Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Houla Massacre And Faith-Based Initiatives.

BBC News - Houla eyewitness: 'They had no mercy'

And so the world witnesses another brutal massacre of women and children by people who've come to see themselves as superior to others and so have assumed for themselves the power of life and death over others.

But is this really surprising in a part of the world still dominated by a religious superstition having it's origins in the brutal pre-civilised Bronze Age when massacres of the sort were routine and are still defended as right and proper by people like William Lane Craig and other politically motivated pseudo-religious apologists?

In fact, it's professional theologians who dutifully trot our whatever justification their 'cause' requires of them who encourage, facilitate and permit these indefensible acts of inhuman barbarity. Alex Alvarez in Justifying Genocide: The Role of Professionals in Legitimizing Mass Killing explains how this happens.

It's perhaps worth recalling how leading Christian apologist William Lane Craig defended the Canaanite Genocide described triumphantly in the Christian Bible:
But why take the lives of innocent children? ... if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

William Lane Craig, professional Christian apologist
Killing children is good for them. It makes them happy and we should actually pity the "traumatized" soldiers who have to break into houses and murder them! He actually said that!

No. I couldn't believe it either until I saw Lane Craig saying it for myself here:

"It's not a pleasant job, but somebody has to do it. It's all to the good in the end!"

I wonder how many guards at Treblinka, Dachau, Belsen, Buchenwald and Sobibor said that.

William Lane Craig is highly regarded as a theologian in American right-wing circles and even has a band of loyal devotees in other English-speaking countries.

So, if you want to see what America would be like if Craig and those to whom he provides his repugnant apologetics ever gained the power they seek, look no further than the Syrian village of Taldou near Houla where at least 108 people, including women and children, were dragged from their homes and massacred in something remarkably similar, though on a smaller scale, to the Canaanite Massacre some 3500 years earlier and a little way to the south, by people who believed they had a duty to do it because their priests and authority figures told them they had.

I wonder if those who carried out the crime think they should be pitied for being traumatized in the process of doing their essential work and clearing the world of lesser beings and undesirables. There can be little doubt that William Lane Craig would regard our instinctive human revulsion over these 'faith-based initiatives' as an "emotional outburst" indicative of a character flaw and a lack of intellect, as he chillingly explained here in a reply to one of his devoted right-wing loon followers.

Other reading:
Houla: How a massacre unfolded
Syria Crisis: Counting The Victims
Timeline: Syria's Massacres
Syria unrest: Who are the Shabia?

'via Blog this'

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Sunday, 27 May 2012

20 Questions Atheists Have Answered

This blog is in reply to a blog entitled Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer by Dr Peter Saunders, CEO Christian Medical Fellowship. Dr Saunders claims in his blog:

I am not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones

Of course, neither I nor Dr Saunders is the final arbiter of whether an argument is good or not, so presumably we should interpret that claim as that he has not accepted these answers. He has an opportunity to explain why not here, rather than merely waving them away as 'not good'.

I have addressed these answers personally to Dr Saunders but please feel free to answer them if you think Dr Saunders is right, or that the answers are unsatisfactory.

Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer
  1. What caused the universe to exist?

    We do not know exactly what happened in the first 1*10-43 seconds of the life of the universe. This is the Planck length of time, in other words, the smallest unit of time which can exists so it is, in effect, unexaminable by science. Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design goes into this question at some length and concludes unequivocally that gravity alone is sufficient to explain it and that there is no evidence for a supernatural involvement.

    Given that, at the quantum level, there is no such thing as nothing and everything is subject to unbounded fluctuation, this initial Planck length of time probably does not need to be explained in terms other than an unbounded quantum fluctuation. At the moment of it's nascences, the universe was already 10-43 seconds old and this time is sufficient for gravity to separate from the other three forms of energy, so allowing a hyperinflation in which energy can be created with reduced entropy so obeying the Laws of Thermodynamics. Science has developed very accurate mathematical models of the Big Bang following this initial 10-43 seconds and observation has confirmed these models to a remarkably high degree of accuracy.

    Lawrence M Krauss also goes into this question in some detail in A Universe from Nothing as does Victor J. Stenger in God the Failed Hypothesis.

    So, three questions for Dr Saunders here:
    1. Were you unaware of the work of Hawking, Krauss and Stenger?
    2. If not unaware, in what way are their explanations unsatisfactory?
    3. In the absence of a scientific answer to this question, how exactly do you conclude that the only alternative is that the Christian god caused the universe to exist?
  2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

    The universe is not fine tuned as Victor J. Stenger has shown in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning

    So, again three questions for Dr Saunders:
    1. Were you unaware of Stenger's work debunking the 'fine tuning' fallacy?
    2. If not, in what way exactly is Stenger wrong?
    3. Why is there no possible natural explanation for the 'fine tuned' parameters to which you alludes?
  3. Why is the universe rational?

    In the alleged 40 years of asking this question one might have expected you to have formulated it in such a way as to make it look more like a question designed to elicit truth rather than to score points. Never-the-less, I'll try to answer what I think you mean although you could equally have asked why water is wet.

    The universe appears amenable to reason to humans because the human brain has evolved to be good at pattern recognition, so we look for explanation in terms of cause and effect because that's what experience tells us is the best way to explain things. In pursuit of this aim we have developed science which is a methodology for examining evidence and seeking to explain it in understandable ways by developing theories then testing those theories against observation and experiments designed to show which of several competing theories is the best explanation. Hence, the universe appears rational because we have rationalized it.

    Three questions:
    1. Would you expect the universe to be irrational?
    2. If so, why?
    3. If not, why did you ask this question? In what way does it address the existence of gods?
  4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?

    The basic principles of chemical reactions have been known for some considerable time. There is no mystery in the molecular structure of DNA or amino acids and no reason to invoke magic in any explanation of how inter-atomic bonds occur. Any intermediate level text book on organic chemistry will contain detailed explanations of the various types of chemical bonds which are involved in molecule formation.

    1. As a medical practitioner, are we really to believe that organic chemistry is a mystery to you?
    2. If not, what was the purpose of this question other than to falsely create a gap in which to sit your favourite god?
    3. If the answer to this question was truly unknown, in what way does it support the hypothesis that the Christian god is the only way to explain it?
  5. Where did the genetic code come from?

    An evolutionary process, which is the inevitable result of imperfect replication in a selective environment. The first replicators are unknown but various theories exist to explain them. We may never know for certain which is the correct explanation simply because it is impossible to create all possible environments under laboratory conditions. This seems to be a major worry for religions but it matters not one jot to science. We know a replicator of some sort arose because we can see it's descendants. The precise nature of it is merely of academic interest. It's rather like not being convinced that raindrops started higher up because we can't say for certain precisely where.

    Whether the first replicators were autocatalytic RNA molecules or inorganic molecules such as silicates is a matter for speculation but RNA probably became involved at an early stage. Quite simply, as a basic understanding of evolution should tell you, replicators better able to exploit the resources in their environment in order to produce more copies than their rivals will be more successful and will come to predominate. Quite simply, the 'genetic code', which is possibly the only code possible, evolved.

    1. Why would you expect the genetic code to not exist?
    2. How would the inability of science to answer this question with complete certainty at present support the hypothesis that the Christian god is the only possible cause of the genetic code?
    3. What medical advances can you think of which were produced by scientists looking at an unanswered question and concluding the a god must have done it?
  6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

    By co-option of pre-existing enzymes from other processes.

    The Talkorigins website has very many articles dealing with this subject under the general heading Irreducible Complexity Demystified.

    1. Were you really unaware of the many on-line articles dealing with this topic and answering your question, of which the above is just one?
    2. If not, in what way exactly do the answers given not answer the question?
    3. Why did you not ask for an explanation of the evolution of a specific process in a given species?
    4. How do you account for variations of these processes and of less complex chains producing the same or similar outputs in other species if the chains are really irreducibly complex?
    5. Why would an intelligent designer design so many different ways to achieve the same result and why would it create analogous systems in species which, when arranged in order of degree of difference, look like they evolved from a common, more primitive ancestor?
    6. How do you account for redundancy in organisms and evidence of inefficient, stupid design, such as the recurrent laryngeal nerve and a broken ascorbic acid manufacturing process in many primates?
  7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

    As a quick search on Google would have shown you, Merritt Ruhlen has written several books dealing with this subject.

    1. Were you aware of the work of various authors on this subject of which the above is one example?
    2. If so, why do you think your question has not been answered?
    3. If this had been unknown to science, in what way precisely does it undermine the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to believe in any god?
  8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

    'Suddenly' as in spaced over some 2,000 years, i.e the time between the height of the Roman Empire and today? Perhaps we are using different meanings of the word 'suddenly'

    In fact, the earliest communities tended to be in river valleys such as the Nile, the Hwang Ho, the Ganges and Indus, and the Tigris/Euphrates. Cities did not 'suddenly appear' and were not 'all over the world' as your question falsely implies.

    Cities became possible when humans had developed agriculture and so labour could be divided between those who produced food (farmers) and those who produced goods (potters, weavers, etc). In many areas of the world where there were suitable crops which could be farmed, and animals which could be domesticated, humans established settled communities. Those communities which could produce larger populations came to dominate and ideas and methods which worked better would have been copied by neighbouring communities. Ideas spread by being copied as well as by movement of people.

    In many parts of the world people remained hunter-gatherers of course and nomadic pastoralism was a major way of life in Central Asia until very recent times, hence the frequent incursions of Asiatic peoples into Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and into China.

    1. Were you unaware that many areas of the world never developed cities or urban life-styles?
    2. How do you account for the continued existence of subsistence agriculture, hunter-gatherer peoples and nomadic pastoralism if, as you claim, there were cities all over the world?
    3. How does the existence of cities support the notion of the existence of the Christian god?
    4. If cities were somehow facilitated by your favourite god, why did it wait until 3000 years ago and why did it not give them to everyone?
  9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

    Another question which looks designed to be unanswerable rather than to elicit truth through scientific reasoning. I could with equal disingenuousness ask you how prayer is possible in a world dominated by the motor car and television. But I won't do that. I'll ask you a few specific questions so you can justify your question and give it a semblance of intellectual credibility.

    1. Why would you expect it not to be?
    2. Why do you believe thought is independent? Independent of what, exactly?
    3. Why do you believe the world is 'ruled by chance and necessity'?
    4. In what way is this question a problem for the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to believe in any gods?
  10. How do we account for self-awareness?

    This blog deals with that very subject: An Evolving Sense Of Self.

    Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained deals with this subject in great detail.

    Susan Blackmore also deals with it in The Meme Machine

    1. Were you unaware of these latter two works, which are just two of a number of books and online articles which answer your question?
    2. If not, precisely how do they not answer your question?
    3. If science had been unable to offer an explanation of self-awareness, how would that gap undermine the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to not be an Atheist?
    4. How do you account for very evident self-awareness in other species?
  11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

    Again, a question in which your premise is merely assumed and which appears to be unrelated to the second clause. Several authors have questioned the idea of 'Free Will', including Sam Harris in Free Will. As a medical practitioner I would expect you to be aware of the research of Daniel Wegner and Benjamin Libet which calls the idea of free will into question, so your basic premise is far from established. I'd frankly be astonished if you were unaware of this.

    1. Were you really unaware that there is no scientific consensus that there is such a thing as free will?
    2. Why would you expect a material universe to have any impact on that debate and why, as your question implies, would you expect it to render it impossible?
    3. How can free will exist in the presence of an eternal, omniscient and inerrant god?
    4. How does the existence or otherwise of free will impinge upon the Atheist view that there is no evidential reason to believe in a god?
  12. How do we account for conscience?

    As an evolving, intelligent, social ape, the ability to work together as a team was essential. Those groups which evolved a memetic basis for behaviour towards one another and who cared for one another would have been the more successful groups and so would have succeeded where others failed.

    These blogs, Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility, Xeno's Religious Paradox and The Evolution of God all address this question.

    As a physician, I would be astounded if you were unaware of the concept of empathy and, as a Christian, I would be astonished if you unaware of the idea of treating others as you would wish to be treated, which probably marks more than most the influence of Humanism on an otherwise inhumane and brutal tribal law of the Middle Eastern nomadic goat-herders who codified their laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the book of Hebrew origin myths called the Old Testament.

    1. Why would you expect an evolving, intelligent, social ape not to evolve a set of memes by which to work together as a co-operative society?
    2. How do you distinguish between someone who doesn't know right from wrong and needs to look them up in a book and a psychopath?
    3. How do you account for the differences and similarities between different human cultures and societies if they all get their moral codes from the same supernatural source?
    4. How do you account for the fact that a society like Sweden with it high Atheist population is more peaceful and has far less crime than a highly religious, predominantly Christian society, like the USA?
    5. How do you account for the statistics in this blog - Not Good With God?
    6. If you believe you can only tell right from wrong by reference to the Christian Bible, how do you know it was written by a moral god and not an evil one trying to mislead you? In other words, how do you know Satan didn't write the Bible?
  13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?

    This is, of course a repeat of question 12.
  14. Why does suffering matter?

    This is also a restatement of question 12.

    Why does suffering matter to whom or what? Suffering matters to those suffering and to those who can, or would like to, do something about it. It matters not one jot to the universe. The suffering of it's prey matters not a bit to a predator. The evolution of altruism is fully explained by genetic evolution.

    1. Why does suffering not matter to so many species in a universe you believe to have been created by a caring and compassionate god?
    2. Why does pain persist when it has ceased to fill any useful survival purpose?
    3. Why would you expect an evolving, intelligent, social ape to not be compassionate and care about its fellows when this produces a better, more cooperative, and more trusting society.
    4. Why has Christianity so frequently and readily used deliberately brutal methods of torture and execution for those with whom it disagrees, as shown here and here?
  15. Why do human beings matter?

    See the answers to questions 12, 13, 14 and 16.

    1. Why do humans not matter to non-humans if, as you believe, the universe was created for them by a caring and compassionate god?
    2. Why does it look as though morality evolved in humans by a process of memetic evolution similar to the process of genetic evolution?
    3. How do you account for parasites in a universe created by a caring and compassionate god?
    4. If there is a caring and compassionate creator god why does it look as though he hates Africans, and especially the children?
    5. How can this photograph exist in the presence of a caring and compassionate god?
  16. Why care about justice?

    Once again a restatement of Question 12.

    It's becoming rather tedious to explain that this is exactly what we would expect if humans are an evolved, intelligent, social ape. I'm wondering if you have so many questions because you have refused to learn this stuff incase it sets up too much cognitive dissonance. I am assuming, of course, that your apparent ignorance of these subjects and appreciation of how well they answer your questions is genuine.

    1. Are you really unaware of the idea of memetic evolution (have I asked that before? I'm beginning to lose track) and how well it answers so many of your questions?
    2. If not, what precisely do you find inadequate about the answers it provides?
    3. How would failure to explain human cultural evolution as a natural process undermine the Atheism idea that there is no evidential reason to believe in any god?
  17. How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

    By the almost universal tendency in humans to settle for easy answers and by childhood gullibility, the evolution of which can be readily explained, as in The Evolution of Gullibility.

    1. How do you account for a falling belief in supernatural explanations as science makes more and more discoveries, and by a lower belief in the supernatural by the more scientifically literate?
    2. Why did the supply of prophets and miracles appear to reduce markedly as we became more and more knowledgeable and our understanding of the universe increased?
    3. Why is 'magic' a more satisfactory answer to mysteries than saying "we don't yet know but we're working on it"?
  18. How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

    We don't. By definition nothing supernatural can be detected or measured since it cannot interact with the natural world, so it is beyond investigation.

    As a man of science (presumably as a physician you do acknowledge the value of science) aren't you ashamed at needing to try to divest yourself of the burden of proof? If, as you imply, you believe there is a supernatural, the burden of proof lies with you. What evidence can you present that a supernatural exists and how did you go about examining something which, by definition, would be beyond the reach of natural processes?

    1. I normally take an attempt to divest oneself of the burden of proof as evidence of an awareness that the idea being presented is false and of the intellectual dishonesty and moral ambivalence of the perpetrator. Why should I not do so in this case?
    2. If your god is supernatural, so by definition cannot interact with the natural universe, how does it influence anything?
    3. If it can influence anything it is not supernatural so should be detectable by science. Has your god been so detected? if so, where may the evidence be seen?
  19. How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

    We can't.

    But why would we expect the brain to function when the rest of the body's physiology has stopped, especially given our knowledge of the importance of oxygen and nutrients to a functioning brain and its sensitivity to any compromise in their supply? Would you expect the kidneys or muscles to continue to function after clinical death?

    If your belief is that there is conscious existence after clinical death the burden of proof lies with you. Do you have any evidence for its continuation?
  20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

    Wow! How to wrap three completely different questions up into one.

    The first two of course can be easily answered. We don't need to account for them; you do. Again there is the attempt to shift the burden which has started to become almost a signature technique and which raises serious questions of sincerity in my mind.

    Given that the diverse accounts of the 'empty tomb' and the 'resurrection' in your only source are almost hilariously muddled and contradictory I suspect I understand your motive for trying to divest yourself of the burden of proof. There can surely be little doubt that the entire thing is mythical and was not witnessed by those who purported to be reporting it, as this blog shows: Jesus Is Risen - And Pigs Can Fly!

    Which just leaves the growth of the church to deal with:

    Quite simply, it was luck. Had Emperor Constantine chosen Mithraism from amongst the various competing superstitions as the official state religion in his declining empire in culture-shock at the barbarian hoards over-running it from the north, you would doubtless now be defending the myth of Mithra and demanding we answer your questions in terms of Mithraic mythology.

    Had the Gnostics or Cathars become predominant early on you would now be portraying Jesus as a messenger come to tell us how to avoid the physical world Satan had created and join the true god in a spiritual realm by observance of secret rites and rituals with 'the knowledge' and you would be quoting scripture to support your case.

    Had the Germanic tribes who invaded the collapsing Roman Empire remained pagan you would now be exhorting us to worship Wotan, Thor and the Norse Pantheon with doubtless equal certainty and dogmatism and religious apologists would have constructed fanciful theological arguments conclusively 'proving' the existence of these gods.

    Had you been born in Japan you would doubtless be extolling the virtues of Shintoism and worship of the Sun Emperor. Born in India you would be pushing Lord Rama or Ganash or Khali on us. If born in Mecca you would have no doubt at all that Mohammed was the Prophet of Allah and that women should only appear in public covered head to toe, should be beaten for driving a car and stoned to death if raped. And you would be affronted that people question Mohammed's probity and would probably be urging Jehad on the infidels.

    The Christian Church grew and diversified in Europe because it was given a flying start with Constantine's 'official' conversion - though he hedged his bets. It was given a further boost when the Gothic tribes, in an attempt to make Aleric look like a Roman Emperor, adopted it. Having captured the power-bases it was able to suppress many of the alternatives, and the alternative sects which early Christianity had already spawned, and so, in the West, Rome was able to predominate. It was not so in the East, where other forms of Christianity such as Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic, Armenian and other sects had grown up in the major regional centres of the old Roman Empire and each went their separate ways, only to be swept aside by advancing Islam when the vast majority of the people were so unconvinced, even in Jerusalem, that they converted to Islam en masse. Presumably, one dogmatic superstition was pretty much like another. There was work for an ambitious young lad in the army spreading the love of Allah and the Mosques gave out food!

    There is no mystery in the growth of the Christian churches. What is mysterious is why there are so many of them, especially given the story in the Christian Bible of Jesus prophesying that his church (singular) would be built on the rock of Peter and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. The mystery is why we have so many, almost like grains of sand with some 30,000 different Christian sects throughout the world. Was Jesus a false prophet and a poor judge of character in choosing Peter or was he just a foolish man who built his house on sand? Whatever, clearly here is a biblical prophesy which monumentally failed.

    By the way, Christianity is not, and has never been, a majority religion on a world-wide scale. Like all other religions, is was, until recent history, a local, regional religion. It just got lucky. It is still a minority and regional religion which depends for its continuing existence on capturing its members when young, gullible, and not having any say in the matter.

    I'm willing to lay a small bet that you have the same version of the same religion as your parents. If so, you might like to ponder on the significance of that.

There just remains one final point: throughout these questions there is an implicit assumption that, if there is something science can't explain, the only possible alternative explanation is the Christian god. Exactly the same false dichotomy fallacy is used by supporters of other gods and other religions.

Do you not feel embarrassed at needing to use this intellectually dishonest tactic which is no more an argument for your god than it is for any other and which relies entirely on the parochial ignorance of its targets to work? Why have you not presented a single scrap of evidence for your preferred god and explained why it can only be used in support of your god?

Do you not have any?

You might like to accept my challenge at Why Should I Not Be An Atheist?

31-May-2012 07:50
As of this time, the only response from Dr Saunders has been this exchange on Twitter. Remember, his original claim, and the specific one that this blog addresses, was:

I am not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones

Readers might like to speculate on the sincerity of that claim if this is how Dr Saunders waves aside detailed answers.

[Update] Dr peter Saunders is now pimping this blog as a relpy.

The actual author is anonymous and there is no right to reply. Dr Saunders has not, either on this blog, or on the blog to which this blog is a reply, mentioned this reply.

Readers might like to speculate on the integrity of someone who includes ad hominem attacks in a blog but fails to inform the victim of those attacks or allow them the right to reply.

So, a two further questions now for Dr Saunders:
  1. Do you endorse the views expressed in the blog entitled Questions That One Atheist Could Not Answer and, if so, should I take this as your definitive reply to by my blog?
  2. If not, when do you intend to produce you own reply?

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Saturday, 26 May 2012

More Good Christian Love

Pope Clement V, the first Avignon Pope
In a previous blog on the brutal suppression of the Cathars of southern France I showed an example of the huge gap between what the Christian Church tells us to do and what it does itself. One might expect a Church which teaches love, compassion, ascetic poverty, giving to the poor and the sanctity of life, and which claims to be based on sound philosophical reasoning and the teachings of 'perfect' Jesus, to show these qualities itself when discussing differences of opinion amongst its followers.

But not a bit of it. Throughout history, the normal response has been a resort to armed power, to brutal suppression, grotesque methods of mass destruction and rigidly enforced dogma from a position of obscene wealth and splendour. Maintenance of this wealth and power seems to have been the primary motive for the Church, rather than spreading the 'Love of Jesus' and the elevation of all of humanity above the level of the humble peasant and toiler for the landed gentry which was the lot for the vast majority of medieval Europeans whose poverty and labour were the source of the Church's and the small powerful ruling elite's wealth.

The Christian religion was clearly the means to an end rather than an end in itself and it could be moulded and bent into whatever shape suited the rich and powerful at the time.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Proof Of Noah's Flood!

Christian archaeologists have found astonishing evidence of the Biblical flood, it was revealed today. Excavations in the Forbidden City in Beijing have uncovered a message sent to to the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang

This translates as:

To Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Very sorry. No work on Great Wall. No one alive in world. All drown in flood of Christian Bible.

Humble slave,

Sammy Chan, Foreman, East is Red Construction Team.
2500 BC.

It has been acclaimed as a Message From God! Christian apologist David Barton welcomed the find but explained that it was nothing new. "We have dozens of these messages from all over the world. They turn up regularly and are even quoted verbatim in the Declaration of Independence and in the US Constitution", he said.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

C.S.Lewis Dispenses With Faith

Here is C.S.Lewis on 'Faith', again from his 1952 book "Mere Christianity". It illustrates well the conceited vacuosity of his religious views and how his frankly annoying patronising style almost seems designed to gloss over it and to rely on the deferential social mores of his target audience. It oozes with 'niceness' and smugly reassuring self-satisfaction but actually says very little other than "believe what I say". I'm sorry it's so long but he probably had space to fill.
I must talk in this chapter about what the Christians call Faith. Roughly speaking, the word Faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply Belief-accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people-at least it used to puzzle me-is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue, I used to ask how on earth it can be a virtue-what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.

Well, I think I still take that view. But what I did not see then- and a good many people do not see still-was this. I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.

When you think of it you will see lots of instances of this. A man knows, on perfectly good evidence, that a pretty girl of his acquaintance is a liar and cannot keep a secret and ought not to be trusted; but when he finds himself with her his mind loses its faith in that bit of knowledge and he starts thinking, "Perhaps she'll be different this time," and once more makes a fool of himself and tells her something he ought not to have told her. His senses and emotions have destroyed his faith in what he really knows to be true. Or take a boy learning to swim. His reason knows perfectly well that an unsupported human body will not necessarily sink in water: he has seen dozens of people float and swim. But the whole question is whether he will be able to go on believing this when the instructor takes away his hand and leaves him unsupported in the water-or whether he will suddenly cease to believe it and get in a fright and go down.

Now just the same thing happens about Christianity. I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it.

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

Probably the key phrase in all this is, "But supposing a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it".

Nowhere in this book does he say what evidence convinced him. All his reasons for being a Christian are based on negatives and absent evidence; because he can't explain something using his rather tenuous grasp of science, or doesn't understand something, he declares it inexplicable, fills the gap with a god and deems it to be the god his parents told him about. To Lewis, it seems 'unknown' and 'unknowable' are synonyms. And of course this god is to be worshipped according the the rites and rituals of the church his was baptised into as an infant. Never a shred of definitive evidence is ever offered for this god nor any explanation of why, if he has to invoke a god, it follows that it must be the god of the Christian Bible.

How could the English have possibly got the wrong god? The idea is not even worth considering.

Nope. There must be a god and it must be Lewis' god because there are things Lewis can't understand, and it is virtuous to just have faith in that conclusion. And faith means never having to change your mind even when the evidence changes or you realise the 'evidence' wasn't what you thought it was.

To borrow a metaphor from Richard Dawkins, there is not sufficient evidence to have a firm belief either way on the cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs. There is evidence that it could have been a large meteorite strike. It is plausible that it could have been a virus. It could possibly have been a catastrophic climate change caused by a super volcano. It is sheer arrogance to merely opt for one of those and then proclaim it a virtue to cling to that belief even when the evidence changes. Not only arrogant but vain, something Lewis regards as a sin. It can only come from the belief that one can merely 'know' the truth; that somehow something must be true because one believes it.

Faith, in the absence of definitive evidence, is not a virtue; it is the sin of vain arrogance writ large.

The mere fact that C.S.Lewis has opted to believe in the Christian god is sufficient reason for him to believe in it. None of this nonsensical subservience to reality and dependence on evidence for our hero. He comes from a class which not even the universe would dare to question. Reality is what he says it is and that's an end to the matter. He would not believe it if it were not just so.

And of course any reasonable plebeian hearing truth and wisdom dispensed by a brilliant Oxford don who even writes children's books, should accept it as good enough for him and marvel at the benevolence of such a nice man dispensing his knowledge so nicely, and with such simple words too.

What a wonderful example of a nice Christian.

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Monday, 7 May 2012

40 Killer Arguments For Internet Creationists.

So, you've decided to be a Creationist and convince people that science is wrong and your favourite god really created the universe in six days out of nothing, and made humans out of dust (or a lump of mud). I bet you're really fed up with scientists and Atheists having all the facts, evidence and logic on their side and with having to make do without any. I bet you really wish you could win just one debate without having to flounce of in righteous indignation, avoid answering questions, needing to resort to abuse and threats, or simply boring the pants off people by repeating questions and ignoring answers until they ignore you.

Don't worry. You can win! This is all you need to do.
  1. Have a list of questions you don't want answered. Check on any Creationist website for these.
  2. Keep asking these questions over and over but ignore the answers.
  3. Never be tempted to follow any links or read any books which might be recommended.
  4. Demand absolute proof for every scientific theory. Never accept it.
  5. Claim Creationism is proved because it's written about in a book and you believe it.
  6. Produce random quotes from a religious book and claim that proves it.
  7. Say that faith is better than evidence so it must be true otherwise you wouldn't believe it.
  8. Claim to have absolute proof that your god exists. Never produce it because it might be falsifiable.
  9. Promise that you will produce that proof soon but demand that it be accepted first.
  10. Refuse to produce the proof because it would be wasted on someone who won't accept it.
  11. Never say what you would accept as proof of Evolution or the Big Bang in case it's provided.
  12. Never say what you would accept as falsifying Creationism in case it's provided.
  13. Never say what testable predictions Creationism makes in case they are tested.
  14. Never say what the definitive evidence for Creationism is, in case people look for it.
  15. Never explain why your version of Creationism is better then any other.
  16. Never explain why, if science is wrong, Creationism should be the only alternative on offer.
  17. Claim absence of evidence for your god isn't evidence of absence so it must be proof of presence.
  18. Don't worry about using a computer to argue that science doesn't work.
  19. When pressed for an answer you don't have, claim you've answered it already.
  20. Claim the evidence for Creation is 'everywhere' but people won't look at it.
  21. Complain that no one has ever managed to answer any of your questions.
  22. Assert that Darwin believed in Intelligent Design.
  23. Claim that Darwin recanted on his death bed.
  24. Claim that Darwin was a Communist.
  25. Say that irreducible complexity proves life is intelligently designed. Avoid technical discussion.
  26. Assert that Evolution was falsified by science many years ago.
  27. Claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics means Evolution is impossible. Avoid discussion.
  28. Assert that there is no evidence for Evolution.
  29. Say that Darwin admitted God must have designed eyes.
  30. State that the Peppered Moths experiment was a fraud.
  31. State that Coelacanths prove Evolution doesn't happen.
  32. Claim that all fossils are forgeries made of plaster of Paris.
  33. Assert that there are no transitional fossils.
  34. Assert that Evolution has never been seen.
  35. Don't take any notice of the detailed rebuttals you'll get.
  36. If needs be, resort to condescension, passive-aggressive threats like saying you'll pray for them, and abuse.
  37. It's okay to call scientists mad because they usually are from all that reading and learning they do - which is why you should avoid it.
  38. Never get into technical arguments with real scientists, especially biologists, because you know how they can prove anything they want with facts.
  39. Tell people they'll burn in Hell if they don't agree with you.
  40. When you've got through this list just start again. People might have forgotten you had all of your questions answered and arguments refuted.

So there you are. You can now go on line and hold your head high in Creationist circles, sure of their admiration at the depth of your knowledge and the brilliance of your debating skills.

Those crazy elitist scientists and Godless heathen Atheists won't stand a chance!

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C.S.Lewis Gets It Wrong Again

More smugly self-satisfied moralising from C.S.Lewis' 1952 book, "Mere Christianity". This time it's quite easy to see why he got it wrong. It was a combination of ignorance and arrogance, of which, as so often with Lewis, arrogance was the main failure.
Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it. Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that you cannot have real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently. Now, of course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the point If we ask: "Why ought I to be unselfish?" and you reply "Because it is good for society," we may then ask, "Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?" and then you will have to say, "Because you ought to be unselfish"-which simply brings us back to where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any further. If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not be much good saying "in order to score goals," for trying to score goals is the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be saying that football was football-which is true, but not worth saying. In the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, "in order to benefit society," for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for "society" after all only means "other people"), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, "Men ought to be unselfish."

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, nor that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be. The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing- a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. And yet it is not a fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way as our actual behaviour is a fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real-a real law, which none of as(sic) made, but which we find pressing on us.

Writing in 1952 it is not surprising that Lewis was ignorant of memes and memetic evolution, so we can perhaps forgive him for that, but never-the-less we should expect him to have been aware of Occam's Razor and how it should be used to produce the most vicarious explanation. Instead, he waves aside any possible natural explanation in favour of one which requires magic and an unexplained mystery, but which serves his purpose if his reader can be relied on not to probe too deeply.

Australopithicus africanus (artists impression)
This puny ape was only ever going to succeed by cooperating.
Evolution of cultures, together with the rules which facilitate co-operative behaviour are fully understandable in terms of memetic evolution by an evolutionary process. Human groups which were more co-operative would have been more successful in the conditions in which we were evolving and co-operation depends on team skills, which themselves rely on mutual trust. In conditions where an increasingly intelligent brain was also evolving these memes would have developed and so in turn facilitated an even more rapidly evolving brain.

Hence meme-gene co-evolution would have facilitated both the development of a brain able to hold and use these memes and the memes themselves, producing more successful groups and cultures, leading eventually to the evolution of an intelligent ape which today we call Homo sapiens complete with a set of evolved cultural norms and ethics which we inherit from our parents, peers and authority figures in our society.

Whilst the basic principles of treating others with respect, doing least harm and the empathetic skill of judging what you would want done to or for you, if you were the other person, are more or less common to all human societies and groups, the details often differ considerably.

Queueing is one example. I remember being shocked when in former Yugoslavia in the 1970 I had waited with some friends for a bus. We had arrived early and took up our position at the bus-stop sign, as we would have done in England. Over the next 15 minutes or so we noticed people gathering around but thought nothing of it until the bus arrived. It was then a scramble of pushing and shoving to get on the bus - the sort of behaviour which might have led to an argument or worse in England - and we were the last to get on the bus.

However, once on the packed bus, it was noticeable how not one woman was standing.

Memetic evolution of cultures, just like the genetic evolution of species, sub-species and regional varieties, accounts for both the similarities and difference. This cannot be explained by a system of objective moral laws handed down by a magic man. And that also begs the question where did this magic man get them from? Is there an infinite regress of higher authorities handing down morals to the Christian god, or are they merely it's capricious and arbitrary whim? (See Xeno's Religious Paradox). Lewis conveniently neglects to explain how this assumed god fed these 'laws' to us. Did it feed them in slowly a little at a time as we evolved into modern humans? Did it provide them fully worked out to our pre-human ancestors, or did it decide one day that humans were now human enough so we could all be given a dose of moral laws? Obviously, this is all part of the 'mystery' element that we mere mortals shouldn't be concerning our selves with.

For more on memetic evolution of morality, see Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility.

Memetic evolution is the most vicarious explanation and does not need to invoke an unexplained, and unexplainable, magic or magician, or an infinite regress of higher authorities. All elements of the memetic theory of moral origins are there to be examined, tested and validated by scientific methodology. There is nothing which needs to be pared away with Occam's Razor because nothing is included merely to arrive at the desired conclusion or to pander to an audience.

Of course, memetic evolution doesn't provide comfort to those who need to feel a magic man is thinking about them and looking after their interests, nor those who like to imagine they alone have the one true culture given to them by the one true invisible friend, but then pandering to such desires should not be part of a scientific explanation even if it is a normal component of a theological one.

So, although we can forgive C.S.Lewis his ignorance of memes, writing as he was before they were discovered, we shouldn't overlook his arrogance. The basic mistake he made was in assuming that, because he couldn't think of a natural explanation for the origin of human morality, there couldn't be one, so the only explanation had to be supernatural.

Of course, as always with Lewis, there is the arrogant assumption of his class that the only possible supernatural explanation must be the god locally popular in England in 1952 - how could the English possibly have the wrong god? - hence his patronising tone and underlying assumption that us plebeians would simply accept what our social superior was telling us and not ask how he got from not knowing why we have societies based on morals to the conclusion that it must have been his favourite god. We could safely be relied on to take that for granted, just as people in culturally arrogant and parochially ignorant societies still can be today.

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Sunday, 6 May 2012

More Simple C.S.Lewis

Keep Quiet and Do What I SayAnother quote from C.S.Lewis' 1952 book, Mere Christianity.

The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like…. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.

One wonders why it took Lewis so many words to say, "This is what you should believe because I say so. Don't expect me to explain it because I've no more idea than fly how it works, or even what it does. Just believe what I say, or my imaginary friend will get you. Okay!"

His arrogance would be astounding if we didn't know that in deferential Britain of 1952, people from his class were expected to be arrogant. They believed they held a monopoly on wisdom and their burden was to dispense it to the rest of us lesser beings. Expecting them to explain their reasoning to us would have been getting above ourselves. It was enough that they believed it themselves. Why would they need to bother with reasons when this knowledge just popped itself into their heads, ready to be dispensed? Simple oiks like us needed to be told what to believe otherwise there would be anarchy. Lewis was merely shouldering his burden - and getting lots of money for it.

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C.S.Lewis Turns Out To Be Too Simple.

Believe it or not, the following is an argument for the Christian god which C.S.Lewis put forward in all seriousness and which, if they are to be believed, at least some Christians find convincing. It is taken from his 1952 book "Mere Christianity":

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

So, having realised that his childhood belief was childish, and based on his own false expectations, C.S.Lewis concludes that the only possible explanation is that the Christian god must exist. Quite how he gets from realising that his arrogant notion that somehow the universe should conform to his ideas of justice and the startling realisation that he couldn't define these notions, to the conclusion that therefore the locally popular god from his culture exists is never explained.

Let's break this argument down into it's component steps and see if the dots join up:

  1. The universe should conform to my preconception because a god would ensure it does.
  2. The universe doesn't conform to my preconception therefore this god doesn't exist.
  3. I don't know what my preconception is so I don't know if 2 is right or wrong.
  4. Therefore 2 is wrong.
  5. Therefore this god must exist.

Did anyone else spot the jump from not knowing if 2 is right or wrong to the conclusion that 2 must therefore be wrong? How does that follow from 3 any more logically than an assumption that 2 is correct?

And how about the initial premise? Where is the logic behind the assumption that my preferred god should be ensuring the universe conforms to my preconception in the first place?

No. All we have proved is that the initial preconception was wrong. There is no requirement at all for the universe to conform to C.S.Lewis' preconception and, there is no reason at all to assume that, because C.S.Lewis realised he didn't know what his preconception was, it was therefore wrong.

Still not convinced? Okay, If Lewis' logic holds we should be able to apply it to other arguments with equal validity, so let's change the initial premise slightly and see what we can prove with the same 'logic':

  1. The universe should be unjust because the Christian god doesn't exist.
  2. The universe is just, therefore the Christian god must exist.
  3. I don't know what justice is therefore I don't know if 2 is right or wrong.
  4. Therefore 2 is wrong.
  5. Therefore the Christian god doesn't exist.

Hmm... so the same logic can be used to 'prove' exactly the opposite, if only we change the initial, unproven, premise. Talk about starting with the required answer and working backward.

And of course nowhere in all this has Lewis presented any reason to conclude that the only god on offer is the locally popular one. Even if his dots joined up they could be used with equal validity for any god, or indeed a Celestial Peanut-butter Sandwich, if that was what you were trying to prove runs the universe. This is why it can be used equally to 'prove' there is no god. It's nothing more than an intellectually dishonest circular argument designed to hide the fact that the initial premise is merely an assumption inserted to beg the question and rig the logic so the outcome is the required one.

It's hard to believe that C.S.Lewis could not see the blatant logical fallacies this argument contained, the parochial and cultural arrogance and intellectual dishonesty which underpinned it, and how it could, with equal validity be applied to any god or any daft notion he could dream up, if he was the intellectual giant he is portrayed as.

But, he was marketing his wares to a culturally arrogant and parochial British public in 1952 of course, and he knew that market well, having lived off it for many years. He was in the market for confirmation of bias, not the market for information designed to make people question their assumptions.

No. There is no proof of anything in this argument but it does highlight the following problem for Christian theology. If the universe is run by an omnibenevolent god, why does it look just as you would expect it to if such a god is entirely absent? Perhaps it was his subconscious awareness of this fundamental problem which motivated him to abandon his intellectual integrity in order to try to dismiss it. Cognitive dissonance, and years of practice at coping with it, often seems to explain much of religious apologetics.

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

Why Did The Believer Cross The Road?

Faith: The sure and certain way to know that every other faith is wrong.

Faith is just not a sensible way to live your life.
If you tried to use 'faith' in anything but a religious context, and as an excuse for believing what you want to be true rather than what you know to be true, you would, if you were lucky and lived in a society which cared, be taken into care and kept under supervision for your own good.

Take a simple thing like crossing a road:

A normal adult with average intelligence will step up to the edge of the curb, look both ways, check that there is nothing coming and not even turning out of a near-by side road, and, if they see no cars, will accept that absence of evidence for a car as evidence of absence of a car. They will then cross the road, not considering for one moment that there may be an invisible car coming. They happily, and perfectly rationally, bet their life on the absence of evidence.

Imagine the reaction you would get if you tried to stop a normal person from crossing the road by telling them absence of evidence was not proof of absence and so the wrong way to go about it; they should have faith in a car being there. After all, if they have faith and accept there is a car coming and don't cross the road, what do they lose even if there isn't one? On the other hand, if there is a car coming, they gain everything. Risk nothing to gain everything.

No contest! Go with faith and save your life!

Before I went shopping today I checked in the larder first to see what we needed. I could have just used faith and assumed we had enough of everything, and anyway what would be the point of checking when absence of something like a tin of beans or a bag of rice isn't proof that we had none? In fact, what was the point of going shopping at all?

Fortunately, I'm a sane, rational adult and don't believe that things are real just because I have faith that they are.

And so do most Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Shintoists and followers of other religions requiring their followers to 'just have faith' and to bet their lives on the absence of evidence not being enough evidence of absence. It's only when it comes to believing the things their priests and preachers tell them to believe that they are told this infantile, irrational and intellectually indolent approach to reality is a virtue.

I'm not sure which is the least rational here: believing by faith or believing what the priests and preachers say. If you really believed their logic you could not live a normal life and would not even cross the road.

Why did the Believer cross the road? Because they don't believe in faith; they believe in evidence, just like normal people do.

Note: Believers who got this far and think my logic is wrong, are free to explain why.

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Friday, 4 May 2012

Feel That Christian Love!

A faith which is afraid of contradiction is not a faith - it is a fear.

You would think anyone secure in their beliefs would be content to explain their reasons and have done with it, confident that their beliefs are based on sound reasoning which can stand the test of doubt and counter argument. Even in the absence of good evidence you would think they could explain the inescapable logic behind their beliefs and the faults with all the other logic.

Surely, Christianity, with it's worship of 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild' who tells us to forgive our enemies and turn the other cheek, and of a god of peace and goodwill to all, is going to use non-violence against its doubters, especially those who simply disagree over some detail or other of the nature of their god and how exactly it should be worshipped? Surely, in the spirit of brotherly love, a good Christian secure in his own beliefs would simply explain to the doubter where and why he had gone wrong and trust the doubter to see the good sense of his argument.

Well, if you believe what they tell us, that might be what you expect, but is that expectation born out by the facts?

Not a bit of it.

The facts show that's not how religion, and particularly Christianity works. What we see is not a confident presentation of the arguments, but an assertiveness and ready resort to violence which betrays a lack of any such confidence and which betrays an underlying fear of counter-argument.

This time next week we'll be well on our way to the South of France, to the Languedoc-Rousillon region where, in the middle ages, one of Christianity's many little wars of persecution and violent suppression of dissent and disagreement took place - the crusade against the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians after the town of Albi, called the Cathar or Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229.

The Cathars regarded themselves as Christians. Catharism had spread into Northern Italy and Southern France, especially the Languedoc region into the Pyrenees. It's origins are slightly obscure but seems to have included elements of the Paulician movement from Armenia, Bogomil gnosticism from Bulgaria, Egyptian Arianism and Persian Manichaeism.

In those days, the more powerful centres of Christianity, despite a frenzy of persecution and document burning which followed the recognition by Constantine of Christianity as the official state religion, had not managed to suppress all the various sects which the early Christians had spawned in the first few centuries after Paul of Tarsus and others had exported their different versions of the myths to various parts of the Eastern Roman Empire. In addition, many of these were co-existing with Islam and rubbing shoulders with other ideas like Buddhism coming along the developing trade routes across Central Asia, so there were a large number of bizarre creeds all coming under the broad umbrella of Christianity on the basis that they were centred on a belief in the Biblical Jesus and on various translations and interpretations of early versions of documents and 'gospels', some of which found themselves sanitized and bound up into the official Bible.

Basically, Cathars believed there are two gods, a bad one (Satan) who created the material world, and a good one (Jehovah), and that Jesus was a messenger from Jehovah whose teachings should be followed to avoid Satan's evil. They believed that at best, Jesus was only God's son and not God, so they denied the Trinity as taught by both the Roman and Orthodox Churches. They also rejected oaths, including marriage and taught that sex was sinful and anything which was the result of sexual reproduction was also satanic, so they were vegetarian. Obviously no one had told them how plants reproduce but at least they knew it didn't involve dangley bits and pleasure.

The presence of the Cathars was encouraging regional independence in southern France which meant the Catholic French King was losing his grip on his southern barons, but of course their worst 'sin' was in rejecting the authority of Pope Eugene III and even refusing to pay tithes! To make matters worse, in theological debate, the Cathars were winning more often than not, seeming to appeal particularly to the theologically literate, so the Catholic church was losing its local intelligentsia, and being humiliated. Whole congregations were reputedly converting en masse along with their clerics (who probably knew which way the wind seemed to be blowing). This clearly could not be tolerated, so, after feeble attempst to convert them by sending a Cistercian monk, a cardinal and a bishop to preach to them, all to no lasting effect, the Papacy resorted to the time-honour fall-back theological arguments - violence and murder.

When Pope Innocent III came to power he asked King Phillip Augustus of France to launch a military campaign against the Cathars. Phillip Augustus sent Simon de Montfort and Bouchard de Marly, two of his more ambitious barons. To encourage their religious zeal, Pope Innocent III ordered that all Cathar land could be seized. There followed twenty years of 'persuasive' murder and persecution. In one siege, Simon de Montford ordered that 100 captured Cathars should have their eyes gouged out and their lips and noses cut off, then be sent back to the town of Béziers, led by a captive with one eye remaining.

Béziers was also defended by a large number of Catholics who had opted to stay to protect their homes and property when offered free passage at the start of the siege. As the siege came to an end, Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander who had ordered that all the Cathars were to be killed, was asked how to tell the Cathars from Catholics. His answer was a tribute to his humanity and Christian love for his fellow man. "Kill them all, the Lord will recognise his own". When the doors of the church of St Mary Magdalen were broken down, the 7,000 people who had taken refuge in it were dragged out and killed. In all, up to 20,000 people from the town were killed by being used for target practice and by being dragged behind horses for sport, interspersed no doubt, with bouts of brotherly love, goodwill and reasoned discourse on matters theological. Or perhaps not.

On 16 March 1244, 200 Cathars were ritually massacred by being burned alive on a large fire outside the Cathar-held castle of Montségur.

So, it's good to see that Christians, confident in their faith and in their reasons for holding to it, are able to persuade their fellow man to see the good sense of their theological arguments and are able to practice the teaching of Jesus to forgive their enemies and not live by the sword, the way they tell the rest of us we should live.

Or it would be, if only examples of them doing so were virtually non-existent and if only there were not so many examples of them doing exactly the opposite.

Further reading:
Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in the Languedoc
The Cathars: What was the Albigensian Crusade?
Cathars & Albigenses: What Was Catharism? What did Cathars Believe?

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