Entries from March 2010 ↓

News: More Morality & Brain Links

Australian ABC Science reports that neuroscience continues to link brain function and human moral behaviour with God’s involvement becoming more and more a fantastic speculation. This time it is magnetic effects on moral choices from Massachusetts Institute of Technology research with similar results to loading the brain while making moral choices. Under load and magnetism, apparently, we turn to choices based on outcomes more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Again this seems choosing between the utilitarian and deontological ethical systems.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Science – the Future of the Hypothesis

Excellent joint article by a scientist and a philosopher on limitations of the hypothesis in the doing of science and some practical alternatives.


Alex McCullie

Comment: Doing science

Here is an interesting link on doing science – writing a hypothesis, designing a testing testing regime, and so on


Alex McCullie

Comment: God’s ‘End of Age’ Prophecies

The logic is familiar. There are an extraordinary number of personally stressful experiences combined with selected recalling of natural occurrences meshed with biblical quotations, written some 2000-3000 years ago, to provide incontrovertible evidence that the God’s end of age is upon us and only the faithful (our type of faithful) will survive. Here is the latest of this sort of tripe from the website http://www.worthydevotions.com/. I have highlighted the apocalyptic messages in case you missed the subtlety.

Alex McCullie
Storms are raging!

Psalms 112:6-7 Surely he shall not be moved for ever: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in the LORD.

This past weekend we celebrated the festival of Purim, the holiday which commemorates Israel’s amazing reversal in Persia during the reign of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus), when queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai together gained victory for the Jews and protected them from annihilation at the hands of the evil Haman.
Coincidentally” we experienced our own personal drama on Friday as the holiday was getting underway. A bolt of lightening struck just outside our house destroying the neighborhood’s transformer and cutting off our electric power. Then, later that day, as I was driving to the Dead Sea region to pick up a package, a river from the desert suddenly exploded out of nowhere, sideswiped my car, and nearly washed me into the Dead Sea. The force of the river was so powerful that it lifted the rear end of my car off the road, ripping off most of the bumper, while the front wheels struggled to maintain traction as I desperately maneuvered out of the cataract and forward to safety. For the next 7 hours I was stuck between two rivers as the rains that came down over Israel the night before inundated numerous valleys leading to the Dead Sea. I later spoke with a police officer who informed me that last month a driver in similar circumstances was carried into the Dead Sea and drowned!
I do NOT actually see these experiences as “coincidences” but as signs and portents of things to come. We will soon be facing serious unexpected storms which will shock and possibly dislodge us from the roads we are traveling on. But we are under Divine protection as our focus is on the Lord, and our devotion rests in Him. We may be badly shaken — but He will rescue and restore us!

The message in these days of earthquakes and tsunamis is clear: “Do not fear, for I am with you, even unto the end of the age”.
This devotional was provided by Worthy Devotions.

Quote: Galileo

Nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called into question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages.
Galileo Galilei 1564 – 1642

News: Daniel Dennett – 5 Non-believing Preachers

Five preachers, five non-believers, five fascinating stories of providing pastoral care while reconciling public faith with personal disbelief.

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola just published a small study exploring how five stories of practising pastors dealing with personal and hidden disbeliefs in the Christian movements they are promoting. Financial and social dependences, family relationships, church loyalties, and fear of adverse public reactions keep them quiet and ultimately distressed with their circumstances.

The researchers discuss the philosophical and mental ploys used to reconcile their conflicts. Conflation of the concept of God with the actuality of God in discourse blurs the line between ’word use’ and ontological reality. The worshipper hears existence while the pastor means concept.

In (post) modern discourse, myths can be truthful without being factually true. So these pastors can talk about the (unsaid metaphorical) truth and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection with believers without acknowledging the event actually occurred. Again traditional believers continue to hear that the biblical event actually happened.

Ultimately the pastors feel they can make a difference, introduce more liberal thinking amongst parishioners. The pastors are unwilling to question the literal interpretations openly but hope to achieve this change through a sort of osmosis. The researchers are unsure how this could be achieved. Overall one can empathise with the humanity of their struggles and fears of rejection and hope they can find satisfactory resolutions.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Very Short Introductions – book recommendation

What is ideology or poststructuralism? Are the relationships between science and religions always conflicting? I read extensively over a range of subjects – society, people, beliefs, science, and religion and therefore approach many academic disciplines unfamiliar to me. A Very Short Introduction books from Oxford University Press, OUP, offer to excellent quick introductions to academic subjects for the thoughtful reader (sounds pompous doesn’t it?). Each book are authored by an academic from the field and typically under 200 pages and pocketable. I’ve just finished Science and Religion by John Dixon, highly recommended, and now have started Ideology by Michael Freeden. The OUP site is http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/category/academic/series/general/vsi.do?sortby=bookTitleAscend.

A second recommendation is UK online bookseller is Book Depository (http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/) who offer free overseas postage to many countries in the world. I have purchased books from the Very Short Introduction series for around AU$7.50 to AU$9.00 delivered into Australia. Local pricing is around $24.00. Typically I have Amazon open at the same time to compare pricing when purchasing, but free postage makes all the difference!

Alex McCullie

Comment: Sam Harris rejects ‘atheism’, the word

Atheism, the word, is problematic for many atheists and so historical and colourful alternatives are proposed for fellow-travellers – brights, free-thinkers, non-believers, disbelievers, and the like. Harris in a 2007 address to an Atheist Alliance conference argued against all such words: the concept as a label is inherently flawed. See http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1702 for an on-line video and edited transcript.
Harris sees any non-belief label as hopefully anachronistic and unneeded as non-slavery or non-astrology are today. In Harris’ ideal future the religious would be the categorised ones with the normality of atheism making it “scarcely intelligible as a concept”.
Harris addresses more immediate problems with terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’, the crass marginalisation of genuine criticisms of religious attitudes and the bluntness of simple rejection of all religions. Demands for evidence and reason to support religious claims are often sidelined by accusations of ‘militant atheism’ or ‘new atheism’. Also Harris advises that critics of religion to be more nuanced in their attitudes and attacks. They need to be aware of religious differences and the different threats they pose for a secular society. Harris sees extreme forms of Islam as being more dangerous (and popular) than their Christian equivalents.  He quotes a poll showing that 30% of British Muslims support death for apostasy, leaving the faith, and 68% support criminal prosecution for Islamic insults. Most problems with Christian fundamentalists are with child-abuse through narrow faith education. Again Harris returns to the need for critics to reject atheist labels and demand for evidence, reason and free thought to characterise our society.
Harris rightly comments that atheism is wrongly characterised as an alternative worldview to religion. That is simply not true. Atheism is a position on what exists (and not exists) in our reality - metaphysics in philosopher-speak. Atheism says nothing about origins of the universe, life, and human morality. It says nothing about moral or immoral behaviour. An atheist can live an upstanding life – many do – without any reference to his or her metaphysical position, or alternatively atheists like many Christians, Muslims, whites, blacks, Democrats, liberals, conversatives, and Jews may inflict considerable pain on others.
Finally Harris highlights the need for atheists (whomever they are) to recognise that people can have genuine contemplative experiences, ‘spiritual’ experiences in lieu of a better term. This does not mean accepting any notion of a soul but seeing spiritual, a horizontal version, coming from within us and our responses to the physical world – not mysterious but special.

Alex McCullie

Comment: What Is Religion?

For Australians like most in developed Western countries the traditional symbols come to mind: special places like churches; crucifixes, alters, and other special objects; groups praying and singing; biblical texts and hymn books; special rituals; and priests and ministers preaching. These represent the practices and beliefs we associate with religions or, at least, the ones we see or participate. On further reflection or after overseas travel we realise the narrowness of these conceptions. I am reminded on Mencken’s warning about seeking a simple answer to a complex issue as quoted on this page.

Theologians, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists have studied religions to identify the illusive essence. Each have, not surprisingly, approached from the perspectives of their disciplines – the theological, social, philosophical, biological, and psychological. 

Here are a few definitions to broaden the thinking:

“Belief in spiritual beings” Edward Tylor, 1871
A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which is believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.” James Frazer of The Golden Bough fame late nineteenth century.

a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” Émile Durkheim, 1912

religion is a system of beliefs and behaviours that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.” Susan A. Johnston, The George Washington University, 2009, adapted from Arjun Appadurai. This definition appears in an recommended audio course on the anthropology of religion from the Modern Scholar series at http://audible.com.


 From the last definition a religion consists of beliefs and behaviours to varying degrees. We easily forget that Christianity is a very ‘bookish’ religion with an emphasis on correct belief, even from the early days of Christian history. Other religions often emphasise rituals ahead of doctrine. Religion is also a system embedded in culture often with a strong interdependence. For example Christian churches reflected and influenced their surrounding hierarchical political structures during development.
Religions not only answer the fundamental questions of life – our purpose, origin, and destination -, but also formulate the questions to be answered, a surprising, though not unreasonable, aspect of this definition.

Finally how does science compare with this definition of religion? Interesting!

Alex McCullie

News: Boston Catholics advertise to stop falling confessions

The decline of the mainstream Christian churches is self-evidence in most parts of Western society. The world-wide increase of Christians comes from nations of Africa, Asia, and former Soviet republics. The latest casuality, much to my surprise as an Australian, is the confessional numbers in US Catholic churches. While older parishioners persist, young people are staying away, preferring to see “their faith as a spiritual and less an institutional concern”. An online Boston Globe article shows Boston Catholic churches desperately ‘spruiking’ the benefits of confession via radio and web-site campaigns. The best they seem to hope for is “planting the seed”.
Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church has more systemic image problems with the young, issues inconsistent with today’s community attitudes – explicitly anti-homosexual attitudes by Catholic leadership; rejection of women for religious leadership roles; continued rejection of condom use; celibacy of the priesthood; prolonged hiding of child-abuse by church officials; stigmatising many sexual behaviours as ‘sinful’; concept of being born with an original ‘sin’; the improbability of doctrines like ‘Transubstantiation’; and inability to explain problems of evil (all-powerful, loving God with needless suffering). Is any sort of advertising campaign, no matter how slick, going to overcome these impediments? This is especially so when combined with largely antiquated and irrelevant ceremonial practices often held in ostentatiously ornate buildings? These attitudes and practices, even if unfairly stereotyped at times, are condemned by so many in society as well as by the younger people.
Alex McCullie