Entries from July 2008 ↓

Articles for download

Here is a list of the pdf versions of the articles available for download. Right-click to save the file. This list will grow.

pdf: Science and Our Fall From Grace (right-click to save)

pdf: Atheism and Agnosticism (right-click to save)

pdf: Epicurus – an early Greek humanist (right-click to save)
Alex McCullie

Book: a new survival guide for atheists

Atheists often seek better responses when confronted by believers. Here they are in a straightforward, funny and gentle way. In 50 reasons people give for believing in a god (Prometheus Books, 2008) Guy Harrison works through atheist responses to the 50 most common reasons used for believing in god. All the familiar arguments are here but broken down as discussions for each reason. My god is obvious; atheism is another religion; some very smart people believe in my god; and atheism is a negative and empty philosophy are only some.

50 reasons is highly recommended for that next argument – sorry I meant discussion. I haven’t seen it in Australia yet, but it is available from Amazon.

Highly recommended

Alex McCullie

Comment: Apostasy – a test of religious tolerance

Abandonment of one’s religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause.”
http://answers.com – online encyclopedia

Article 18.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights

However many religious leaders and followers see apostasy as a criminal offence and even punishable by death. It is particularly so in Islamic countries even democracies like Malaysia. From a recent Economist article:

In Malaysia, people who try to desert Islam can face compulsory “re-education”. Under the far harsher regime of Afghanistan, death for apostasy is still on the statute book, despite the country’s American-backed “liberation” from the tyranny of the Taliban. The Western world realised this when Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who had lived in Germany, was sentenced to die after police found him with a Bible. After pressure from Western governments, he was allowed to go to Italy. What especially startled Westerners was the fact that Afghanistan’s parliament, a product of the democracy for which NATO soldiers are dying, tried to bar Mr Rahman’s exit, and that street protests called for his execution.
Economist: “Islam and apostasy, In death’s shadow” Jul 24th 2008

And another story from Iran:

Iran – Saeed Salman

“The Salman family’s five-year fight to stay in the United States ended on March 3, 2005, when the United States Department of Justice Executive Office of Immigration Review in Chicago granted the family political asylum.
“In this case, I am persuaded that apostasy in Iran is punishable by death,” Judge Craig Zerbe said in the ruling. “As far as the sincerity of their conversion, I note that the respondents are found to be credible.””
story posted at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty website

Finally some useful links:

Promoting Islamic religious tolerance

Detailed analysis on apostasy in Islam

Apostates of Islam – from the perspectives of those who have left

Qur’anic interpretation by Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

Alex McCullie

Article: Science and Our Fall from Grace

pdf: Science and Our Fall From Grace (right-click to save)

500 years ago most people believed that god created the universe with Earth at its centre and created all living things. Man and woman were made in god’s image and endowed with non-physical souls that continued after death. This was the teaching of the Christian church. Using the bible, Archbishop Usher (Ireland) in 1654 calculated the age of Earth as 6,000 years old and even named the date and time of its creation.

Today science tells us that humans evolved through physical processes like all other living things over millions of years. Our planet is 4.6 billion years old and revolves around a sun that is situated in a remote part of a very large universe. Science explains our perceptions, thinking and emotions in physical terms without needing souls, separate ‘minds’ and after lives.

So what happened?

Three scientific developments have severely shaken beliefs in our special role in nature; in fact have lead to our “fall from grace”. The Copernican revolution showed that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Theory of Evolution proposed a strictly natural explanation for the development of all living things including humans. And, over the last 30 years, Neuroscience is providing physical explanations for our perceptions, feelings and thoughts – traditionally seen as part of a non-physical mind.

What is science?

There are many definitions of science.

Science is the concerted human effort to understand or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding” (Bruce Railsback, Professor, Department of Geology, University, of Georgia)

The scientific method seeks to explain the events of nature in a reproducible way, and to use these reproductions to make useful predictions. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural events under controlled conditions. It provides an objective process to find solutions to problems in a number of scientific and technological fields.” (Rutherford & Ahlgren, Science for all Americans 1990)

These definitions and others show that science is empirically-based. Ultimately its knowledge is based on observations of the physical world from a third-person perspective. Scientific work – observations, experiments, hypotheses and theories – is conducted rigorously to reduce the effects of human wishful thinking and biases. Conclusions are open to criticism through peer review before being published in journals. The scientific community attempts to minimise deference to authority and not to rely on unchallenged texts and claims. Many writers refer to the methods of science as methodical materialism or methodical naturalism. Even scientists with strong religious beliefs conduct scientific research on this basis.

By using empirical methods, modern science has successfully replaced superstitions with reliable physical explanations in our world. Science generally takes a bottom-up approach when researching and explaining the world by examining the parts to understand the whole. Religions, on the other hand, usually provide edicts, rules and explanations from broad articles of faith and apply them to specific situations in a top-down fashion.

Science works with a number of widely-acknowledged assumptions, namely:

  1. Nature is orderly, i.e., regularity, pattern, and structure. Laws of nature describe order.
  2. We can know nature. Individuals are part of nature. Individuals and social exhibit order; may be studied same as nature.
  3. All phenomena have natural causes. Scientific explanation of human behaviour opposes religious, spiritualistic, and magical explanations.
  4. Nothing is self evident. Truth claims must be demonstrated objectively.
  5. Knowledge is derived from acquisition of experience – empirically – through senses directly or indirectly.
  6. Knowledge is superior to ignorance.

Assumptions are adapted from Chava Frankfort-Nachmias and David Nachmias, Research Methods in the Social Sciences. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1996

Finally we should say what science is not. Firstly science is not art with individual artistic expression. Nor is it technology, such as nuclear power plants, even though technology utilises scientific knowledge. And, finally, science isn’t philosophy or religion. Science does not attempt to talk about human purpose or happiness even though scientific research may contribute to understanding our place in the world.

Copernican revolution

Between 1543 and 1633 Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo published theories and research that overturned people’s traditional view of Earth at the centre of the universe. Their work replaced the traditional Ptolemaic Earth-centred view with a new heliocentric model. Not only did they challenge people’s natural intuitions about Earth but also the church teachings about god and man’s special place. Despite powerful church opposition like Galileo’s conviction of “grave suspicion of heresy”, the heliocentric model became the accepted view of Earth and the solar system.

So we were not at the geographical centre of god’s creation after all.

Theory of Evolution

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species overturning the universal belief that we were the special product of creation. The theory of evolution saw humans as having evolved naturally like all other living things. Adaptation of organisms to local environments was proposed as the primary process driving the evolutionary development of living things.

Evolution directly contradicted the creation stories of most religious texts including the Genesis story of the Christian bible. In particular, evolution questioned notions of implicit human progress towards perfectibility as well as our natural superiority and dominion over other living things. The view that the world was populated with a hierarchy of fixed species became obsolete. Worse still, human beings were now seen as having evolved from the same ancestors as “Iesser” animals and, under different circumstances, may not have evolved at all.

Evolution is almost universally accepted by the scientific community with overwhelming evidence from a variety of disciplines. However, not surprisingly, evolution continues to be seen as threat for many religious people and is regularly challenged by well-funded groups. Creationism and Intelligent Design movements are recent examples.

So humans have evolved through natural and blind processes of chance and adaptation.

Neuroscience

Over the last 30 years the neurosciences have researched mental processing as physical brain activity. Specifically, neuroscience is effectively exorcising the “ghost in the machine” – the soul.

There are three areas of study. Firstly, cognitive neuroscience directly relates thoughts, perceptions and emotions to the functioning of the brain using advanced imaging techniques. Behavioural genetics links genetic information with behaviour through research programs such as with separated twins. And, finally, evolutionary psychology examines the mental capabilities as an evolved brain with a series of sub-systems that resulted from environmental adaptations.

Neuroscience research is new and ever-changing. However some conclusions seem clear. Firstly, our brain and its processing are more like a chaotic Chinese restaurant than a well-designed computer. Secondly, most of our mental processing is subconscious with very little reaching a conscious level. Thirdly, our brains are very creative at filling information gaps with explanations that may or may not be true. In most situations our folk theories and rule-of-thumb processing work satisfactorily as we evolved that way for survival. However our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs can also be very unreliable and self-deceiving. A final conclusion suggests that we need to rethink our understanding of free-will. Neuroscience suggests much less freedom than we intuitively believe.

Neuroscience tells us that our mental processing operates in a very approximate, self-fulfilling way and suggests the need to maintain a healthy scepticism regarding information and situations we come across. Finally don’t forget that most cognitive processing is handled subconsciously by our brains.

Final Comments

Today’s science provides better grounded and less mysterious explanations for the physical world than religions did some 500 years ago or even today. The results of scientific research with the reasoning of philosophy offer wonderful opportunities to explore the human condition and to lead to more fulfilling lives less reliant on wishful thinking, revelations, faith and superstition.

References

Kitcher, P 2007, Living with Darwin, Oxford University Press
Hauser, M 2006, Moral Minds, HarperCollins
Pfaff, D 2007, The Neuroscience of Fair Play, Dana Press
Mayr, E 2001, What Evolution Is, Basic Books
Lakoff G & Johnson, M 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books

Good reading

 

© 2008 Alex McCullie

News: Science and Qur’an

Here is a link to an article debunking the myth that the Qur’an is scientifically accurate: The myth of Science in the Quran

Alex McCullie

News: Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online

link to Complete Works of Charles Darwin

To quote:

“Only this site contains Darwin’s complete publications, 20,000 private papers, the largest Darwin bibliography and manuscript catalogue and hundreds of supplementary works: specimens, biographies, obituaries, reviews, reference works and much more.”

Alex McCullie

News: Excellent secularism article/review

From Naturalism.org

This article reviews and supports the new book The Secular Conscience by philosopher Austin Dacey. It provides are very good discussion of secularism with comments about worldviews and the need to keep naturalism separate. (full article)

Alex McCullie

News: Secularists sleep & well-funded creationists are on the march…

From New Humanist, Volume 123 Issue 3 May/June 2008 :

“While secularists sleep well-funded creationists are on the march in Europe says Peter C Kjærgaard
On 4 October 2007 the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly passed Resolution 1580, which issued a stark warning: creationism, the denial of Darwinian evolution, is on the rise in Europe. The resolution focused on the way that creationists across the continent, using the model pioneered in America, have been targeting education …” (more)

Links: Australian Societies

Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/

Council of Australian Humanist Societies http://www.humanist.org.au/

Rationalist Society of Australia http://www.rationalist.com.au/

Australian Skeptics http://www.skeptics.com.au/

The Australian National Secular Association http://home.vicnet.net.au/~secular/

The Atheist Network – Australia http://www.theatheist.net/e107/news.php

Evolution – the Experience (Conference 8-13 Feb 2009 Melbourne Convention Centre) http://www.evolution09.com.au/

Article: Atheism and Agnosticism – meanings

pdf: Atheism and Agnosticism (right-click to save)

Typically atheism and agnosticism are seen as alternate positions of disbelief in a god. The atheist is perceived as taking the harder line of absolute rejection whereas the agnostic has a more diffident position of uncertainty. Even today agnosticism is probably seen as a more socially acceptable and reflective view.

Amongst atheist communities the meanings of atheism and agnosticism cause considerable debate and angst about which, if any, truly reflect people’s positions. Many dislike the term atheist as a “belief in opposition” and seek alternatives like non-theist, naturalist, physicalist or materialist, free thinker, humanist and non-believer, even though some can have quite different meanings.

Atheism and agnosticism have very different etymologies. Atheism is literally without (“a”) gods (“theos”) from Greek and has a long history of use. Socrates was accused of atheism for not worshipping the gods of Athens. Early Christians were similarly accused by their opponents in Roman Empire. Atheism was usually used as a derogatory term for not believing in the accusers’ gods and not total rejection. Even though agnosticism uses a method of construction – without (“a”) knowledge of the divine (“gnosticism”), it was only coined publicly in1869. Prof Thomas H Huxley, an English biologist, was concerned like many others with the definitive nature of atheism and felt that agnosticism was a more reasoned stance.

Most dictionaries provide two similar but distinct meanings for atheism – a disbelief in god and a denial of the existence of god. For example,
•    Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
(http://www.answers.com/atheism)

Many writers refer to these positions as weak or passive (“disbelief”) and strong or active (“rejection”). Despite seemingly similar these positions are quite different. Imagine arguing either of these stances with a believer. Holding a weak atheist position requires you to refute any arguments seeking to prove the existence of god. This is similar to not believing in any number of ideas like unicorns, ghosts and Iraqi WMD. The believer has the responsibility to convince. The fact that billions of people believe in a god or gods does not constitute a proof.

Alternatively, supporting strong atheism requires that you refute proofs of god’s existence and, more importantly, prove that god doesn’t exist. Unfortunately as no definitive proof exists one way or the other, this strong position seems ultimately impossible to support. There is a slight wrinkle here, though. A strong atheist could reasonably ask “what do you mean by god?” There are many arguments around the apparent contradictory nature of some conceptions of god, such as the presence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving god with the freewill and existence of evil.

Many of today’s strong atheists prefer to talk about probability rather than certainty of the non-existence of god. Richard Dawkins makes this point in “God Delusion” by describing god’s existence as highly improbable.

Instead of separating atheism and agnosticism I prefer to talk about the belief in existence of god (metaphysics) and claimed knowledge available (epistemology). So a strong atheist would have no belief in god and would also believe that we have certain knowledge of that. The weak atheist would have the same belief but make no claims about knowledge. The typical non-believing agnostic would also not believe in god but have doubts about whether or not it is ultimately unknowable.

References

Craig, E. 2005, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London.

Flynn, T. 2007, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, New York

Martin, M. 2007, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Benedict, G. 2008, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, Watkins Publishing, London

© 2008 Alex McCullie