence is highly improbable.

In short, McGrath entirely fails to engage with Dawkins’ argument. McGrath merely levels at Dawkins the inaccurate and irrelevant charge of scientism, and makes the inaccurate claim that Dawkins is trying conclusively to prove there’s no God, which he’s not.

Still, it’s worth spending a moment to consider why McGrath supposes there can be no conclusive proof or disproof of the existence of God. In his book The Dawkins Delusion – Atheist Fundamentalism and The Denial of The Divine, McGrath explains as follows:

Any given set of observations can be explained by a number of theories. To use the jargon of the philosophy of science: theories are under-determined by the evidence. The question then arises: What criterion be used to decide between them, especially when they are ‘empirically equivalent’. Simplicity? Beauty? The debate rages, unresolved. And its outcome is entirely to be expected: the great questions remain unanswered. There can be no “scientific ‘proof’ of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them, or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences. (p14)

McGrath’s point seems to be that, when it comes to such world-views as “god exists” and “god does not exist” we find both theories fit the available observational evidence. They are, indeed, “empirically equivalent”. But then neither theory can be proved or disproved by appeal to that evidence.

But is it true that both theories fit the observational evidence equally well? As we’ll see later in “But it fits!” any theory, no matter how nuts, can be made to “fit” – be consistent with – the evidence, given sufficient ingenuity. It doesn’t follow that all theories are equally reasonable, or that we cannot fairly conclusively settle the question of whether certain theories are true on the basis of observational evidence. After all, the evil god hypothesis is, surely, pretty conclusively ruled out on the basis of the available empirical evidence. But then why couldn’t the good God hypothesis be ruled out in much the same way? And why couldn’t Dawkins have succeeded in showing, on the basis of the observational evidence, that the “god hypothesis” he addresses is false?

MacGrath doesn’t say. In effect, he just asserts that the god question cannot be fairly conclusively settled on the basis of observational evidence. As this is precisely what Dawkins is denying, MacGrath has no argument against Dawkins. McGrath’s defence of the reasonableness of theism boils down to the wholly unjustified assertion that Dawkins is mistaken.

As I say, whether or not Dawkins’s arguments against the God hypothesis are good arguments is not my concern here. By all means argue that they are poor. That would be an intellectually respectable strategy for a theist to adopt.

However, McGrath fails to offer any cogent justification for his oft-repeated claim that the existence or non-existence of god is not something that observation, or indeed science, might establish. He makes the unjustified, false, and irrelevant accusation that Dawkins is guilty of scientism. McGrath also peppers his responses to Dawkins with numerous ad hominem attacks on Dawkins’ character, whose approach he dismisses as “superficial”, “brash”, “glossy”, “aggressive “ p. xi “embittered”, and “fanatical”.

I cite McGrath to illustrate a more general trend. When people offer rational, or even scientifically-based arguments, against theistic claims, one of the most popular strategies theists adopt to immunize their beliefs is to assert, without providing any justification, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability science and/or reason to decide”, and then imply their opponent must be an arrogant, unsophisticated twit fanatically wedded to scientism if they suppose otherwise. But we can reject, or remain unconvinced by, scientism while nevertheless maintaining that certain God claims are rationally, perhaps even scientifically, adjudicatable. To suppose otherwise is not, as McGrath implies, to commit yourself to scientism.

Say, “Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide” often enough, like a mantra, and there’s a good chance people will start to accept it without even thinking about it. It will become an immunizing “factoid” that can be conveniently wheeled out whenever a rational threat to the credibility of your belief crops up. Perhaps this is why, rather than respond to Dawkins arguments, McGrath just starts chanting the “Ah but of course this beyond the ability of reason/science to decide” mantra, realizing that it is now so heavily woven into the contemporary zeitgeist that many readers, even if momentarily stung by Dawkins into entertaining a serious doubt, can quickly by lulled back to sleep: “Oh yes, I remember, it’s beyond the ability of science/reason… scientism…zzzzz.”

Shorn of its theological and intellectual trappings, McGrath’s response to Dawkins is essentially no more sophisticated or effective than that of the commentator who attempted to defend belief in the amazing powers of crystals against a scientific criticism by insisting, without any justification at all, that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute such beliefs.

Stephen Law

Pain, Death, and Heaven

While I reject the entirety of the structure and mode of all irrational human religions (with a soft spot for Deism), Christianity offers little towards rationality even compared with its bizarre cousins, Judaism and Islam (of which the latter is simply crude plagiarism of the former).

The least coherent of the foundational promises of Christianity must be the vague notion of Heaven; an idea usually so not much different to - although one is consistently assured by the faithful that it is indeed different from - ancient and very-human dreams of an afterlife. Our ancestors pondered as deeply as ourselves about the hereafter, conjuring anthropocentric worlds presumably for human's continued benefit (at the expense of every other organism of course).

Each inevitably had curiously human expectancies such as love, food, shelter, company, the presence of their particular god or gods. And of course: the absence of pain and death. This last set is especially remarkable, although not entirely unexpected, as it uncovers the insidious reaches to which human greed can soak. Not sated to be cast aside in this world, greed follows us like a cold lingering draft.

According to the Christian religion, souls float heavenwards once their human vehicle beats a final heartbeat. Once the two are separated the body falls prey to decay and returns whence it came; dust to dust, ashes to ashes as the good book states.

This part at least the writers got correct. How could they not? The average lifespan of their fellow nomads was probably only in the mid to high 20’s! Death would have surrounded them, suffocating growth, stifling progress. But another thing was evident too. The spark of life disappeared once the final heartbeat pulsed, yet it was not in the least bit clear to them what was happening. The trauma, emotional and mental, of losing a fellow traveller is difficult enough, but to accept their eternal absence must have seemed overwhelming much as it still does today.

A comforting hand, a grieving shoulder, and consoling words do ease bereavement. So how much more, to a person bereft, would the concept of a perfect world be where a loved one now awaits in peace? A model of such charity would surely spread, ultimately producing the ideas of heaven, paradise, an afterlife, the happy hunting grounds, Valhalla, etc. As a profound social tool, the invention of heaven came of age from a deep human need to believe things don't just end at death.

That heaven offers consolation to those in grief is undeniable, but what of the Christian claim that heaven is without pain or that one survives death? Are these promises even coherent let alone physically possible? Perhaps. After all, can’t an ultimate being or a perfect world be just that? But what would such a world resemble? If the Christian is correct and the Bible is portentous, then believers and non-believers alike can expect some sort of resurrection to an afterlife.

Foul or frolicking, miserable humans expect a second wind. Some believers interpret a recreation of our physical bodies in their ‘perfect form’. Other views are vague but essentially similar. Yet for a concept of painlessness to be truly appreciated by its inhabitants, I contend that heaven must have basic human sensory outputs and feedbacks, much like the current world.

The concept of any existence without pain is fraught with difficulties. First, pain is integral to daily living for any sentient being. Those born with the rare genetic disorder of muted or zero pain awareness live short, stunted, and unenviable lives. Not because they have disastrous accidents causing early death, but because pain is the body’s way of requesting a favourable change in posture or alignment and the indication of stress on joints and bones.

Without pain, this disorder causes rapid and premature wear on an otherwise healthy skeleton. If we are resurrected after death in any way resembling our previous human forms, our “lives” would be as unenviable without pain as those who suffer (yes, we call being afflicted with zero pain a disease) from this condition today. Pain is not something to be afraid of or rebelled against. Our nerves give us feeling, yet when sufficiently stimulated they also register pain. It's just an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise useful biological tool. A world without pain surely removes the need for nerves resulting in a sensation-less existence. Which is not at all a hopeful outcome.

Second, our bodies are they way they are, look the way they do, and function the way they do for a particular reason: to survive to procreation. Some are keener on this than others, but nevertheless the blunt fact remains that the true yardstick of personal success, biologically speaking, is the succession of ones genes in subsequent generations (if one wishes to pander Richard Dawkins ideas).

Our large brains allow humans to ponder this factor consciously but it follows that if resurrection occurs, as in the Christians promise, and we are humans once more, whence then becomes the need to procreate? Why continue in this veil of tears, or indeed bring other, wretched humans into it, when resurrection is immanent and a perfect world lies shortly ahead? Surely if one believes that on death they depart for an infinitely better world, of what use is this one? Are not such people to be despised for employing their body’s sole earthly function if these new arrivals will likely only experience all the trouble and strife involved with existence?

On the other hand if this world is all there is then procreation makes perfect sense without recourse to fussy questioning.

Third, if procreation is so integral to our existence in this world, what would its use be in the next? After all, the Christian asserts that we will receive perfect bodies, but bodies nonetheless. Some very important body parts would become suddenly redundant, one does not need to think strenuously as to which.

Take the next problem of our body’s daily habits: survival. Much of what is human is an organic machine for metabolising carbon-based structures for assimilation and repair. Without the threat of death or pain for negligence of this job the human body suddenly starts to resemble a redundant sack of meat, or a useless shell once more.

Following this train of thought, any perfect world surely has abundant sweet or fatty foods, but the partiality to these foods has been evolutionarily helpful in this world only, and mostly for our less well-off ancestor’s survival on the plains of Africa. We retain these traits because they assisted their survival. They were important because of sugar's rarity and were fruits difficult to gather and seasonal, so their inclusion in a view of heaven is natural but misguided. Human bodies are especially good at storing such foods and an insatiable biological craving coupled with unlimited supply would lead to catastrophe (as we are discovering today in first-world countries which, ironically, most resemble a perfect world).

Fourth, the wishful-thinking and greed of a perfect world where death is banished fails as easily, if not easier, as previous Christian promises. If Christian promises are forthcoming then the concept of salvation hopes for victory over death. Together with the guarantee of a resurrected body or a heaven where sensory responses are obtained by ‘living’ things (however ethereal this ‘life’ is), the notion of the absence of death hits a wall with even a moment’s thought.

Zero chance of death is an impossibility for anything resembling life. Is not the body composed entirely of living structures called cells? These cells die, generally through no conscious fault of the organism as a whole. Cells depend on such things as: sunlight, oxygen, and nutrients for survival. Yet these will eventually kill the cells they supply.

Not only that, cells are extremely vulnerable to most objects harder than themselves (this includes other groups of cells). Meaning that even slight application of physics to cells - be that a soft bump, a mindless scratch, or perhaps heavy trauma - commonly result in cellular death. Humans are a collection of many cells working together and it would be impossible to protect every cell from death and still retain human life or form. On Earth we shed our cells at a fast and messy pace and the entire body’s cells are replaced multiple times during an average lifespan. If our bodies somehow continue after death, then one can only expect that existence to be no different to the one we currently experience.

Heaven as a thought consoles those in grief and despair, but under cold scrutiny the Christian concept is incoherent and reveals the true wishful thinking and greed of the humans who invented it. The promises of heaven are unattractive with inspection and reflect ignorance rather than revelation.

The compromises and concessions such a participant in this theme-park must undergo leave much to be desired. The inhabitants of such a place - if one were to end up there - would be so different from what we know today as you can imagine that there seems to be little point in holding any realistic hope for it. What exactly are we wishing for if we can't even imagine it correctly? Better not to forfeit this life in hollow expectation of the unimaginable.

Christopher Hitchens

After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option. The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time, and I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins…, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.

Religion Subsides: An Observation

I think it’s a mistake to see a straightforward relationship between the recent retreat of religious faith and the concomitant advance of scientific knowledge. After all, a relatively small minority of the increasing number of disbelievers has any acquaintance with modern science at all. And then on the other hand there are a significant number of extremely accomplished and knowledgeable scientists who retain a strong religious belief notwithstanding. All the same I do suspect that the widespread, albeit patchily distributed disbelief in the modern world has something to do with science. But perhaps it’s more to do with what science has provided in the way of security, convenience, and comfort. And with the fact that although the general public is largely unacquainted with the theoretical basis of the amenities which they now so carelessly enjoy, the environment which science has created is so comfortable and so unthreatening that supernatural considerations have understandably weakened and faded. The consolations and assurances that were once provided by the church now seem strangely anachronistic and unnecessary. 

Jonathan Miller

Answering the free will defence

Theodicy is the branch of theology that attempts to cope with the problem of evil. One move is to point out that some values seem to presuppose pains. We can cheer up people in the mixed and spotty dormitory, by extolling the virtues of patience and fortitude – goods that require deprivation and difficulty to flourish. The difficulty with this is that we ourselves think that things are going better when the situations requiring those virtues lose some of their edge. The imperfections of the computer program Windows have no doubt led to virtues of patience or fortitude, but even Microsoft have never used that to defend the perfection of the product, and indeed that is why they continue to try and improve it.

Again, people sometimes try to defend belief in a genuinely good deity, good in a sense we can understand, against the problem of evil by what is known as the ‘free will defence’. The idea that god created a good universe, and out of his goodness created us with free will. But by misusing the freedom thus granted, we ourselves brought evil into an otherwise perfect world. The myth of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden embody the idea.

There are many objections to this defence. First, it seems to depend upon a conception of free will that seems to be incoherent: the interventionist conception according to which something that is not part of the natural order (the Real Me) occasionally interferes in the natural order. For without this, if free will is understood in a compatibilist way, my decision-making is done with a natural endowment which is ultimately, for the theist, due to god. If god had not wanted Stalin to slaughter millions, he should not have created the nature that eventually gave rise to the decision-making modules of such a person.

Second, it is just not true that all, or even many, of the ills that afflict human beings are due to human decisions at all. They are due to disease, pain, want, and accident. They afflict the animal creation as well and human beings (no real difference there actually), and did so long before there were human beings; and long before humans had even invented the idea of god.

Third, even if the metaphysics of free will were accepted, a good god might be expected to protect some of the weaker from the misuses of free will of the stronger. A parent might recognise the value of letting children make their own choices, and give them some liberty. But if some of the older children show alarming tendencies to murder and mutilate the younger, the parent would be wise to put them under supervision, or to protect the younger by diverting the older from their plans. Unhappily, god does not do this in the world as we have it. There are no natural playpens, in which the weak are segregated from the strong. We have to try to create our own safe areas. This fact lies in stark contrast to the idea of god as caring.

Religious traditions are at their best when they back away from the classical virtues of god. God is elevated in some traditions to be above good and virtue, or in Hume’s down-to-earth phrase, has no regard to good above ill than heat above cold. In other traditions, he is by no means omnipotent, but subject to forces not of his own making. Each of these at least afford some kind of theodicy. But if we really were concerned to puzzle out the nature of god’s mind from the nature of his creation, we might look seriously at the idea that he (she, they, it) is a god with a twisted sense of humour. After all, as the Jewish joke goes, he led the chosen people round the desert for forty years just to drop them into the only part of the Middle East that has no oil.

Epicurus' old questions


Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

God 'letting' us commit evil through an ambiguous idea of free-will still does not answer the question of why evil exists in the first place. The question is still not answered if one says that that evil exists because of human sin. Epicurus' questions are still valid.

Free-will really has nothing to do with it. If god is omnipotent and created everything, then it logically follows that god created evil. This is incompatible with his supposed omnibenevolence. Besides, sin is subjective and finding out what is good is not helped by invoking what a deity supposedly said. This god could just as easily say that murder is good as say it is bad. But would murder be any more abhorrent?

You see the thing is that if you say that human evil is somehow different and apart from other terrible things that happen around the world (e.g. earthquakes, disease, suffering animals, etc) I would like to know how you make the distinction. Where, if it exists, is the line that distinguishes a solely human evil, one that no other life form on the earth can experience, from an instance of evil elsewhere in the world?

Seeing as you may agree with the traditional Christian approach to the advent of evil, how does one explain the existence of 'evil' before it's advent? According to conservative estimates, 99.5% of every species that has ever existed on earth has become extinct. Indeed, homo sapiens were lucky not to have fallen over the brink themselves. Long before Adam or Eve ever arrived, animals and life had been neck-deep in the struggle for existence that in all likelihood included every 'evil' we know today occurring on a regular basis.

What if someone were to say that even though god created evil, or at least can never remove it, it is up to us to 'rid ourselves'? There is so much wrong with that it boggles the brain. "Created sick and commanded to be well" comes to mind. The deeper question though would still stem from Epicurus, namely, what is it about this 'evil' that God cannot remove? The free will defence is unsound and the only thing we have to go by is experience which tells us that both evil and good are human constructs. The hawk thinks nothing of killing the mouse but the imminent feeding of it's hungry belly.

So what if the 'evil' is going to be overcome in another world! This answer does nothing to explain the persistence of pain and suffering in the only world we know to exist. I could posit any number of next-worlds or previous-worlds in which certain aspects of the universe were 'overcome', but it would do nothing to explain why those attributes exist in the here and now. It's a nice side-step of the problem of evil but it won't do.

As I see it, the dormitory is that way simply because it functions that way. If it were different, then it would be different and we would still squabble over the particularities of that difference. Apart from ambiguous texts written by ignorant, scared, credulous humans we have no indication that the world has ever been different. Some perfect world is only a fantasy, either in the past or in the future.

The Problem of Evil

Suppose that you found yourself at school or university in a dormitory. Things are not too good. The roof leaks, there are rats about, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death. There is a closed door in the corner, behind which is management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has the resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.

Similar remarks apply to the belief that this world is a ‘vale of tears’, which is a kind of proving ground for that which is to come. The inhabitants of my dormitory might believe this: the management is looking to see how they behave in order to sort them into better or worse – indeed, perfect or hellish – dormitories next year. This might at a stretch be true. But they have no shadow of a reason to believe it is true, based on what they have got. All they have to go on is what they see of the management. And if he, she, they, or it does not establish good conditions here, why suppose that they do so anywhere else? It would be like supposing that since it is warm here, there must be a dormitory somewhere else where it is perfectly hot, and another where it is perfectly cold. The inference is crazy.

excerpts from Ethics, by Simon Blackburn

The Grandeur of Evolution

If we pause for only a moment to consider, among other things, the sprinkling of heavy dust from long forgotten supernova resting gently within us; if we consider quantum entanglement, singularities and super strings; and if we consider the quiet genetic code of ancestors extinct for a billion years still written in our hundred trillion cells; does it not seem, as Socrates might have phrased it, that no matter how much we think we know, there actually is a more transcendent truth? Is there not grandeur in this view?

Why Evolution is True pt1


Firstly, I’d just like to correct a common mistake regarding the notion of missing links in the fossil record. Fossils do not occur regularly; they are extremely rare events that require specific conditions to become successful artifacts. The mere fact that we possess as many as we do is testament to the amount of life this earth has put forth in its long history. Hard structures, such as bones and enamel, in organisms do fossilize much better that soft tissue or cartilage for soft tissue requires conditions even rarer than normal for fossilization. Bones and enamel do offer substantial evidence to work with for paleontologists but soft tissue fossils offer much more. 

Stephen Jay Gould wrote about some amazing soft tissue fossils in the Burgess Shale deposits in fantastically rich detail in the book ‘Wonderful Life’. This is a fascinating treatise on the details seen in fossils even dating back hundreds of millions of years. My point is that although there are many stages in the evolutionary tree that perhaps are missing, due to incremental changes and slow gradual steps through generations, we are certainly not experiencing a profound lack of evidence or examples of these organisms. I am not making an excuse when I talk about the rarity of fossil. Tectonic plate subduction and erosion may have destroyed a good deal of possible fossils before we evolved to get to them and the natural laying of sediments is not the correct process for fossil creation.

Take the human evolutionary lineage. In order to fully understand how our evolution took place I believe it is crucial not to view our history, and indeed evolutionary history as a whole, as a progressive ladder from single cell creatures advancing to humans at the top. Rather, earth’s natural history is better observed as a continued expansion of adaptation to changing environments and all species alive of earth today are equal on the outermost twigs of a great bush. Humans departed from our last common ancestor with chimps sometime about ~3 million years ago. There is much fossil evidence for presuming that our two species are closely related and for establishing such a lineage. A cursory look at the modern literature on human ancestry should reveal a whole list of names ranging from Australopithecines to Homo and more. There is always debate about whether or not a newly discovered human ancestor fits the current theories, but there has not been serious debate about the fossils being human ancestors for many, many years now. 

As you can see from these fossils there is adequate evidence suggesting our evolutionary descent. Some of these fossils do indeed lack a complete skeleton, but then again very few fossils of other lineages show complete structures due to the harsh conditions of erosion post-burial and decomposition of exposed body-parts prior to fossilization. Like I said before, teeth are more likely do fossilize than any other part of a body due to their high enamel content. And a lot can be discovered from studying a tooth, such as dietary habits, size of the host, conditions of life and death, age, etc. Neanderthalensis is still debated as to where in the human lineage its proper place should be but it is clear from the specimens we do have that while it was very similar to Homo sapiens, it was indeed a separate species. Homo erectus also attains the position of separate species and both these two lineages became extinct through unknown causes. Neanderthalensis did not perish because it possessed lower cranial space; in fact this species of Homo retained a larger brain than every present Homo Sapiens. Indeed, according to mDNA tests, our own species only just overcame extinction resulting from an environmental bottle-neck back in Africa some time ago and it was only when our adventurous ancestors migrated to fairer pastures that our species excelled and proliferated. Extinction, a terrible outcome that has happened to 99% of every species that has ever evolved on earth, could have very easily included us on its morbid list of scalps.

I will take time to point out here that while fossil evidence of human evolutionary ancestry and cousinship with the other great apes is quite profound and does seem to suggest the theories proposed there has been no greater leap in the understanding of evolutionary lineages than the sequencing of the human genome. Perhaps the crowning achievement of this endeavor was the discovery of Endogenous Retroviruses (ERV’s) and their unique placement on chromosomal pairing. These viral infections from the distant past reverse-transcribe themselves onto the RNA and DNA of an organism unfortunate enough to encounter them. They can play a role in autoimmune diseases and cancers and are difficult to remove once they latch themselves onto germ-line cells (sperm and egg). However, the key fact that I want to point out here is that in the human genome project found thousands of such ERV’s in their work that comprise nearly 8% of our entire genome. They only affect viviparous mammals (all mammals except for Monotremes, of which the Platypus resides) and seem to do a whole host of things such as protecting the infant from the mother’s immune system.

Now, closely related species have closely related DNA sequences and comparison of human DNA with other primates shows the most similarity with Chimps and Bonobos, followed by the gorilla, and then the orangutan. Only 1.2% of the bases differ in the 95% that is aligned with chimps. Biologically speaking, we are African apes. Our DNA sequences are a record of our genetic history, having suffered many deletions and alterations in the past. These changes include minute alterations, such as single base changes. They also involve very large rearrangements involving DNA segments thousands or millions of bases long.

Here’s where ERV’s come in. Since abnormalities in genetic sequences function as specific markers that can indicate whether one sequence is a copy of another. Our chromosomal structure has diverged from that of the chimps by an end-to-end joining of two chromosomes called a ‘fusion’. New genes have been formed by copying and modifying old ones (called ‘duplications’). Old genes fade away (into ‘pseudogenes’) and the DNA of genetic parasites (ERV) is added to chromosomal DNA as ‘insertions’. The generation of each duplication or pseudogene and the insertion of each parasite is a random and unique event, given the literally billions of possibilities on a chromosome. And yet we share particular duplications, pseudogenes, and insertions with other primate species. This shows that we and other species possessing a uniquely arising genetic construction (because many other species share some, but not all, of the same anomalies tucked away in their genes) are related by descent from an ancestor in which the singular genetic change occurred.

Why Evolution is True pt2

The main difference separating us from chimps is a fusion, a naturally arising event that occurs on chromosome 2. Other differences between human and chimp chromosomes are more subtle landmark events than whole chromosome fusions. The chimp equivalent of human chromosome 17 has undergone a rearrangement in which two breaks were made in the chromosome, the intervening segment flipped through 180 degrees, and the breaks rejoined. We know that the inversion occurred during chimp evolution, because the sequence is a genetic parasite (an ‘Alu’ insert, an ERV) occurring at one of the break points. It is undisturbed in the human chromosome 17, but has been broken in the equivalent chimp chromosome, in which the two halves are separated by millions of bases. Endogenous retroviruses have contributed the structural components of some genes to their animal hosts. A member of the HERV-W family (human endogenous retrovirus) resides in the DNA of all apes and must have entered primate DNA in an ancestor of the apes. A representative of the HERV-FRD family is present in all simians (including humans), demonstrating that it entered the primate germ-line in an ancestor of the simians. These ERV’s have retained their function in every species, and may have been co-opted to serve a role in reproduction.

Studies have shown that ERV’s are excellent markers of evolutionary relationships. The probability of finding two ERV’s independently integrated into the same DNA site in any two different species is exceedingly low. If multiple species posses the same ERV insert, they must have received it by inheritance from the same ancestor. If you’ve followed me so far (and I know that this is a lot to work to get through but it’s worth it), then you will be surprised to know that not only are there indeed two independent ERV insertions, but the genome project found 60 such events in total that we share with other primates, and thousands all together. This pattern proves, far better than any fossils could ever have, that we do indeed share common ancestry with each of the apes, and even demonstrates the order of relatedness I mentioned before.


Finally, there are plenty of instances in which two parents of the same skin color produced a baby with different tones. Suffice to say that the genetic information for varying tones of melanin in the skin is already present in every human’s genetic code. The dominant alleles and mutations that occur at the embryonic stage decide characteristics ranging from the skin tone to the susceptibility to certain viruses and diseases and everything in between. Funnily enough your next prediction is absolutely spot-on. The simplest organisms on this earth, the Eukaryote single celled Amoebae, carry in their genome 290 billion base pairs, while in contrast the human genome consists of only 3.2 billion. A genome is the organism’s entire hereditary information. Just out of interest, the largest genome for vertebrates belongs to the marbled lungfish with 130 billion base pairs. Since our ancestral line diverged from our fish cousins some 530 million years ago this is poignant. The simplest organism most commonly known is the Amoeba. It contains in its DNA the possible information for such a huge diversity of life that it is entirely likely that a similar organism is the ancestor of every species alive or dead.

Why War?

According to my rationale, many things must be considered to establish a healthy understanding of war. I’ll only touch on the aspects from a biological standpoint and try to leave philosophy and metaphysics aside. At the top of the pile of reasons sits the distinction between the natural and cultural changes of our species. Natural selection (evolution) moves on a timescale measured in groups of generations lasting anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years for significant changes in morphology to accumulate. 


Cultural change (also termed “cultural evolution”, although I don’t particularly like that term as it diffuses the intellectual waters and breaks down the intrinsic meaning of the word) works on a scale that in comparison must appear to a visitor from Mars to be light-speed. As our technology has changed, so has our culture and society, leading many to false impressions and expectations about some of our deepest questions. For instance, quite a few people are boggled as to why the expression of violence through war (and individually) still shadows our advanced cultures in this, the enlightened 21st Century. They rhetorically say that since we’ve “come so far” in human historical terms then we should have already shed such primitive behaviors as war and religion. You have heard this line of thinking? But I and others think they are misled, and I will try to show why.

Humans are still actively evolving creatures. This is in no doubt since the examination of the human genome shows clearly that this is the case. However, we evolve significantly now at much slower rates due mainly to our advances in medicine and massive gene pool reserves. Humans haven’t really changed the rules of natural selection. We might think that because we have culture – and with it all kinds of medical interventions and technologies – that we are immune from natural selection, but nature proceeds as usual. Evolution is defined as a change in gene frequencies over time, which means that over generations, there will be changes in the gene pool, and humans experience those changes as much as any other organism. Some people live, and some people die, and some people pass on more genes than others. Therefore there is a change in the gene pool over time.

But we might suggest that, with all the cultural and technological innovation, there would be some kind of influence in composition of the gene pool, and there is. Take smallpox, for an example. Years ago millions of people died from smallpox, and their genes were not passed on because they died before reaching reproductive age. The human gene pool was then missing the genes of those people. But now, since smallpox has been wiped off the planet, people who would normally have died of the disease now live, probably have children, and thus contribute to the human gene pool. In another example, the birthrate always goes down the more developed and economically affluent countries become. Today the highest birth rates are in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. People in these areas are now the major contributors to the human gene pool. In many generations, the human species will be composed more of genes from those groups than from developed countries.

How does this help explain war? Humans and other species do not function on a Lamarkian evolutionary program in which arbitrarily desired traits are selected for and passed down (evolution would go gangbusters if it worked like this). Rather the more sedate Mendelian process of acquired traits through natural selection dictates what successive generations will receive. In other words, the preferred characteristics in the future may not be selected for because the present conditions demand other characteristic selection (or, it’s getting colder so those mammoth ancestors with hairier bodies survive better than those more naked, passing down their bias of hair to future generations. No thought process like, “in 40,000 years we mammoths may need to have transparent hairs in order to both stay warm during winter and reflect light during summer therefore we’ll start evolving that trait now”, natural selection does work this way [Lamarkian], it is unguided and unconscious.)

In early proto-human family groups in Africa, certain traits were selected for that we still retain today. In fact most of them are still embedded in our genome. The climatic knife-edge of the African environment very nearly threw our young species onto the great scrap-heap of extinction along with 99% of all species that has ever lived on this earth. Our existence today comes through a bottle-neck of sorts that determines the fact that all “races” share a common ancestor (indeed the designation of ‘race’ for human groups is outdated and frankly incorrect; you, I and all people are essentially identical and I refuse to delineate races). These traits include the tendency to violence, the altruistic nature of love, the overwhelming desire to live and not perish, and myriad other characteristics. War is included for the simple reason that as these humans broke into family groups and began to depart from Africa they needed to protect certain things. 



Resource control is a huge factor in any modern conflict and this goes for our ancestors equally. Their cultures were based around a ‘slash and burn’ nomadic stripe that relied on the small percentage of land that houses game. 70% of the planet is covered in uninhabitable water and a large percentage of land is inhospitable, therefore the choices for hunting and living are few, creating tensions that still exist today. As these groups coalesced into more agrarian cultures, the need to defend and acquire arable land began to lead to more and more frequent wars. This trait for war has not been given enough time in our collective culture to be selected against by evolution, in the same way that altruistic love and the need for in-group acceptance are still around, meaning that war and violence still holds a useful function in our species. Alternatively, evolution has perhaps not been given enough time to select against war because the speed at which attitudes and society has changed places impossible pressures on the gradual process of Mendelian evolution, and our wants and desires fall on the deaf ears of biological evolution.

What or who defines what is moral?

The consensus does indeed come from somewhere: within functioning social groups. Without social groups there is no reason for morality. Collectively murder will not be acceptable one day because this would break-down functioning social groups; Homo sapiens and other apes live in tightly knit family groups and the total collapse of these gatherings would be fundamentally disastrous.

Let me turn my question into something a bit simpler: since people seem to believe that humans get their morality from god, and not from the learned application of functioning social groups, and that if this god says that rape is bad, murder is bad and perjury is bad then that's fine, god said it, you adhere to it; hypothetically speaking then, if god says that rape is good, by your reasoning you should now deem rape as a moral behavior! Unfortunately this is exactly the method religious zealots use to legitimize atrocities from the killing of infidels to the banning of condoms in Africa. The reason we can condemn such scenarios is because god does not dictate morality, it is integral to ourselves and in fact our morals have evolved alongside us as our culture changes.

As a further example that shows the fallacy of this reasoning, in the bible, kin selection is very strong. The so called "ten commandments" specifically say that one is not to murder; this dictate is supposedly from god. Yet within a few mere pages of these “newly-revealed” laws the Hebrews are out slaughtering whole cities and raping virgins, supposedly on the order from their god. How does one reconcile this ugly contradiction? It seems to an outside viewer that the laws were meant only for the direct kin of the Hebrews and not for everybody, hence the guilt-free massacre of thousands. The Hebrews were exhibiting a classic kin selection and family group mentality and had no idea of individual human rights or the morality you and I take for granted today. I submit that this story is a perfect example of what evolved in us from natural causes. Today's morality comes from an adult and civilized struggle to figure out how to live with one another, and by and large the results have been fantastic!

Why bad?

When I say that something is bad I am only referring to "badness" in the sense that the behavior is detrimental to a healthy social functionality and towards the individual. In order to condemn this behavior to fellow communicating humans I need a method of communication that holds meaning. Bad, evil, or nasty are perfectly acceptable words when describing such behavior. "Who says something is bad", society does, but in a more internal way our evolved minds inform us of the unhelpful behavior. Some people call it their conscience, others their "inner-voice", while still others call it god. The evidence from neuro-psychology and human physiology seems to suggest strongly that this feeling most of us get is ‘in-built’ in our brains and serves to function for the continued adhesion of social groups. This claim can be understood if you imagine such a trait as "adaptive" in the strict evolutionary sense. "Who" says something is bad? Your brain does, it seems to be as simple as that.

Not Morally Independent

This is one of those things that comes from the inference and observations of the natural world, plus the information gleaned from sociology and linguistics. A "moral" is a human term for a behavior pattern. Other species exhibit certain behavior toward each other (and even towards other species as seen in the popular video on Youtube called "Battle at Kruger", it’s worth a look), but they don’t call it anything special because they don’t communicate like us. It appears to biologists such as David Sloan Wilson (Evolution for Everyone, 2007) and Edward O. Wilson (The Diversity of Life, 1992) that the reasons such behavior in animals occur are best explained by theories about kin selection and altruism. 

In short, that old adage, "what I do to you is what I expect to be done to me" works in reality. This has an immediate effect on the organism’s survival prospects and ultimately their evolutionary success, for an organism that arbitrarily treats others for overtly selfish gains and displays "amoral" behavior is destined for the evolutionary rubbish heap. Morality, as we humans call this behavior, is theorized to have evolved around the same time that eukaryotic cells began group functioning rather than continuing to work alone. Group function relies on some sense of "morality" to work. Some animals have always lived solitary lives without group mentality but many organisms, including us, have lived in family groups for much of their ancestry. During this time these social creatures have "learned" morality (another human metaphor for evolutionary trait-descent) in order to continue functioning, and have found better and more complex methods of function together.

Why we do bad.

Why do murder and stealing between humans happen? Or, more importantly, why do we have laws that discourage murder and stealing if these are predicted by natural selection?

I'll answer the question in two ways: first, murder is a human behavior in which there is a deliberate killing of another human, usually for different and changeable reasons. (There are varying degrees of killing but I don't see the need to itemize them here, suffice to say that murder is a 'bad' thing.) If one were to assess murder from an evolutionary perspective a number of explanations can arise. For instance, the environment herself can stress individuals and their species groups to the point that a necessary culling of fellow species begins, the sexual selection process and retention of mating partners can sometimes result in the death of species members, control of group or a change in hierarchy sometimes results in the death of leaders or challengers to that position, along with many other instances as well. In other species these reasons are justified in the struggle for survival that each faces every day. For thousands of years before civilization humans would have struggled with such instincts in their small species groups as well.

But all this is fine until we look at the world outside. What we see is not the random killing and the strong oppressing the weaker. Rather we observe tightly knit species groups that prefer to protect than to injure or kill each other. From ants through piranhas to humans, all species tend to cooperate rather than kill each other, the question is why? Do they all adhere to a moral law supplied by an almighty creator or is there a natural explanation for all this? I suggest the best explanation is natural selection. Today, we do not observe human societies that instead of cooperation with each other preferred to kill, steal, rape, and lie to each other. These societies, if they ever existed, are dead. The Homo sapien has been around on this planet for perhaps a million years and before us our ancestors as well, we have had plenty of time to learn and fluctuate between practices and behaviors in that time period. Today most functioning societies have some sort of 'law' against anti-social behavior such as murder and stealing, not because it was given to them by a god, but because without it there would be no society. There is no tautological reasoning here, instead this is directly observed in species-level group interaction across the board regarding social animals. Even solitary animals such as cats will not fight to the death with a rival.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean when you say "if humans were left to their own devices' as if this is somehow a foreboding and undesirable outcome. On the contrary, if humans are left to their own devices they invariably form social groups that rely on unspoken ideals and laws about not killing or stealing. These laws are not unspoken because they perhaps exist ‘within’ us but because the very functioning of a social group will not occur if such good behavior is rejected for anti-social. Let me ask you a question, if your god were to come down to earth now and tell everybody on the planet that he was leaving for good and never coming back, could humans still be moral beings? When you answer this it should become clear that morals do not come from god.

Why we do good.

Murder, is an entirely human concept, I feel embarrassed to point this out actually. Other animals do not paint their behaviors in human terms. "Murder" in nature is only imposed by human observers and does not, and would not, exist without human observers. Humans are conscious animals that are able to interact with their world in ways other animals simply cannot. One way is through the imposition of 'laws' upon the world they see.

Unlike the laws of thermodynamics or of logic, abstract laws such as murder and stealing would not exist if humans were to disappear today and never return. The laws that govern the nature of our universe are independent of any observer and require only the descriptions that an observer will give them to become 'discovered'. Before scientists 'discovered' the laws of thermodynamics and all the other amazing rules that govern matter, these processes had been happening for billions of years. However, before humans 'discovered' ethics and morals and the laws that govern them (note that these two definitions of 'laws' differ substantially) they did not exist independently in the world.

The laws that we talk about in the natural world (aside from the sociological world) are only human constructs that we employ to share knowledge about our world. But I noticed a flaw in reasoning in your post that may be leading to your misunderstandings.

Natural selection does not predict that the "strongest and most aggressive' will survive, and that the presence of good in the world makes evolution untenable. This is a common misconception spread by American creationists and also personally interpreted by those who have not read Darwin at all. What is actually meant by the prediction of natural selection in Charles Darwin's theory is that only the individuals and species groups that are best adapted to changing environments will advance to maturity and breed, therefore passing along those favorable characteristics to their offspring - evolution. The strongest and most aggressive are sometimes a favorable trait passed on to offspring; but so is camouflage, small size, agility, endurance, patience, cognition, problem-solving, cooperation, speed, dexterity, illusion, sight, hearing, taste, appetite, and myriad other traits.

Why Evolution and Christianity Don't Mix

There is no room for a creator in the material tools of science. No matter how many anomalous discoveries are made from the beginning of time till the end, they will never help prove scientifically that a god may or may not exist. As I have pointed out before, the idea of god is that he/she/it is supernatural. Ergo, god is not of the natural world. No discovery inside the natural world can prove a supernatural conclusion. Now, you can 'read into' the natural world anything you like about god or gods but you may never use natural material to prove a supernatural being.

So far in our human knowledge that we know certain things about the workings of the universe, none of them require a god or supernatural being to keep them going. They all work perfectly well naturally and according to local rules. The idea of laws, rules, etc are only human constructs that assist us in explaining these ideas to each other over time and distance. They do not prove a priori that a 'lawmaker' or 'rulegiver' exists to make them in the first place. But this is neither here nor there it's just something that comes up with religious people quite often.

Anyway, evolution does pose some unique problems for those who hold religious faith, especially faiths that invoke a creative deity of some sort. For instance, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all say in their books that humans were especially created from "dust", "a rib" or "a clot of blood". However, through extensive research in the past couple of hundred years it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the stories in the respective books are true in any way. They all contradict each other yet equally claim superior ultimate truths. So perhaps one of them is correct, or there is truth in some of them, or they are all incorrect stories. Since we and all creatures emerged through natural selection and speciation as the theory of evolution suggests, then what are we to make of these stories?

How do you personally reconcile biblical stories, and their supposedly divinely inspired authorship, with the contradictory evidence put forth by science? This sort of question threatens to open Pandora's box for a Christian theist. For, if part of the bible is false then how can one show the rest to be true? And when one attempts this, what method of truth criteria are they using, a subjective or an objective one? If it's their own then what gives them the authority to pick and choose in the bible?

If god divinely inspired authors to write down false versions of history then this also throws scepticism into the ring regarding whether that particular god told them anything or if it actually ever existed. Going further, if this part of the bible turns out to not be divinely inspired and invented by men then what protects the rest of the bible from similar scrutiny?

But I think the first few chapters of Genesis and the Torah (i won't address Islam because i am not a well versed in their verses) are more important than people give them credit for. They depict a character called Adam who is purportedly the first male Homosapien on earth, along with his partner Eve as the first female of the species. They interact with their environment and an event occurs, namely the eating of the forbidden fruit, which ends up cursing the entirety of humanity forever (and the whole universe), to sin. Now, science has shown this particular story to be at best metaphorical and not in any way literal or a relief of an historical event. This bare fact does not remove the ethical and philosophical meanings of the story that are probably eternally relevant. Rather, in conjunction with the rest of the story of the bible, the disproving of Adam and Eve as real people in real time, in my humble opinion, threatens the very foundations of Christianity and the theist position. All else in the bible is commentary and rhetoric compared to this problem. I'll explain briefly, here it is:

If Adam never existed and the story of original sin is false then the death and resurrection of Jesus was unnecessary and Jesus was just another man walking the earth like you and me. In other words, thanks to science, it can be shown that Jesus (also god) did not forgive our sins because we never had any in the first place, and we don't have sin today either.

How I Treat Truth

I just want to point out my position on a few statements. The first is about truth and a clarification on my position to head-off any claims I may get saying that I hold 'relative truths'. Below I will give you a quick run-down on how I see truth.

Truth as a topic is deep and worthy of as many hours as one can spare to study it, I must confess that I have only read half a dozen books pertaining specifically with this topic. I do spend a lot of time thinking about the concepts and what it means for my life, I believe this process helps to reinforce and order my readings into a steady, manageable flow. Anyway, I treat the idea of truth in this way:

A) Fish live in water

This proposition is true. What does it mean to say that this proposition is true? It means, simply, that this is the way things are. To say that the proposition is true is to say nothing more than: yes, fish do live in water. Thus, consider the proposition that says that (A) is true:

B) It is true that fish live in water

(A) and (B) are equivalent in the sense that, necessarily, if (A) is true then so is (B), and if (B) is true then so is (A). In other words, to say that it is true that fish live in water comes to the same thing as saying that fish live in water. Used in this way - which is all that is needed for logic and critical thinking - the word 'true' is no more mysterious than the words occurring in this sentence: 'Fish live in water'. In this sense you cannot doubt that there is 'really' such a thing as truth, or that truth is knowable, any more than you can doubt that fish live in water. This is a 'known truth'.

Discomfort and misconception with the word 'true' is sometimes due to a failure to distinguish truth from 'belief'. In saying that 'it is true that fish live in water', I show that I believe that fish live in water (presumably because I know that fish live in water). Yet clearly the truth of this proposition has nothing to do with what I believe. That depends only on how things stand as regards fish, and what fish do does not depend on what people think. So despite the fact that I used the word true to assert the above, the truth of what I asserted does not depend on my beliefs in any way.

In other words there is a difference between believing that something is the case and knowing something is the case. There is a deep-seated myth that what is true depends on nothing more that personal opinion or taste. There is no way to make satisfactory sense of the relativity-myth. Truth is not relative, it is objective, and the truth of a proposition is independent of our desiring or believing it to be true. Just as desiring or believing cannot make there be a 'god', desiring or believing cannot make it true that there is a 'god'. To believe is to believe something to be true, but truth is not the same thing as belief. This means that truth is independent of all of us; it does not mean that one powerful person or being could hold the key to all that is true about the world. The aim of good reasoning is to get at the truth, at the way the world is, irrespective of how people think or feel it to be. Rationality is a great leveler. In the pursuit of truth we are all equally placed before the world, and no amount of power can provide an advantage.

Of the four stances we can take towards a proposition - believing it, not believing it, suspending judgment, not engaging with it - the first two admit of degrees. There are many positions on a scale that one can believe something to be true or disbelieve it. However, the fact that someone may be perfectly rational and justified in holding a belief does not establish that the belief is true. A belief's being true is a matter of its fitting the facts, not of there being good reasons to think that such-and-such is the case.

Knowledge and truth are intimately linked. If someone knows something then the proposition known must be true: one cannot rightly say that fish live in water if fish don't live in water. The truth of a belief is certainly one necessary condition of that belief's being knowledge. But it is not enough, there are further necessary conditions for one's belief to be true and, ultimately, knowledge. In particular, a true belief counts as knowledge only if we arrive at that true belief via the correct route: We have knowledge only if we have good reasons for holding a belief that turns out to be true. We have to be justified; we need to have solid evidential support. We must, if you like, earn the right to be so sure. Lucky true beliefs do not count as knowledge.

Therefore, if someone says to me that "there is life after death" or that "the bible is literally true", it would be a mistake to retreat into relativity and conclude that their belief is 'true for them'. The particular belief is false, that's that. Indeed, such people can sometimes paradoxically be described as believing that which they know to be false - or self deceived. However, I shouldn't be so cold-blooded. It's not usually the case that such people are intentionally deceiving themselves, but rather that they are trying to deal with their plight by having faith that their hopes (however unlikely) will be borne out. So it’s rather unfair and unfeeling to accuse such people of being irrational, even though strictly speaking they are. While we should try to avoid irrationality, we must also accept that as human beings, it is sometimes psychologically better for us if our beliefs and behavior fall short of rationality. I suspect, and there is a growing body of research to suggest, that this is a major reason that people choose to accept the notion of the afterlife and god. However, I will suspend judgment on this until more evidence arrives.

Absolute truths only exist in the formation of the account of knowledge known as the tripartite account, according to which: to know that P is to have a justified true belief that P. My truths are of course gleaned from the processes above. Provisional truths are important because they supply us with an ever-sharpening account of how the world is. I tend to stay shy from declaring absolute truths; I’ll leave that to the preachers and politicians. The truth specifically regarding the evolution can be laid out a theory or theories. I'll be brief as to what theories are and how they claim to be truth.

Saying that evolution is 'just a theory' (a common remark) seems to belittle theories as something subjective - to dismiss them as merely someone's opinion. Properly understood, however, the term 'theory' has a specific meaning that contrasts scientific hypotheses with less methodologically sound and evidence based views about the way the world is. To say that something is a theory is not to cast doubt on its objectivity in any way; we speak, for example, of the 'theory of calculus' in mathematics or the 'theory of gravity' in physics, without meaning to cast doubt on the theories or the reliability of their resulting applications, as for example in the building of bridges. Nor is calling something a 'theory' to mark an invidious distinction from facts; a theory is a system of propositions concerning some domain of facts, such that if true then it is a correct account of those facts. True propositions are never themselves identical to the facts they are about or represent.

In general, a scientific theory posits a hypothesis that is testable, and those tests are able to be carried out in a way that makes them perspective-free; that is, they are able to be carried out by anyone able to observe the results and use any measuring apparatus competently. Evolutionary theory counts as a scientific theory on this account, and, again, to say that it is a 'theory' does not itself mean that there is something doubtful about it. Its hypothesis about the diversity and history of life and the processes therein, can be, and has been for over 150 years, exhaustively tested using data provided by scientifically respectable methods such as radioactive dating and DNA testing. By contrast, creationism, which also seeks to explain the diversity of life, is not a scientific theory by these lights because the faith-based account of creation it presents is not testable by such means. Theories supply us with explanations and interpretation of an incredible amount of data in our world. Using the reasoning outlined above, we can arrive at truths about evolution easily. In fact one can do a good deal of proving hypotheses at home using only some of the scientific tools available.

excerpts from Critical Thinking, 2010

The "God did it" Problem

Let’s presume that an almighty being like god does indeed exist in a very similar but alternate reality that I can see and tell you about. God is a 'he' (not a 'she') here and this being created the alternate universe and everything in it, including humans. Not only does your god exist there but everyone in the other world knows of his existence without exception. The years roll on and humans get curious about the world and decide to start poking and prodding to see how things work. All the while they know that god exists and has made everything. Slowly the centuries wear on and the curiosity builds to a crescendo as the humans all want to know how the world works in minute detail. The inevitable questions that one asks today in our reality have always plagued these humans’ minds and begin to gnaw at their thoughts. They've gotten so far with ideas on how creatures and the heavens work. They're ideas see god in everything and answering every question, yet some humans are not happy with the actual application in everyday life of these conclusions. Their mathematical workings lack result, for if "god did it" then that answer works for every sum. The humans even struggle to perform medicine because if "god made the body" then there's no need to learn how to fix it, best just to pray to the god to help them out.

This is all unacceptable for the humans and a radical new idea emerges in a few minds: what if humans can figure out how god made everything? Wouldn't it give them more pleasure and worship when they know the extent of his grandeur? This spurred the humans on to break through the glass ceiling of their ignorance and quickly discover that the universe operated with natural laws, and such a lot of them, all complementing each other. Finally, with this growing knowledge, the humans were able to reach mathematical solutions naturally. They could perform surgeries and medicine because they knew how the body worked. Prayer and offloading to their god became unnecessary and even an optional choice as the knowledge grew. Soon, some of the humans began to see that the world appeared to work very well indeed without the need for the god to hold it all together. The math worked out perfectly, every time, without the once crucial "then a miracle occurs" idea forced into the place of the sum. These few humans did not see in their workings that the god had ceased to exist, on the contrary, they reformulated their view of god to not be crucial for the workings of the universe any more. God was still there of course, but now they could all see that saying "god did it" had never helped anyone and that trying to figure out how the world works had given them the most amazing technological and medical benefits their ancestors could only dream about.

What do you think of this story? Surely the humans in this tale reached "enlightenment" very similar to our own. This event was begun by humans who could see the benefit of figuring things out for themselves, not for selfish reasons mind, but to increase the quality of living for their fellow humans.

In the story, you should be able to see how my assertion that even gravity and physics can be shown to exist without god. When one moves on from saying "god did it" on questions of natural order, the possibilities are endless as we can see in the 21st Century. The future is not bleak for us in this reality because a few men were brave enough to ask: how did god do it? These men were believers, just like those in the tale: Newton, Planck, Linnaeus, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Faraday, Mendel, Gray, Collins, and Miller etc. All of these people do not say "god did it" when they see a question in the world. All of them say "how did god do it" and all of them have tried to answer this question, to all of our benefit.

The Fine Line

I have heard some atheists use the theory of evolution to disprove god and falsify religion on the odd occasion. They probably are not well versed in philosophical polemics and prefer to stay in their area of expertise of biology and science. Plenty of scientists do actually use physics (of which gravity is an integral part) to disprove god too. In fact almost any discipline in science can be dragged over to the god/no god debate. I tend to think that if the believer says that there is a supernatural god, science cannot and should not tackle that idea because it is outside their 'jurisdiction' (I’m unsure of this term in this context but it seemed to fit well enough, disregard it if you like). However, if that believer then states that events such as miracles, healing or other phenomena have occurred then, as I have said somewhere before, they have just entered the scientific ball game. Once in this game these statements and events must withstand the test of science. If they do they can be verified as to be plausible, if not then the believer must reject them as false. Either way the believer cannot claim the 'supernatural' immunity of un-testability if the event happened in the natural world.

Divorcing evolution from religion was done 150 years ago. Today the only people wanting to make religion merge back with science are creationists and their step-child ID (Intelligent Design). These people are saying that their particular view of the first book of the bible, if read literally and in their specific way, contradicts the theory of an old earth and the larger idea of evolution, and for this reason they reject evolution. They do not use evidence. They do not use science. They only use biblical and apologetic arguments to form their idea. What science they do use is false, misrepresented, or out of date. The only way they get a nose in to people’s minds is the fact that in America (where creationism is the most heavily adopted) the level of basic science education is abysmally low. Many people soak up sciencey sounding ideas and do not posses the requisite tools to see the lies or chicanery behind the fluff. If anyone should be castigated for trying to instigate a war between science and religion it is these people.

On Ethics pt 1

By Simon Blackburn

For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion, but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live. It is the word of Heaven, or the will of a Being greater than ourselves. The standards of living become known to us by revelation of this Being. Either we take ourselves to perceive of this fountainhead directly, or more often we have the benefit of an intermediary – a priest, or a prophet, or a text, or a tradition sufficiently in touch with the divine will to be able to communicate it to us. Then we know what to do. Obedience to the divine will is meritorious, and brings reward; disobedience is lethally punished. In the Christian version, obedience brings triumph over death, or everlasting life. Disobedience means eternal Hell.

In the 19th century, in the West, when traditional religious belief began to lose its grip, many thinkers felt that ethics went with it. It is not to the purpose here to asses whether such a belief should have lost its grip. Our question is the implication of the standards of our behaviour. Is it true that, as Dostoyevsky said, ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’? It might seem to be true: without a lawgiver, how can there be a law?

Before thinking about this more directly, we might take a diversion through some of the shortcomings in traditional religious instruction. Anyone reading the bible might be troubled by some of its precepts. The Old Testament god is partial to some people above others, and above all jealous of his own pre-eminence, a strange moral obsession. He seems to have no problem with a slave-owning society, believes that birth control is a capital crime (Genesis 38:9-10), is keen in child abuse (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) and, for good measure, approves of fool abuse (Proverbs 26:3). Indeed, there is a letter going around on the Internet, purporting to be written to ‘Doctor Laura’, a fundamentalist agony aunt:

Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly state it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?

b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

d. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

e. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

g. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament, with its admirable on love, forgiveness, and meekness. Yet the overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty – the doctrine of the scapegoat. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into the city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:5-6). In a similar vein, he refuses help to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan with the chilling racist remark, ‘it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs’ (Matt. 15:26, Mark 7:27). He wants us to be gentle, meek, and mild, but he himself is far from it: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matt. 23:33). The episode of the Gadarene swine shows him to share the then-popular belief that mental illness is caused by possession by devils. It also shows that animal lives – also anybody else’s property rights in pigs – have no value (Luke 8:27-33). The events of the fig tree in Bethany (Mark 11:12-21) would make any environmentalist’s hair stand on end.

Finally there are the sins of omission as well as sins of commission. So we might wonder as well why he is not shown explicitly countermanding some of the rough bits of the Old Testament. Exodus 22:18, ‘Though shalt not suffer a witch to live’, helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America between around 1450 and 1780. It would have been helpful to suffering humanity, one might think, had a supremely good and caring and knowledgeable person, foreseeing this, revoked the injunction.

All in all, then, the Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women. It encourages harsh attitudes to ourselves, as fallen creatures endlessly polluted by sin, and hatred of ourselves inevitably brings hatred of others.

The philosopher who mounted the most famous and sustained attack against the moral climate of Christianity was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900. Here he is in full flow:

Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and oppressed come to the fore: it is only those at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here is the prevailing pastime, the favourite inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called ‘God’) is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as ‘grace’. Here, too, open dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness (- the first Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is a sort of cruelty towards one’s self and toward others; hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute … And Christian is all hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the sense, of joy in general.

Obviously there have been, and will be, apologists who want to defend or explain away the embarrassing elements. Similarly, apologists for Hinduism defend or explain away its involvement with the caste system, and apologists for Islam defend or explain away its harsh penal code or its attitude to women and infidels. What is interesting, however, is that when we weigh up these attempts we are ourselves in the process of assessing moral standards. We are able to stand back from any text, however entrenched, far enough to ask whether it represents an admirable or acceptable morality, or whether we ought to accept some bits, but reject others. So again the question arises: where do these standards come from, if they have the authority to judge even our best religious traditions?