Entries from August 2009 ↓

Comment: Materialism Isn’t Materialism

This is one of the popular “con-jobs” commonly used by Christian leaders and writers to attack religious non-belief.

The Christian attack on materialism is a convenient and deceptive conflation of two separate uses of the word, “materialism”. As a philosophical worldview, materialism is the belief that all aspects of reality have a material or physical source. Modern science shows that matter resolves to mass and energy so this worldview is often better referred to as physicalism or naturalism. Therefore people are seen as physical beings interacting with a physical world. Believing in materialism or naturalism does not deny that we have feelings, moral sensibilities and ambitions. This worldview sees only physical sources and denies any non-physical postulations commonly referred as god or gods. All empirically-based sciences from physics and chemistry to the human sciences use this materialist assumption about the world and knowledge.

However many Christian writers deliberately confuse this meaning, which most atheists and agnostics hold, with an everyday usage of materialism as excessive consumerism, as reflected in Madonna’s song, “A Material Girl”.

Religious and non-religious people alike seem to condemn or embrace today’s consumerism. Christians are quite comfortable benefiting from the consumption of others and would be hypocritical of Christian writers to claim otherwise. One could argue separately about the role of capitalism and globalisation as contributors to this problem. However the harmful consequences for humanity and the world are part of a total human problem and have little or nothing to do with religious belief.

In a recent speech Pope Benedict XVI attempted this very deception. He somehow claims that Christian religious belief has the high moral ground on caring for the environment and that atheism and by implication materialism are leading to the destruction of our planet. Critics would rightfully see this newly-found custodianship as blatantly hypocritical. Look at a short sample of his speech:

Experiencing the shared responsibility for creation (Cf. 51), the Church is not only committed to the promotion of the defense of the earth, of water and of air, given by the Creator to everyone, but above all is committed to protect man from the destruction of himself. In fact, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected in society, environmental ecology also benefits” (ibid). Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Me vs It – A Human Delusion

One of the great challenges for intellectual thought is resolving the apparent dissonance between our rich inner lives in which we play starring roles, our first person view, and our relative insignificance in the external world, the third-person view.

Religions have attempted the resolution by positing real external analogues of our inner world. Separate non-physical personalities, with intentionality and purpose, like human-type god or gods, evil and good spirits, existent heaven and hell, and angels are comforting projections of our internal world onto an indifferent, largely inanimate world, thereby harmonising it with our internal lives. To be credible, though, these projections needed to be consistent with our every-day perceptions. So they had to be invisible and physically indetectable, essential qualities for any credibility. Religions then relied on human wish-fulfilment to take care of the rest.

Philosophy similarly has struggled with this first-person/third-person dichotomy with dualisms, idealism and realism/anti-realism, mind-body problems and conflicts between free-will and causal determinism to name a few. As an example, the mind-body problem seems to revolve around two questions. Firstly, how can a purely physical explanation of the brain, chemicals, electricity, neurons firing, truly reflect my rich inner life, and, secondly, how does a separate consciousness, sounding similar to religious-like projections, actually manipulate the physical body, without resorting to another higher-order projection like god?

The sciences, on the other hand, avoid the problem by simply taking a third-party view with humans being part, often small, of a much broader reality.  Look at cosmology to see our relative insignificance. So most sciences are not in the first-person business, though, perhaps, psychology sits part-way in the continuum. The success, credibility and consequent influence of science have created serious problems for human-centred explanations from religion and philosophy. Today most people live in a truly scientific-world view, at least in the countries of Western Europe as well as Australia, New Zealand and US to name a few.

The problem for religions and philosophy, in their 2500 to 4500 years of effort, is that they have been remarkably unsuccessful at solving the dilemma. At the same time science with its strictly third-party perspective has been devastatingly successful over the last 200 years at telling more about the world we inhabit. This assessment is based on science’s ability to generate reliable knowledge. Criticisms, often from religious and philosophical sources, about uses of the resulting technologies seem irreverent to this assessment. Human uses of the knowledge genuinely raise important issues to be addressed separately.

Therefore we need to change our reliance of the authenticity of our inner first person to meet new realities of the twenty-first century. We should question whether god or gods, consciousness, soul, free-will, morality, spirituality and the mind are simply constructs, rather than separate ontological realities, to make an indifferent physical reality seem more palatable to over-inflated senses of self-worth.

Alex McCullie

PS Try this thought experiment. What was God doing more than 150,000 years ago before any recognisable humans evolved on this planet? Did morality, angels, satan, the Word, after Earth’s formation? Or could they simply be our creations?

Comment: Non-Theist Morality Link

Reuter’s FaithWorld blog, listed here on the right, has an article suggesting that our concepts of “morality” and our noblest thoughts may actually have basic physical causes. This must be so shocking for many!

Even in the early twenty-first century we still pander to inflated egos, deluding ourselves about being more than physical purely to explain our lofty pretentions – noble thoughts, moral principles and spirituality. The implications of evolution are quite simple. We are one of many living things existing within a larger physical world and everything we have, comes from that simple proposition. There is no denying we have remarkable brains capable of complex processing – physical processing. However there is no ghost in the machine (thank you Gilbert Ryle).

Check the article: Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

Alex McCullie

Comment: Modern-day Fairy Tale

Conversations with Zak

I never found out where he came from, but Zak wanted to know about us – humanity. After reading books on science, technology, psychology and sociology, he continued “Progressive and updatable, that’s good. Most commendable. Now, what is religion?”

 “I can tell you about Christianity. But there are many others”, I said tentatively. I explained that Christianity is about seeking another world that is everywhere, but cannot be seen or touched. However we know that God – he is all powerful and morally perfect – resides there with his son, Jesus. Other religions don’t believe that about Jesus though.  Zak looked sceptical. “How do you know?”

“Well, we have a book that says so. The Holy Bible describes God, Jesus, life after death, heaven and hell, how to behave, and what to worship. I had to explain that ‘worship’ meant something like feeling unworthy, and serving God and then feeling constant gratitude. “Curious” was all I heard from Zak. And then “Tell me more”.

I explained that the Bible was written some 2000 to 3000 years ago based on some events in the Middle East: after a bit of searching, I showed where on the map. The Christian part is about God’s son, a man called Jesus, sort of half-man, half-God. In fact he is the same God as well – it’s a bit confusing, I said somewhat awkwardly. He was executed after one year of preaching or, perhaps, three, but that was enough to start Christianity. He exorcised demons, reanimated dead bodies (that happened to him as well) and performed other magical feats like walking on water and solving food shortages. “Do you have demons?” Zak asked. Well no, I explained. “Maybe Jesus got rid of them all.” Zak suggested, somewhat sarcastically, I suspected.

“Can I see this Bible?” “The originals were lost a long time ago, but we have copies” “Who copied the Bible?” Zak asked. I explained that Christians don’t know, but they believe that it’s totally accurate; in fact, many see it as the literal word of God – that’s part of their faith. “Do Christians change the Bible after learning more about the world?” “No, there is no need. The Bible already represents absolute truth.”

Zak left dismayed to continue the conversation another day.

Alex McCullie

Link: Moral Animal Debate with Peter Singer

Here is a link to a debate with Peter Singer on Morality without God, hosted by Veritas Forum.

Alex McCullie

News: Atheist Demonic Possession US-Style

I hope this is not serious, from a help column in the Denver Post. Still some attitudes out of the US do not give me confidence.

Dear Margo: Our daughter started college a year ago, and we’ve noticed during her visits home that she’s not the sweet, innocent girl we sent away for higher learning. We raised her with strong Christian beliefs, but lately she’s saying that she’s joined an atheist club on campus and is questioning everything we taught her. Now my husband refuses to let her in the house and is threatening to turn her in to the FBI. I’ve tried to cure our daughter and reconcile with her, but nothing seems to work. I’ve prayed over her at night while she sleeps, enlisted friends in a phone prayer tree and even spoken to my priest about the possibility of an exorcism. I’m at my wits’ end. How can I recover my daughter and keep her from hell? — God-fearing

Dear God: Whoa, dear. While I am sympathetic to anyone’s devotion to their religion, you need to realize that your daughter is a sentient being with the right to reject your religious views if she so chooses. Your husband is pathetically misguided if he thinks he can call the FBI to report the “crime” of your daughter joining an atheists club. Ditto for the exorcism. This young woman is not possessed, demonic or doing weird things; she is merely thinking and questioning the religion she grew up with. I would encourage you to understand that all people, your daughter included, have the right to think for themselves, particularly about something as meaningful as religion. As for hell, well, she appears willing to take her chances. — Margo, contemplatively

Alex McCullie

News: Catholic Church – Doctrine First

Too much good social work and not enough hard-core religious doctrine may be the sins of US Catholic nuns. According to Associated Press, the Vatican has authorised a postolic visitation (sounds ominous) to investigate any straying from the orthodoxy. Simply to tell the nuns to spend more time with scripture and less with the needly sounds good for humanity! Read the full article here.

Alex McCullie

News:Catholic Dilemma – Doctrine Trounces Care

The Roman Catholic Church (US) rejects health care plan to poor and moderate income US families. Why? The proposed joint partnership would also subsidise abortions, against church doctrine though supported by many practicing Catholics.  Here is one of many examples of enforcing church doctrine means that the reality of current lives takes a back-seat to the mythology of the next. Read full story from Wall Street Journal.

Alex McCullie

News: Approved UK Science Schooling – Christian Faith Style

“Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence.

Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”

Extract from Biology 1099, Accelerated Christian Education Inc. (1995). (see full article with this quotation at Fundamentalist exams on a par with A-levels TES Connect)

This beggers belief but, unfortunately, it is likely to be true… (Would moderate Christians please speak up in opposition instead of their usual muted responses). Religion is this form, lamentably all too common, continues to threaten the health of our societies. Governments in the name of pluralism seek to pander to their distortions and excesses.

Alex McCullie